Just like the rest!
And if you don’t!
We will not rest!
We gonna fight
And keep on fightin’ some more
(Student protest chant, quoted in Princeton Alumni Weekly 24 April 1978)
Following the recent “Coming Back: Reconnecting Princeton’s Black Alumni” conference, we wanted to take a closer look an issue that involved Princeton’s Association of Black Collegians: policies on South African investment during apartheid. Relatively recent events in the University’s history often challenge researchers, since many of our archival records related to the history of Princeton are initially restricted (most commonly for a period of 40 years). Yet we can still learn a great deal about how Princetonians addressed apartheid’s moral questions through our open collections.
Princeton first articulated its stand on this issue in 1969, partly in response to a February 26 student rally sponsored by a coalition of black and white student groups at Princeton, The United Front on South Africa. They asked Princeton to divest stock in 39 companies. On March 4, University President Robert F. Goheen publicly outlined University policy on investment in companies doing business in South Africa and presented six steps Princeton was willing to take in response to these concerns. Although Goheen promised that Princeton would let these companies know their feelings about apartheid, he said that Princeton should not fully divest. In his statement, Goheen reasoned that these companies “derive on average less than one percent of their sales and profits from southern Africa” and that divesting would not have a “substantial prospect” of meaningful impact on apartheid. Meanwhile, he argued, Princeton would suffer the loss of $3.5 million in income, which would hinder its ability to carry out its educational mission. Far from satisfying the United Front, Princeton’s stated policies provoked the Association of Black Collegians to stage a sit-in at New South Hall, which then held the University’s administrative offices. Students for a Democratic Society, a predominantly white student group, also participated. (See Office of the Provost Records (AC195), Box 23, Folder 3).
Such protests became relatively common throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and in January 1977, a new student group, the People’s Front for the Liberation of South Africa, took the lead in organizing them. After 32 consecutive days of picketing in front of Nassau Hall in March and April 1978, the students entered the building and stayed there. Some students kept vigil outside, while the others organized themselves into “cells” of 4-5 students inside. Spending the night under a half-moon while the bronze tigers flanking the steps held candles in their paws that cast somber shadows on their faces, one student said, “Somehow…I don’t think this building will ever seem the same to any one of us again.” (Princeton Alumni Weekly, 24 April 1978)