When Columbia University Faced a Student Uprising

By Sarah Norman | May 24, 2024

The Boiling Point

In 1968, Columbia University became the epicenter of a dramatic and unprecedented student uprising. Fueled by a potent mix of civil rights activism, anti-Vietnam War sentiment, and opposition to university expansion into Harlem, students took a bold stand against the establishment. The climax of this rebellion saw students holding their dean hostage in a tense standoff that captured national attention. This moment in time not only highlighted the fierce determination of the youth to challenge authority but also marked a pivotal chapter in the era's broader struggles for justice and change. Dive into the story of how a group of impassioned students shook the foundations of one of America's most prestigious institutions and ignited a wave of campus activism across the nation.

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In 1968, Columbia University was embroiled in controversy; students arranged a protest because the school was stealing land and resources from Harlem. The university is located in Morningside Heights, a neighborhood on the edge of West Harlem. They proposed to build a gym in Morningside Park, on land owned by New York City. The problem was that only 12 percent of the gym would be open to the public, despite its location on public land. The remainder of the gym was designated for use by the university.

The plan helped to fuel community resentment, as Columbia’s expansion was at the expense of the residents of Morningside Heights, who were being pushed out of their homes. The design of the gym was also considered offensive, as Columbia students’ entrance was at the top, while the community entered at the bottom; they took to calling it the “gym crow” door. The black students in the Student Afro-American Society (SAS) brought the complaints of African Americans in Harlem to campus.

The Protest Arose From The Convergence Of Issues

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This protest happened against the backdrop of increased student activism as the Vietnam War raged on. An anti-war group, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was increasing their demands for Columbia to end its association with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), which was a research group that worked with the Department of Defense. On March 27, 1968, students held a peaceful demonstration inside the Low Library administration building. Because students violated Columbia’s ban on indoor demonstrations, six anti-war activists were placed on probation. These students were known as the “IDA 6”

The two issues came together, and students came together on April 23 for a rally in the center of campus. They were first prevented from protesting inside Low Library and then marched to the Columbia gym site to try to stop the construction. Police officers guarding the site, stopped them, arresting one protestor. From there, students marched back to campus, where they rushed into Hamilton Hall, which housed the administrative offices and a few classrooms. The SDS and SAS disagreed on the next steps in the occupation. The SDS wanted to take an administrator hostage as they were trying to bring attention to their goals, but the SAS wanted to maintain a focus on stopping the gym construction. At first, the two groups occupied separate sides of the building and had minimal contact. The black students in the SAS eventually asked the white students to leave Hamilton Hall, which they did, moving to Low Library. The protesters remained in part of Low Library, (which did not have an actual library) and three additional buildings. Only some of the protesters were Columbia students, as the protest attracted outside participants to join.