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The Storied History of Campus Protests in America

History of College Campus Protests in America

College campus protests have a long and storied history in America. They have been used to express a wide range of grievances, from the Vietnam War to apartheid to climate change.

Early Protests

The first recorded college campus protest in America took place at Harvard University in 1766. Students protested the British Stamp Act, which they saw as a violation of their rights. In the 19th century, college campus protests became more common. Students protested the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the expansion of slavery.                                                                                                                                                      

A Black Students Union leader addresses a crowd of demonstrators in December 1968.

The 1960s and 1970s

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of great social and political upheaval in America. College campus protests were a major part of this upheaval. Students protested the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the women’s rights movement. They also protested against the establishment and the status quo.

The 1980s and 1990s

The 1980s and 1990s were a time of relative calm on college campuses. There were still some protests, but they were not as frequent or as large as they had been in the 1960s and 1970s.

The 21st Century

College campus protests have made a comeback in the 21st century. Students have protested the Iraq War, the War on Terror, and the Great Recession. They have also protested against racism, sexism, and homophobia. Today, students have launched protests and encampments at more than a dozen schools across the country, from Massachusetts to Michigan to California. They’re protesting the genocide occurring in Gaza following the October 7, 2023 Hamas attack on Israel that sparked the recent war the international community is now calling a genocide.

On January 26, 2024 South Africa filed a case against Israel at the ICJ accusing it of ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Palestinian people.

Columbia University Student Protest History

Columbia University has a long and storied history of student activism and protest. Some of the most notable protests include:

  • 1968 Columbia University protests: In 1968, Columbia University students protested the university’s ties to the Vietnam War and the construction of a gymnasium in Morningside Park. The protests culminated in a five-day occupation of five university buildings.
  • 1985 divestment campaign: In 1985, Columbia University students launched a campaign to divest the university’s endowment from companies doing business in South Africa. The campaign was successful, and Columbia University became one of the first major universities to divest from South Africa.
  • 2007 graduate student strike: In 2007, Columbia University graduate students went on strike to demand better pay and benefits. The strike lasted for three weeks and ended with a tentative agreement between the university and the graduate student union.
  • 2015 student protests: In 2015, Columbia University students protested the university’s handling of sexual assault cases. The protests led to the resignation of the university’s president, Lee Bollinger.
  • 2016 Black Lives Matter protests: In 2016, Columbia University students protested racial injustice and police brutality in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The protests included a sit-in at the university’s main library.
  • 2024 Anti-Israel protests: Students are calling for an end to the genocide in Gaza, an end to the Oct. 7th Israel-Hamas war and their universities’ investment in companies that profit from it or do business with Israel.

Supporters of Palestine gather at Harvard University to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza at a rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 2023. Thousands of Palestinians sought refuge on October 14 after Israel warned them to evacuate the northern Gaza Strip before an expected ground offensive against Hamas, one week on from the deadliest attack in Israeli history. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP)

These are just a few of the many student protests that have occurred at Columbia University over the years. Student activism has played a significant role in shaping the university’s history and culture, and it continues to be an important force for change on campus. 

Significance of College Campus Protests

College campus protests have played an important role in American history. They have helped to bring about social and political change. They have also helped to raise awareness of important issues. College campus protests are a sign of a healthy democracy. They show that students are engaged in the political process and that they are willing to stand up for what they believe in.