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Princeton and Apartheid: The 1978 Nassau Hall Sit-In

Princeton di-vest!
Oh yeah

Just like the rest!
Oh yeah

And if you don’t!
Oh yeah

We will not rest!
Oh yeah

We gonna fight
And fight

And keep on fightin’ some more
Princeton di-vest!

(Student protest chant, quoted in Princeton Alumni Weekly 24 April 1978)

Protest Signs, April 1978, Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection (AC126), Box 33.

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).

Cannon Green protest, April 1978, Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection (AC126), Box 33.

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)

Nassau Hall protest, ca. 1978, Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection (AC126), Box 33.

When the 210 participants left Nassau Hall, they joined 300 other demonstrators outside. They marched to Corwin Hall, where the Board of Trustees was meeting, gathering protesters as they went. By the time they arrived, ABC news cameras were trained on an assembly of more than 600 people.

Nassau Hall protest, April 1978, Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection (AC126), Box 33.

The carefully-planned 27-hour occupation of Nassau Hall on April 14-15, 1978 resulted in disciplinary hearings where students and other members of the University community asserted that they knew they were breaking rules, but that they had done so in a conscious effort to draw attention to policies they felt were immoral. They cited the University’s unchanged policy on divestment and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s example of nonviolent protest.

Dean Brown talks with students at the Nassau Hall Sit-In, April 1978, Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection, AC126, Box 33.

George Riley ’79 gave an impassioned speech at the hearings, explaining the choice the People’s Front had made:

Many Americans have long condemned the racist South African government, but their words carry no weight against a 400 percent increase in U.S. investments in South Africa since 1960. Blacks in South Africa risk penalties from five years imprisonment to death to speak out against foreign investments. We bear the responsibility to carry their cause in this country with our own voices. … If we did, as Dean Brown charged, create a tension in Nassau Hall or in the community at large, it is certainly a healthy thing. Secluded as Princeton is from the harsh reality of oppression and poverty which dominates so much of the world, we tend to lapse into academic lethargy. We are oblivious to the sufferings of our fellow sisters and brothers to whom we are joined by humanity and to whom we share a special responsibility by nature of our economic ties to their oppressors. Thus, if the tensions created by our movement challenged Princeton’s insolent complacency, it is certainly salutary to the University’s educational mission, and in no way an offense or a threat to the University. … We recognize that any society is governed by rules and that rules need to be respected. Yet respect for the rules is conditioned in the long run by respect for human rights and human dignity. … regardless of the punishment, we remain firm in our conviction that our decision to stay in the building was correct, and we unite with opponents of apartheid all over the world.


Nassau Hall protest, April 1978, Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection, AC126, Box 33.

205 students were given official warnings in connection with their participation in the sit-in, ruled to have constituted “a serious violation of University regulations.” (“Report on Proceedings of the Judicial Committee,” May 1978, p. 11, found in Progressive Review Subject Files (AC029), Box 2, Folder 8). Princeton revisited its policy many times, but never did fully divest from South Africa. In 1994, the Board of Trustees voted to revoke the “selective divestiture” policy, when the end of apartheid rendered it moot.


Princeton University sources:

Daily Princetonian

Historical Subject Files Collection (AC109), Box 203, Folder 24.

Office of the Provost Records (AC195), Box 23, Folder 3.

Princeton Alumni Weekly

President Spells Out Policy Concerning South Africa.” Princeton Weekly Bulletin 13 May 1985, 3+.

Progressive Review Subject Files (AC029), Box 2, Folder 8.

Steve M. Slaby Papers (AC027), Box 6, Folder 3.

Trustees Rescind University’s Policy of Selective Disassociation.” Princeton Weekly Bulletin 31 January 1994, 2.

External Sources:

200 Students Occupy Nassau Hall to Protest University’s Stock Ownership in South Africa.” Town Topics 19 April 1978, 6.

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