On April 4, 1985, on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, a group of 150 or so students at Columbia University padlocked the doors to Hamilton Hall, one of the major classroom buildings on campus, and began a three-week vigil demanding that the University divest all of its stock holdings from companies doing business in South Africa. At the time, South Africa was still run by the racist apartheid regime and Nelson Mandela was in prison. Few Americans knew his name and among those few who did (mainly in academic and policy circles), he was frequently branded as a “communist” or “terrorist”. The apartheid South African regime continued to enjoy support from the U.S. and Western countries under a policy known as “constructive engagement”. The “divestment movement”, as it was known, was small and garnered little attention. Most people who knew of Mandela believed he would die in prison.
When we started our Hamilton Hall blockade on April 4th, none of us had any idea if we would make it through the first night. Students seemed apathetic to the cause. Columbia had a well-founded reputation for arresting protestors. And most importantly, up until that point, the University had offered no support whatsoever to our many requests for meetings with Trustees and administrators.
For most of the previous year, I had been involved in a student organization known as the Coalition for a Free South Africa. We had been ramping up activity to draw attention to the plight of blacks under the apartheid system in South Africa and to call out the University for maintaining investments in such a country. In the weeks leading up to the April 4th blockade, a number of student activists had actually started a hunger strike to bring attention to the University’s policies. That hunger strike was met with total intransigence from the University. University President Michael Sovern declared that Columbia’s investment policies were non-negotiable and that he would not be “pressured” by student activist groups. He said this to the face of students in the tenth day of a hunger strike, whose medical conditions were becoming precarious. One student had to be taken away to the hospital and was forcibly hydrated.
We chose the date of April 4th for an action / demonstration because it was the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis. We wanted to highlight the connection between race issues in the United States and race issues around the world. Indeed, to us, the idea that the United States was supporting a racist regime in South Africa was proof that racism still pervaded U.S. policy. Liberating South Africa was part of liberating America, and vice versa.
When the April 4th action was announced, most of us thought we were going to be honoring Dr. King, raising awareness about South Africa, and, hopefully, providing an opportunity for our friends to end their fast. Most of us didn’t know the academy building would be padlocked that day. The leaders of the Coalition had kept that to themselves. I remember the chaos and confusion when I heard a few of the protestors break off behind me and start padlocking the front doors to Hamilton Hall with chains. Suddenly, one of the protest leaders announced to us what they had done and what our choice was. We could leave the protest site as planned and simply go to class, leaving the chains in the hands of two or three protestors who would certainly be arrested. Or we could come together as a group, stand vigil around the entrance to Hamilton Hall for as long as it took to get the University to divest, and stand up for something we believed in. Of course, we chose the latter.
Let me be clear, I was by no means a leader of this group. I was a 20-year old kid with long hair and a fondness for wearing dashikis, going to Grateful Dead concerts, and generally not taking a whole lot of responsibility for my life. Indeed, although I did participate in a juice fast for about three days, I couldn’t bring myself to do the full hunger strike. In fact, I actually bailed on the whole thing for a night to catch a Dead show at the Nassau Coliseum. I figured it probably wasn’t a good idea to eat psychedelic drugs on an empty stomach. To be fair, my goals in life at that time were more musical than political. I was a budding young musician and was deep in the throes of starting a band with some amazing fellow musicians at Columbia when this whole South Africa thing came along.
But when this opportunity came along to do the right thing, I and most of my fellow activists jumped right on board. If it meant we would have to miss class for days and possibly weeks, OK. If it meant we might get arrested, OK. If it meant we would have to spend a few nights in the cold, OK. And if it meant I might have to miss a few jam sessions with my buddies, so be it. There were a few folks who had to leave the protest because they would face extraordinary hardship if they were arrested. Those were folks with new immigrant status, or folks with previous records. But for the vast majority of us, it was “game on”. And so, we settled in for the long haul.
That first evening was tense. It was early April, still cold and rainy in New York City, and we were terrified that the police would come in and sweep us up, as they had in the last famous Columbia sit-in back in 1968. We also worried that people would get cold and simply give up. We knew we had to keep 100 people there all night long, because if the crowd grew too thin, it would make the police’s job far too easy. We wanted to make sure this would be a difficult arrest, one that would take time and garner media scrutiny if it happened. So, we sang songs and held hands. We brought our guitars out and started jamming. Folks came to give speeches. Professors came to offer their support. Folks came to bring us food and water. They came to relieve us so we could camp out in shifts. Many folks just came out of curiosity to find out what was going on, and ended up staying.
Long story short, we survived the first night. No arrests. Hamilton Hall still blockaded. It was then that we began to confront an alternative possible ending: The University could try to just wait us out. What did we know about building an encampment and surviving in it for weeks on end? How would we pass our classes, with finals only a couple weeks away? And so, we began the process of building an infrastructure for our protest. My dormitory was next to Hamilton Hall and overlooked the protest site. A bunch of students in my suite were participating in the protest, and so we decided to set up a soup kitchen there. Some architecture students came along and set up some tarps and tents to shelter us from the wind and rain during the long nights. Lots of professors and students set up study groups. And my fellow musicians and I were tasked with keeping the troops entertained! Of course, we were making stuff up on the spot and playing with freezing hands – I’ll never know if the troops were entertained or just annoyed, but we sure were having a good time. “Hey, it’s 1985; hey it’s great to be alive”. Lyrics to start a revolution by.
