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‘The first student movement to call for divestiture’: protests against apartheid South Africa

Looking back on three generations of student advocacy for complete divestment from apartheid South Africa.

A black and white photo of about 15 people standing on the steps of a brick building next to a tiger statue. Some of them hold hands.
From The Daily Princetonian archives

Students camped in the bushes around New South, waiting for the janitor to open the doors. As the janitor opened then, the students approached him, told him they were taking over the building and that he should take the day off. By 7 a.m., the 11-hour occupation of New South had begun.

It was March 11, 1969, not yet a year since Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated and just five since the passing of the landmark Civil Rights Act. Thousands of miles away, apartheid laws reigned in South Africa, imposing an institutionalized structure of racial segregation through which a minority white population wielded the bulk of economic and political power. 


By hosting a peaceful sit-in within the walls of New South, student activists demanded for the University to take a stance against apartheid by pulling all holdings from corporations involved with South Africa. It would be an unprecedented line in the sand — the University had never divested before on moral grounds.

More than 11 hours after they entered, the 51 students, all of whom were Black and members of the Association of Black Collegians (ABC), emerged from the building into the cold March air. W. Roderick Hamilton ’69 was the last to leave.

The New South sit-in, Hamilton said, “became a touchstone for subsequent generations.” It was the first of three waves of student protests calling on the University to divest completely from apartheid South Africa. Over 16 years, the movement waxed and waned as students graduated and political climates shifted, flying under a variety of organizations’ flags over the years and often spiking in tandem with similar protests at colleges across the nation.

The University never divested from all corporations with business in apartheid South Africa, but it did adopt a policy of selective divestment in 1978, under which shares might be withdrawn if companies did not meet certain business standards or employment practices within the apartheid regime. Ten years later, the University pulled five million dollars in investments from two companies that didn’t reach this bar. After the adoption of a new South African constitution and repeal of apartheid laws, the Board of Trustees rescinded the selective divestment policy.

In 2022, the University announced plans to divest from segments of the fossil fuel industry following years of student protests. The Daily Princetonian looked back on the 16-year-long predecessor of this campus movement: the push for divestment from apartheid South Africa that began in 1969.

‘Damn near a fad’: first building takeover, 1969


“We must have had some kind of action every other week,” Hamilton said about the spring of 1969. He became the leader of the ABC, for which he said divestment from South Africa was a “unifying focus.”

“An increase in Black enrollment challenged a lot of the traditions at Princeton,” he said. “It was a time of great activism.”

It followed on the heels of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, years in which college campuses across the nation were rife with protests and demonstrations.

“It was a tumultuous time in America,” said Joseph Dehner ’70, a white student involved in the divestment movement. “Riots in the cities, Nixon in the White House.”

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Given the continued racism at home and abroad, he added, “We thought that divestment from firms with any significant presence in South Africa was a darn good idea.”

Early in the semester, the ABC joined forces with other campus organizations, including the Committee for Black Awareness, the Pan-African Students Organization, and a group of students representing “Concerned Whites” to form the United Front of South Africa. They submitted a letter to President Robert F. Goheen on Feb. 17, 1969 listing demands.

The University quickly made concessions. In an unprecedented move on March 5, Goheen declared “Princeton’s intention to avoid investing University funds in companies doing a primary amount of their business in South Africa.” However, he refrained from total divestment, arguing that it would not have much of an impact to divest from companies who derive only a small percentage of income from South Africa.

The United Front was unsatisfied. They met that night to decide what to do next.

“Many of those in attendance thought we should do something like take over a building,” Hamilton said. “It was a very au courant thing to do back then, damn near a fad.”

The tactic was not especially popular on Princeton’s snowy campus, according to a poll of undergraduates, the majority of whom said that such building occupation would not be a legitimate means of protest.

Whispers of an imminent action reverberated through campus. On March 10, about 30 ABC members filed into the University Chapel during worship service; three gave impassioned speeches on divestment to the congregation.

