Columbia University Protest of 1968: Over 700 Students Arrested

Students protesting at Colombia University | Courtesy of Columbia University

In the year 1968, across the globe, many college campuses cried out for change as the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and the draft inflamed the passions of college students everywhere. Students pushed for change and as a result, in some places, violence resulted. That was the case at Columbia University in April 1968. The students from Columbia were so enraged that they were bold enough to hold their own dean hostage. On the night of April 30, 1968, about 1,000 New York police officers subsequently inflicted 148 injuries on largely Columbia University students, arresting 720 of them. The prelude to this event, however, began much earlier, when students started passing out flyers on campus a few weeks earlier announcing their protest against the construction of a new gymnasium that the university was building. This gymnasium, along with other issues, led to the series of events that culminated on that night of April 30.

In February 1968, Columbia University began construction on their gymnasium in Harlem’s community land in Morningside Park, which was a part of Harlem, New York. Columbia University had made a negotiation with the city government to lease more than two acres of Morningside Park to build their gymnasium. After a study made in 1968, it showed that for the past seven years, Columbia University had forced 7,500 Harlem residents out of their homes and was planning on pushing out another 10,000. Once the residents of Harlem realized that Columbia University was going to build a gym on land that could have been used for improving their housing, they became furious. This gymnasium was planned to let undergraduate students have access to the gym while the Harlem residents, most of whom were black, would have access to a small portion of the gym, but would have to go through a backdoor in the basement to enter it. The residents of Harlem were more angry about the university tearing down their housing than they were about their having such limited access to the gym once it was built. This created problems, and immediately students and activists argued that the gym discriminated against Harlem residents. Members from the Student Afro-American Society (SAS) from the university felt strongly enough to protest this, with the help of other black activists from the Harlem community and throughout New York.1

As the SAS was fighting the construction of the gym, members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), found documents in their library that revealed that Columbia University had ties to the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). The Vietnam War had been going on for three years up to that point, and the IDA was helping to fund the war, and SDS leader, Mark Rudd, demanded to know the exact relationship Columbia had with this organization. However, university authorities refused to confirm or deny this information. This made Rudd angry, and as a result, he wrote a letter to the President of Columbia University, Grayson Kirk, promising that he would fight Kirk over his support of the war, over the university’s relationship with IDA, and over the way he was treating the residents of Harlem.2

Mark Rudd talking about holding the dean hostage until their demands are met | Courtesy of History

After a week of tension, with the University refusing to give into the demands of the protesters, protesters gathered on April 23, 1968 at the campus sundial at the center of the Columbia campus. Rudd was scheduled to give a speech; however, as he was getting ready to give his speech, protesters had begun marching to the library. Once they got there, Rudd tried to make his speech again, but someone from the crowd had shouted to go to the construction site to tear down all the fencing around the building site of the gym. Police gathered at the park, trying to stop the protesters from tearing down the fencing, but were only able to successfully handcuff one member from SDS. Protesters saw the police arriving and proceeded to retreat back to the campus. Arriving back to the campus, Rudd had five-hundred students ready to do about anything, but Rudd did not know what to do with this many people. He came to a conclusion and shouted “We’ll start by holding a hostage!” Protesters targeted Hamilton Hall first where the Dean stood. Rudd and the protesters took over the whole building along with their Dean, Henry Coleman, who they would not let out until their demands were met.3

The students occupying Hamilton Hall included members of the SAS and SDS. However, soon after the occupation began, a disagreement between the two groups erupted, and the SDS left and took over their own building.4 The SDS proceeded to invade the library, where university president Grayson Kirk’s office was located. They proceeded to take cigars from Kirk’s desk and they began looking through his files for secret information that he might have.5 The SAS occupiers, most of whom were black students, were now alone in Hamilton Hall, and they were extremely cautious as to whom they let enter their building. They also got organized and created eating, studying, relaxation, and sleeping periods among themselves.6