As the first night passed into a second and then a third, the size of the protest grew. More people came during the day, and more people stayed at night. Pretty soon, word got out about our protest and some notable people began showing up. Pete Seeger came and played a free concert. Run DMC came and played a free concert. And then, at last, the New York media took notice. The New York Times was the first to cover our protest (other than the Columbia University paper), and they continued to cover it with at least one update piece in each day’s paper. This drew other New York media, lots of other alternative media, and eventually the AP. Soon word about the Hamilton Hall blockade was spreading to other college campuses across the country.
Perhaps the best publicity we got was a spread in “Doonesbury” in which cartoonist Gary Trudeau light-heartedly compared the character of our protest – with fax machines, P.R. people and spikey hair - to the less groomed & messier protests of the Vietnam era.
Gradually, we began hearing of more and more anti-apartheid protests at universities around the county. Pretty soon it wasn’t just Hamilton Hall, it was U.C. Berkeley, Syracuse, Madison, and dozens more colleges and universities up and down the east coast and across the country. And this marked a real turning point for our movement, and, I would argue, for the ultimate fate of South Africa and Nelson Mandela. Suddenly, apartheid, Mandela and the U.S. student protesters were nationwide news. Suddenly, U.S. politicians began to take notice and it was no longer safe to hide behind the policy of “constructive engagement.”
One rainy afternoon late into the second week of the protest, Jesse Jackson, fresh off his groundbreaking 1984 Presidential campaign, came to Hamilton Hall and gave a rousing speech to a crowd which swelled into the thousands. The national news media was there, and you could hardly contain the energy and excitement! As I watched this particular spectacle out the window of my once-dorm room / now-soup kitchen, I could barely contain myself. We were winning.
The University maintained its policy of waiting us out, remaining intransigent on the issue of divestment, and refusing to meet with us. But suddenly, the petty stubbornness of Sovern and his Trustees no longer seemed to matter. Something much bigger was at stake. Universities, cities and States across the United States were now debating divestment, and legislation was even introduced in the United States Congress to apply economic sanctions against South Africa.
All the while, I was running around, working in the soup kitchen, playing guitar in the crowd late at night, helping out here and there wherever I could. And my musician buddies? They had all joined the protest by now, and we were writing new songs daily. My dream of starting a great rock band came to fruition through the bonding that came with three weeks on the front lines of commitment to a common cause.
But, perhaps, the most heartening moment for me personally occurred early on a Sunday morning about two weeks into the protest. I had spent the night sleeping on the floor of what had formerly been my room among the soup cans and other supplies when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a South African leader, a religious figure, a colleague of Nelson Mandela’s and Desmond Tutu’s, and a leader in the African National Congress. He called to thank us. He called to tell us that our message was getting out – that, despite all the efforts of the South African media to censor any news about our protests – that the word was out. Word of our protests had reached a worldwide audience, and most importantly, it had reached the ears and eyes of the people in South Africa. He told me the people were excited, that they were praying for us, and sent us their heartfelt thanks. And he told me, “Please, please, don’t stop.”
In the end, we did eventually have to stop the protest. The University got a Judge to pass an injunction forcing us to re-open Hamilton Hall, and they simultaneously agreed to convene a committee to re-consider their investments in South Africa. Political leaders from Harlem to South Africa came to Hamilton Hall for one last rally, in which we unchained the doors and marched to 125th Street in Harlem for a huge rally with thousands of participants. More importantly, protesters at Berkeley and other Universities had picked up where we left off, and demonstrations continued nationwide throughout the rest of that Spring and Summer.
Several months later, quietly, at a Trustee meeting in late August of 1985, Columbia University took the first steps towards divesting its stock in companies doing business with South Africa. In 1986, other major universities, cities and States followed suit. In late 1986, the United States Congress passed the sanctions bill, even overriding President Reagan’s veto, a vote which led then-Congressman Dick Cheney to famously denounce Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist”.
As for me, the onset of final exams presented some daunting challenges, after three weeks of protesting and playing music. I had to sacrifice my Astronomy class. Were it not for my wonderful artist friend Diane, I probably would have had to throw in the towel on Art History, too. But through her amazing guidance, and a lot of flash cards, I actually covered six weeks of Art History in one night, and managed to squeak through the final with a C!
With the benefit of hindsight, the significance of the student divestment movement cannot be downplayed. We went from a situation where one Ivy League University refused to deal with hunger striking students, to a situation a mere three years later in which most major U.S. institutions were divested and the apartheid regime faced crippling sanctions from U.S. and European governments. Most major cities and States DID divest, and billions of dollars in foreign investment in South Africa dried up and went away. And then, of course, F. W. DeKlerk became President of South Africa and negotiated Mandela’s release from prison, and later, the peaceful transfer of power. In 1990, Mandela came to the United States on a thank-you tour and visited many of the same cities and States that had facilitated his release through their actions. And by then, his name had become a household word.
Yesterday, I was sitting in an office in Simi Valley doing some I.T. consulting work when I heard the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing. A fellow consultant, a well-meaning lady from Texas, said something along the lines of “How sad. He was such a nice man.” Since then, I’ve heard a lot of nice words and wonderful praise for this courageous man, a brave, revolutionary leader who led his people through a peaceful reconciliation and transfer of power. But I can’t help but wonder where were these people when it really mattered in the 1980’s? How many of them stepped up and stood up for this man’s life and for the freedom of his country? Would any of these people even know his name, were it not for the work of a bunch of crazy, devoted U.S. university students who were willing to put it all on the line for this cause?
There is one thing I don’t have to wonder about. And that is the power of a small group of committed citizens to change the world. Margaret Mead may have immortalized this quote, but in my own life, I have seen it, felt it, and lived it. So, to those of you who think you can’t change the world, don’t just take a lesson from Nelson Mandela. Take a lesson from those of us who worked to free him. You can!
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