The Columbia protests erupted over the spring of 1968 after students discovered links between the university and the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a weapons research think-tank affiliated with the U.S. Department of Defense. Students were also concerned about what they saw as a segregated gymnasium the university wanted to build in the nearby Morningside Park. Students occupied many university buildings, only to be eventually violently removed by the NYCPD.
Following a peaceful demonstration inside the university’s Low Library administration building, demanding that Columbia resign its institutional membership in IDA, the administration placed on probation six anti-war student activists, collectively nicknamed “The IDA Six.” The anti-war protest soon melded with other issues in the neighborhood.
Morningside Park’s “Gym Crow”
Columbia’s plan to construct what activists described as a segregated gymnasium in city-owned Morningside Park fueled anger in the nearby Harlem community. The gym’s proposed design included access for Harlem residents through a so-called “back door” to a dedicated community facility on its lower level. Defenders claimed that this design provided a solution to the gym’s physical placement on the park’s highly inclined slope, at the bottom of which is Harlem and at the top of which is Morningside Heights, where Columbia’s campus is situated. But students and community members interpreted this as segregationist and discriminatory. In addition, others were concerned with the appropriation of land from a public park. Despite being on public land and a park, Harlem residents would get only limited access to the facility, and for these reasons the project was labeled by some as “Gym Crow.”
Since 1958 the university had evicted more than 7000 Harlem residents from Columbia-controlled properties—85 percent of them African American or Puerto Rican. Many Harlem residents paid rent to Columbia. Even on campus, Black students reported that unlike white students their IDs were constantly checked, and that Black women were told not to register for difficult courses.
The April actions
The first protest occurred at the end of March, eight days before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in response to the attempt to suppress anti-IDA student protest on campus, and to the Morningside Park gym. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) activists and those who led Columbia’s Student Afro Society (SAS) held a second, confrontational demonstration on April 23, 1968. Protesters were prevented from going inside Low Library by Columbia security, so most of the crowd marched down to the gym site attempting to halt construction. After one arrest there, SAS and SDS returned to campus, where they took over Hamilton Hall, a building housing both classrooms and the offices of the Columbia College Administration.
An important aspect of the 1968 Columbia University protests was the manner in which activists were separated along racial lines. SAS asked the predominantly white SDS students to leave Hamilton Hall, believing that the goal of the protest was to stop the gymnasium, while SDS was more interested in IDA and the university’s involvement with the war. Also, for SAS it was of great importance that there was no destruction of files and personal property in faculty and administrative offices, which would have reinforced negative stereotypes then current in the media of destructive black protesters.
SDS and SAS agreed to separate. White demonstrators left Hamilton Hall and moved to Low Library, which housed the president’s office. Over the next few days, that office (but not the remainder of the building) and three other buildings were also occupied by the protesters, not all of whom were Columbia students. This division between SDS and SAS was consistent with the student movement across the country.
The black protesters of SAS, with substantial support from off-campus black activists, made Columbia address the issue of race. This soon after the MLK assassination, which had caused riots in the surrounding Black neighborhoods, the administrators trod lightly. Any use of force could incite riots in neighboring Harlem. The student-community alliance that forged between SAS and Harlem residents led to widespread white support for the cause.
Not all Columbia students agreed with the protesters, of course, but the action enjoyed widespread sympathy for the issues and demands the protests raised.
The protests came to a conclusion in the early morning hours of April 30, when the NYPD quashed the demonstrations with tear gas, storming both Hamilton Hall and Low Library. Hamilton Hall was cleared peacefully, with African-American lawyers waiting outside ready to represent SAS members in court. The buildings occupied by whites, however, were cleared violently. Some 132 students, four faculty members and 12 police officers were injured, and over 700 protesters arrested.
In a second round of protests, more Columbia and Barnard students (Barnard was the women’s college of Columbia) were arrested and/or injured by police May 17–22, when community residents occupied a Columbia-owned apartment building at 618 W. 114th St. to protest the university’s expansion policies, and later when students re-occupied Hamilton Hall to protest Columbia’s suspension of the IDA Six. Before the night of May 22 was over, police had arrested another 177 students and beaten 51 students.
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The protests achieved two of their stated goals. Columbia disaffiliated from the IDA and scrapped the plans for the controversial gym, building a physical fitness center under the north end of campus instead. At least 30 Columbia students were suspended by the administration as a result of the protests. Some members of the Class of ’68 walked out of their graduation and held a counter-commencement on Low Plaza with a picnic following at Morningside Park, the place where it all began.
In addition, Black students continued to promote their agenda, to foster a more collaborative relationship between Columbia and the Harlem community and expand the curriculum to include Black studies courses.
A University Senate was also established as a result of the protests. This council, with representation from the faculty, administration and student population, gave students the opportunity to positively restructure the university. It was a way to encourage dialogue between students and authority figures and to help the administration attend to student concerns.
The student demonstration at Columbia proved that universities do not exist in a bubble and are, in fact, susceptible to the social and economic strife that surrounds them. As the Vietnam War wound down, campus activism receded, and Columbia, like most other universities, quieted down. However, with the sudden expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos, activism renewed in May 1970, with students murdered by police or national guard on the Kent State and Jackson State campuses. At that time there occurred a virtual shutdown of colleges and universities across the country.