The takeover occurred the next day. Non-Black students were requested by organizers to show support from outside the building. Crowds gathered, but nearly everyone was gone by the time Hamilton left, taking with him the chains they had used to lock the doors. No damage was done to the building; the ‘Prince’ quoted Assistant Director of Security James Kopliner as saying that “they did a better job of cleaning up the place than the janitors.”

ABC published a letter in the ‘Prince’ a week later stating that the occupation of New South was “deemed necessary to make clear the seriousness of this issue and our firm commitment to end the University’s complicity.” Participants did not face any disciplinary action.

The United Front’s demonstrations in 1969 led to the creation of the Resources Committee, composed of faculty and students who review questions related to the endowment and resources of the University and make recommendations to the Board of Trustees.

Advocacy related to divestment would not pick up again in such force until nearly a decade later. But, as Hamilton noted, “the seed was planted.”

‘In the lap of luxury’: the second wave, 1978

Daily picketing began on Feb. 1, 1978, a date chosen to commemorate the beginning of the 1960 Greensboro sit-in movement. Every day from noon to 1 p.m., about a dozen students gathered behind Nassau Hall for a demonstration.

According to Marsha Bonner ’78, one of the leaders of the movement, the resurgence of advocacy on campus related to divestment from apartheid South Africa was sparked by police brutality against child demonstrators during the Soweto Uprising two years prior.

“That was the big impetus for those of us on campus to try to align some of our political work with what was happening in South Africa,” Bonner said. “These young people had been killed, and here we were in the lap of luxury at Princeton. What could we do to help support their movement?”

With fellow activists, Bonner formed the People’s Front for the Liberation of South Africa to advocate for the University’s total divestment from any corporations doing business in South Africa, investments totaling $190 million. They were inspired by similar student protests across the nation.

The People’s Front held movie showings, attended demonstrations in New York, and hosted speakers from the African National Congress. They also organized the daily pickets, which most students ignored on their way to class.

Participation hovered around a dozen until the day of a big snowstorm in early March. Despite the weather, a crowd of about 100 turned out in support. According to a ‘Prince’ article, “noise from the march, generated by beating on steel garbage cans, tambourines and wood blocks, was heard as far away as the post office.”

“I think a whole lot of people thought, ‘Oh, the snow storm is going to end the daily picket’ — and they came to our rescue,” Lawrence Hamm ’78 said.

From then on, demonstrations grew in size. The New York Times reported on a divestment protest held on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, “the largest demonstration on the Princeton University campus since the Vietnam era.”

After weeks of protests, the students decided to go bigger. “The plan, in essence,” Hamm said, “was that we were going to take Nassau Hall.”

They mapped it out in detail, organizing students into groups of three and communicating with the head of each cell directly out of fear of information being leaked to the ‘Prince.’

On the morning of April 14, 210 students streamed into Nassau Hall through the front and side doors.

According to Bonner, leaders made it very clear to other students that there might be disciplinary consequences.

“Everybody knew ahead of time that those were possibilities,” she said. “And they all signed on and said yes, we want to do this in solidarity with the people of South Africa.”

Supporters outside cooked pots of spaghetti, which they passed through windows. According to one ‘Prince’ article, the demonstrators inside “for the most part sat quietly, playing cards, reading books, or speaking quietly among themselves during the sit-in,” though another article noted some dancing throughout the night.

After 27 hours, the sit-in ended at 11:20 a.m. the next day. Students left through the front door with fists raised to join a rally of hundreds outside. 205 of them later received disciplinary warnings.

Looking back, Hamm sees the movement as a victory. “We were able to build this movement, raise consciousness all over the campus about South Africa, win majority support of the campus, take over Nassau Hall, and nobody got thrown out of school,” he said.

The “majority support” was slim. A ‘Prince’ poll taken the next year found that just 51 percent of students supported divestment, but the demonstrations did result in some University concessions.