Over the course of the next six days, more and more students got involved in the protest. They ended up occupying a total of five campus buildings. Each building had a strike committee to carry out their own debates on what to do next. Students from the buildings put up banners, and kept repeating slogans such as “Viva la Huelga” or “We shall not move.”7 Students slept on the floor, distribute food and drinks among each other, and welcomed visitors who supported their cause. But not all of the students were on the same page for protesting. Some wore red armbands for revolution, while other wore green armbands, indicating that they supported the uprising, as long as it stayed non-violent. Jocks did not support the protesters at all. Instead, they blockaded supplies that were going into the buildings. And the protesters in the buildings would laugh and taunt them, saying that the “Columbia lines never hold,” meaning that the jocks always lost in football.8

By Friday, April 26, William Petersen, President of the Irving Trust Company, made the first attempt to bring peace to the students of Columbia University. However, he failed. Protesters had agreed among each other to not make any negotiations with administrators from the university without having all the leaders of the protest present to make an agreement.9 By then, Columbia had suspended the work on their gym and had closed the entire university. They had also ordered news stations to discontinue the broadcasting of their school on television because there had been nonstop coverage of their protest the entire week. Not only were the students of Columbia University snapping against their own schools, but universities and high schools around the world were also taking similar kinds of actions over their issues. In Paris, three hundred students took over a building at Cité University over the issue of banning mixed-sex halls. At the University of Madrid, they announced the cancellation of classes up until May 6, thirty days after being closed by student protests taking place. Students at Bronx High School of Science in New York brawled as some supporting the war fought those who did not. The brawl led to a girl needing to be hospitalized. Schools around the world had begun to speak up as if they have been kept in prison for far too long, motivating them to finally break free all at the same time. 10 

Students on top of Columbia University after they had invaded it | Courtesy of New York Times

By Saturday, about 90,000 anti-war protesters gathered at Central Park in New York City. That day, Martin Luther King had been scheduled to read his “Ten Commandments on Vietnam.” However, he had been assassinated three weeks before. Martin Luther King’s widow took his place and spoke for him. She received great applause for the phrase “Thou shalt not kill.”11 The police then arrived and they arrested 160 protesters, including the people that attempted to march to Columbia University to show their support for the students. Not only were the people in New York protesting the war that day, but so also were people in Chicago and San Francisco marching throughout their cities. In Chicago, 12,000 antiwar protesters marched peacefully in Grant Park. The Chicago police arrived and attacked the protesters with mace and clubs, while in San Francisco, about 10,000 antiwar protesters marched that included servicemen and several veterans.12

On Monday, April 29, Columbia University had tried to reach an agreement with the black students in Hamilton Hall, but those students declined the offer, having promised Rudd and the white student protesters to refuse any negotiation made separately from the other students. During this, Vice President David Truman invited Rudd and several other student leaders to his apartment on Riverside Drive. They were seated at a mahogany table and were served tea from a silver service set as part of a Columbia tradition. They never came to an agreement, but Truman described Rudd as a ruthless and cold-blooded individual with a temper tantrum. As this went on, students occupying the buildings became extremely close to one another. One couple became so close in Fayerweather Hall that they decided to get married; and William Starr, a university chaplain, was able to make that happen. Richard Eagan and Andrea Boroff got married in Fayerweather Hall with more than 500 people attending. William pronounced them as “children of a new age,” and the couple called themselves after their hall, Mr. and Mrs. Fayerweather.13

Police with helmets warning the protesters inside to leave before they are forced out | Courtesy of New York Times

At 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, April 30, almost 1,000 police officers came together at the entrance of Columbia University to put an end to this protest once and for all. Police were originally going to start their attack at 1:30, but had several delays. At 2:30, they prepared to enter. With helmets, flashlights, clubs, blackjacks, and brass knuckles, they moved onto the campus in a military-like operation; the 1,000 police officers broke off into seven sectors. Students barricaded the doors with furniture. However, it was not enough to keep the police officers from coming in. Police officers beat those who resisted as well as those who didn’t. Some officers weren’t as aggressive and followed procedures by leading students to the vans without having to use their weapons. Others did not follow procedures and proceeded to use their clubs and blackjacks to beat the students.14 Students who flashed a peace sign to the officers would also get beaten. The green-armband protesters were also beaten along with the jocks who were laughing at all the students getting beaten. Students were dragged down the stairways; girls were brutally pulled by their hair. Other students were dragged and twisted by the arm all the way to the police vans. A faculty member suffered from a nervous collapse. Many students had wounds on their heads opened by handcuffs. Screams and shouting occurred throughout the night, and by dawn, 720 students had been arrested and 148 injuries had been reported.15

