This Day in Resistance History: 1968 Columbia Student uprising
1968 saw revolution happening across the global, from France to Mexico and Prague to the US. Some of these revolutionary moments were spontaneous and some were part of ongoing opposition to global capitalism and war.
Anti-war and student organizing began as early as 1965 at Columbia University. An SDS chapter (Students for a Democratic Society) had been formed and was one of the main entities in the 1968 student uprising.
However, there were two main issues that led to the student uprising at Columbia in 1968. First, in 1961 the university had announced plans to build a gymnasium at the edge of campus, which would create a physical form of separation between Morningside Park and Harlem. Many of the Black community saw this not only as a sign of gentrification, but a form of segregation. By 1967, the Black community was now referring to the proposed gymnasium as “Gym Crow.”
The other major catalyst for the student uprising was the 1967 discovery of a Columbia University think tank that was working with the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), which was part of the Department of Defense. Students at Columbia saw the IDA as a direct connection the collaboration of the US military through the IDA and the university to further weapons research that contributed to the brutal war in Vietnam.
Thus, the growing opposition to the war and the racist gentrification of the gymnasium were major factors that contributed to the growing radicalization of the students at Columbia University.
Beginning in April of 1968, students began protesting on campus drawing attention to the university’s role in the war and promoting racism against the residents of Harlem. The protests escalated to building occupations that, according to a documentary, resulted in students taking over 100 university buildings.
On April 23rd, some students who had occupied one of the buildings, then took the acting Dean, Henry Coleman, hostage until their demands were met. As was expected the New York Police responded with violent force resulting in hundreds of people being beaten and several dozen needed to be hospitalized.
In response to the police brutality the students called for a general strike, which included the participation of many faculty members. Classes and other university activities were shut down because of the student occupations and solidarity that emerged from the larger community.
Many of the Black students occupied Hamilton Hall and made the focus of their occupation the proposed gymnasium that would promote racist gentrification and segregation. The Black student occupation with the support of the Harlem community actually won the battle and the gymnasium was never built.
The rest of the student occupations eventually ended, but many of the students continued resisting the university policies and demanding justice for all those brutalized during the student uprising. This resistance continued through til graduation, where most of the 1968 graduation class walked out of the commencement ceremony and gathered to hold a counter-commencement action as a further protest against the university.
The Student Uprising at Columbia University in 1968 was one of the more radical student actions in the US during that period and it demonstrated the power of organized resistance that informed some of the anti-war and anti-establishment actions that took place in the ensuing years.
Much has been written about the April 1968 Student Uprising at Columbia University, but an excellent resource in this documentary that was produced in 1969 that utilizes lots of footage of the events from April of 1968.