Columbia University Protests, 1968

It was the year of turmoil and trepidation. Assassinations of Martin Luther King Jnr. and Bobby Kennedy. Vietnam War drafts. And the college campuses all over the United States erupted into protest, chaos and disorder.

Nowhere was this disorder more acute than on the grounds of Columbia University in New York. The university was then a prestigious academic enclave surrounded by poverty and decay of the Harlem ghetto. Student discontent was exacerbated by the university’s ban on indoor demonstrations, its work with a Pentagon think tank and the ‘Gym Crow’ scandal: the newly proposed gym in Morningside Park had a grand entrance facing the university while a small separate door for part of the gym built ‘exclusively’ for the neighborhood kids, who would not have access to all of the facilities.

On April 23, 1968, student protesters began what would become an eight-day occupation of five university buildings and the president’s office. The acting dean’s office and two others were kept as hostages for 26 hours, and a group of students broke into the empty office of the university president Grayson Kirk. Kirk’s office was trashed and a sign went up on the window: “Liberated Area. Be Free to Join Us.” The above photo of a student leader David Shapiro relaxing and smoking Kirk’s cigar sitting in Kirk’s chair became an iconic photo of the unrest.

Who took the photo was disputed. Blake Fleetwood claimed it was him in the Huffington Post here. Tom Hurwitz told Vanity Fair that he took it, using the camera of a freelance photographer who passed it through the window. More photos in LIFE here.

As students seized more campus buildings, the 17,000-student university suspended all the classes. Counterdemonstrations flared up. Kirk initially agreed to address some of the protesters’ demands, but ultimately filed trespass charges against them and called in police. Just before dawn on April 30th, 1,000 officers armed with warrants signed by the university trustees entered the campus. More than 130 people–including 12 police officers–were injured; nearly 700 people were arrested.

It triggered a campus-wide strike that shut down the university. Kirk resisted calls for his resignation, but stayed away from graduation and eventually announced his retirement before the start of the next academic year. Margaret Mead, the famed anthropologist and longtime Columbia professor, noted that the demonstrations changed the way universities are governed. David Shapiro went on to teach at Columbia.


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0 thoughts on “Columbia University Protests, 1968

  1. As a graduate student who participated in the 1968 Columbia uprising, I find this account to be heavily slanted against the students, and badly distorts the reality of what went on. Students rioting, taking hostages, or trashing offices is total nonsense… almost all of the violence and property damage came from the police. The link to Blake Fleetwood’s article provides a far, far more correct and honest view of the historic events at Columbia.

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