Though the trustees declined to meet all of the People’s Front’s demands, they did adopt a policy of selective divestment, holding open the possibility of future divestment from individual corporations that fell below certain standards regarding their operations in South Africa.

‘You’re going to have to drag me away’: Nassau Hall blockade, 1985

Participation in Front demonstrations decreased in the years following the first Nassau Hall sit-in, but momentum would again pick up in the mid-80s.

“These things have a life cycle, with students graduating,” Joel Westheimer ’86 said. “The last mass action was in 1981. That was ancient history nobody remembered.”

But a national movement was sweeping across college campuses, with students organizing apartheid divestment protests for April 4, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Princeton students like Westheimer wanted it to rock the quiet New Jersey suburb. Joel Sipress ’86 remembers thinking, “We really got to do something to be part of this nationwide movement at Princeton.”

But on April 4, as hundreds gathered at Columbia University and blockaded Hamilton Hall, turnout by Nassau Hall was low.

“At Princeton, almost no one showed up,” Sipress said. “It was a total bust.”

But over the next few weeks, rallies at Princeton grew in size. The newly-formed Coalition for Divestment organized vigils and teach-ins. On April 19, 400 students encircled Nassau Hall in a human chain; some camped out overnight. They were calling again for total divestment from companies conducting business in South Africa, as well as divestment of the $50 million invested in banks that floated loans to the South African government.

On April 23, about 2,500 people gathered on Cannon Green to hear Reverend Jesse Jackson denounce apartheid and call for divestment.

Still, Twanna LaTrice Hill ’86 notes most students weren’t involved. “That’s what happens at the Ivies,” she said. “Priorities are education or parties.”

She remembers feeling a bit nervous that protesting would impact her own future prospects. Looking back, she wishes she had pushed more for divestment.

“My future is important, my education is important, and I didn’t want to jeopardize any of those things,” she said. “But my values are also important.”

The Coalition for Divestment was fairly diverse given campus demographics, according to Hill.

The group’s most noted action of the semester occurred on May 23, when 88 students blockaded Nassau Hall. The Princeton police arrived to arrest them. Andrew Meyers ’86, a white student protestor, remembers a polite interaction with law enforcement.

“The police said, ‘Look, I’m afraid we’re going to have to take you away,’ and I said, ‘I’m really sorry, but you’re going to have to drag me away.’”

They dragged him and his fellow activists through the gate at Nassau Hall to the local courthouse. The University dropped all charges.

Ultimately, the University never fully met student demands to divest its endowment from apartheid South Africa. Though William Bowen GS ’58, the president at the time, publicly condemned the South African government, he never supported total divestment as a wise tactic.

“Those of us who have participated in this debate within the board and on the campus are, I believe, unanimous in our condemnation of apartheid,” he said at a forum on University policy.

However, in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, he argued that it would not improve the situation in South Africa and that those in charge of the hefty endowment should not allow personal convictions to sway decisions regarding investments.

Two years later, the trustees did vote to divest five million dollars from two firms doing business in South Africa that they had determined were not doing enough in the interest of people of color there. In 1994, they ended the selective divestment policy after the South African government adopted a new constitution and repealed apartheid laws. 

Following student protests in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, various other movements have sprung up on campus over the decades calling for the divestment from certain sectors or industries. The University has adopted divestment policies twice since — from companies complicit in genocide in Darfur, Sudan in 2006 and from 90 companies involved in certain segments of the fossil fuel industry in 2022.

The roots of current divestment movements can easily be traced back to the advocacy of Hamilton, Bonner, Hill, and all the other students who took over buildings, hung up posters, and circulated petitions starting in the late 60s.

“I have a feeling that ours was the first student movement to call for divestiture from anything,” Hamilton said, “though we all think history starts with ourselves.”

Paige Cromley is a head Features editor for the ‘Prince.’

Former Contributing Features Writer Ben Angarone ’21 contributed reporting.

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