Apr 23, 1968: Black and white students at the Ivy League campus of Columbia University held a rally to oppose the university’s planned construction of a new gym in Morningside Park, its policies and practices of racism in the neighborhood, and its economic ties to the war in Vietnam.
The rally evolved into a week-long takeover of five campus buildings that included the president’s office, administrative offices, and classrooms in Hamilton Hall.
While united in the takeover, Black and white students differed in their demands and objectives. With fliers that read, “the big steal is on,” the Student Afro-American Society (SAS), representing Black students, saw the takeover as a means of stopping the construction of a new gym and its displacement and eviction of Black residents from their homes and communities. Dubbed “Gym Crow,” the gym would be built in Morningside Park on land “owned” by the city of New York, yet the residents of Morningside Heights would be limited to accessing 12% of the gym, and required to enter at the bottom of the building while the predominately white university students, staff, and faculty would have access to 88% of the gym and enter at the top of the building.
The majority white student population that made up the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) saw the takeover as a means of growing the anti-war effort, ending the university’s association with the Institute for Defense Analyses (a research firm working with the Department of Defense) and “Ivy imperialism,” and heightening the issue of Columbia’s racism in Harlem.
In light of these differences, little agreement, and mounting tensions, SDS was asked to leave Hamilton Hall in a strategy, which SAS believed would prevent Columbia – out of concern for more rebellions compounding the rebellions and Black uprisings already raging across the country – from forcibly entering a Black-occupied building, and assist SDS in drawing attention to the anti-war effort and the myriad of other social injustices. With SDS gone, Hamilton Hall was transformed into a Black living space, renamed “Malcolm X Liberation College,” and decorated with posters and images of Black Liberation leaders on its windows and walls.
Seven days after it began, the takeover ended at approximately 2:00 a.m. on April 30, 1968 with about 1,000 police assembled on the campus grounds making Hamilton Hall its first point of assault. Knowing full well the brute force of police violence, the 86 Black protestors in the Hall surrendered without incident, versus 700+ white students arrested and over 100 injured.
The April 1968 Columbia University takeover is historic for having paved the way for structures put in place that allow student voices and student votes in university matters, the admittance of more Black students, an increase in the hiring of Black faculty, the creation of a Black Studies program – and 11 months later, plans to build the gym were dropped.
The geographical expansions that Columbia University could not accomplish during the Movements and decades of the 1960s and ‘70s, have more than tripled in the five decades that followed. Gentrification is the ethnic cleansing that displaces Black, Brown, and Indigenous residents in Harlem, the five boroughs of New York City, and communities across the u.s.