The police department was charged 120 times because of their brutality against the students. The public was shocked by what had occurred. Much of the public had blamed Kirk for not giving into the demands of the students. In late May, Rudd and four others were suspended from Columbia. Rudd returned to school, still suspended from school, vowing to keep the Columbia protests going through the spring and summer. Rudd paid a $2,500 bail, and his parents received many unpleasant letters. However, his parents were still proud of him. Kirk later retired at the age of 64 in August, after having been forced out by the students of Columbia. Eventually, Columbia University met the protesters’ demands in which they suspended construction of the gym and ended their ties with the IDA. This event was only one of many important events that took place in one of our nation’s most controversial years.16

  1. Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004), 195-196.
  2. Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004), 197.
  3. Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004), 198-200.
  4. Jerry L. Avorn, Up Against The Ivy Wall: A History of The Columbia Crisis (Canada: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1968), 60-61.
  5. Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004), 200.
  6. Jerry L. Avorn, Up Against The Ivy Wall: A History of The Columbia Crisis (Canada: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1968), 127.
  7. Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004), 201.
  8.  Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004), 202.
  9. Jerry L. Avorn, Up Against The Ivy Wall: A History of The Columbia Crisis (Canada: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1968), 142.
  10. Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004), 202-203.
  11. Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004), 203.
  12. Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004), 203.
  13. Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004), 205-206.
  14. Jerry L. Avorn, Up Against The Ivy Wall: A History of The Columbia Crisis (Canada: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1968), 192-193.
  15. Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004), 206.
  16. Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004), 207-208.
More from Bictor Martinez

The Case of Thomas Cornell: Did He Murder His Own Mother?

How tragic is it when an innocent person goes to prison or...
Read More

36 Comments

  • I enjoyed reading this article because protests and fighting for what you believe in are passions that I hold dear to my heart, especially during this current political climate. It Is refreshing to learn about how people feel strongly about something enough to protest in earlier times, even though sadly these protests got out of hand and were not respected. I think you did a wonderful job describing the protests that happened with great details, and the article was extremely informative. I want to congratulate you on your nomination because it is well deserved!

  • I never heard about the protest at Columbia University in 1968 where over 700 student were arrested. I must say this whole situation it honestly crazy. It was handled in the best way and it ended up getting out of hand leading to negative outcomes. Although the protestors got what they wanted, I really feel like they could have gone about it a different way. All in all this was a great detailed article. Congratulations on your nomination!

  • This article was very intriguing to read. I really admire the students determination to protest what they believe in and morally right. It was very chaotic though and violence shouldn’t have broken out. It’s very interesting to see that the protestors won because they normally don’t, they’re usually shot down. I really like how this article was put together and written. Great work.

  • How thrilling that whole process must have been, to have so many people ready to follow whatever you want them to, although taking a dean hostage would not have been my first thought. The impact that the 24/7 coverage of the protest had on other universities and high schools around the world is incredible. My6 favorite part of the article was reading about MLK’s widow speaking in his place after his assassination.

  • Though I don’t recommend any student body to hold any member of their school’s faculty hostage or using violence to the answers that you want, I do admire their determination and their search for the truth. As I read this article I was surprised that there is no movie about this, there was so many plot twists I didn’t expect! Congratulations!

  • This whole situation was absolutely crazy. It seems like it got a little too out of hand and was poorly dealt with. Of course the situation has escalated to a point where it seemed necessary to have over 1000 police officers barge into a building, but with that much man power, it should be no surprise that there were over 120 brutality charges filed against the police apartment with the aggression used on the student. The most unfortunate was that in the end the protestors won, and had they been granted what they wished from the start, this all could have been avoided. The author wrote a through and very detailed article about this chaotic time in history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.