In the face of Columbia University’s stranglehold of West Harlem, longtime residents cannot help but think back to the tumultuous spring of 1968, when students and community members occupied university buildings for several days to protest the school’s planned construction of a new gymnasium in city-owned Morningside Park and the school’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The gym was controversial not only because it would be built on land originally slated for low-income housing, but also because its design included two entrances — one more expensive intended for Columbia’s students and a second for the largely black community — a segregated design that Harlem residents referred to as “gym crow.”
Looking to connect the root causes of war and racism, demonstrators from the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) also urged the university to sever its ties with the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), a Pentagon-affiliated think tank implicated in the U.S. war in Vietnam.
On April 23, 1968, SDS and students with Columbia’s Society of African-American Students (SAS ) held a demonstration in response to the administration’s efforts to break up the anti-IDA protest held Mar. 27. When security guards would not let students protest inside Low Library, they marched down to Morningside Park to protest the gym’s construction. After scuffling with members of the NYPD who were guarding the site, the students marched back to campus where SAS took over Hamilton Hall, the hub of the university’s administration. For the next six days, hundreds of students occupied the president’s office in Low Library and three other buildings, and a Communist flag was raised above campus, making headlines across the nation.
The rebellion was crushed early on the morning of April 30 when the NYPD was called in by the university. Baton-wielding cops sent nearly 150 students to the hospital for injuries and arrested more than 700 protesters.
A second wave of demonstrations took place May 17-18 when Harlem residents took over a university-owned, semi-vacant apartment building at 618 West 114 St. to protest Columbia’s plans to expand into the community, resulting in more than 100 arrests. Students also reoccupied Hamilton Hall to protest the suspension of six antiwar students for their role in the Mar. 27 demonstrations. The students’ claimed success when the university eventually decided to disaffiliate from IDA and the gym’s construction was scrapped.