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Letter to the Editor: How we remember campus activism matters

Beige building with ivy covering it. Trees with yellow leaves surround the building.
Bright gold leaves blanket the lawn in front of Nassau Hall. 
Guanyi Cao / The Daily Princetonian

To the Editor:

Although the recent article from The Daily Princetonian titled “Incidents in political speech at Princeton, throughout the 20th century” is an interesting dive into the archives of campus debates, it must be critiqued for its glaring omissions of racial justice activism and for failing to discuss the tradition of radical activism on campus. How we remember campus activism matters, and the current piece’s narrow focus on free speech is reflective of a campus collective memory that needs to reconnect with more concrete histories of protest and contestation. 


Focusing solely on free speech prevents us from truly reflecting on Princeton’s political and activist history. How can we talk about the history of politics on campus without discussing radical acts like the occupation of Nassau Hall to advocate for divestment from South Africa, a boycott of classes by the Association of Black Collegians to hold a memorial for Malcolm X, and the takeover of Nassau Hall by Asian-American and Latinx students that led to the creation of ethnic studies departments? Any history of campus activism is utterly incomplete without addressing questions of race, colonialism, and how students have grappled with these issues through visions for the future that exceed the status quo of the University (and the world). 

Ignoring these vital histories, and discussing the legacy of campus politics through the myopic lens of the present obsession with abstract debates over free speech exposes just how limited political imagination has become since past activism: why does the collective memory of campus now seem to take the gains earned by these protests for granted and forget that they had to be won through advocacy? These questions of how we remember Princeton’s past are not mere questions of historical or journalistic method; they are themselves political questions that impact how we understand our relationship to the University and the University’s relationship to the world. We must think critically about what and how we choose to remember. 

Remembering these activist histories is essential to our present, as they remind us of a more radical history of student activism that stands in stark contrast to Princeton’s current reputation as “non-political,” captured in phrases like “the Orange Bubble.” They remind us that Princeton has always been implicated in the world, and debates on campus relate to very tangible consequences and situations. If we allow them, perhaps remembering these pasts can inspire us to imagine better futures.   

David Chmielewski is a senior at Princeton University concentrating in English. He can be reached at