In 1968, the Vietnam War was not a catalyst for protests but a sort of nexus for all other injustices–the part contained elements of the whole: racism, class war, capitalist profiteering, imperialism. It was symptom and cause, much like climate change feels today. In April of that year, one inflection point happened on New York’s Columbia University campus.
The University wanted to build a military gym, not on campus, but in Morningside Park, a public space that bordered on Harlem. The student body immediately protested the construction. For one thing, it was planned to feature one entrance for students and faculty, and another entrance in the basement for Harlem’s mostly African-American residents. Protestors saw this, and the displacement of black residents from their neighborhood park, as racist. The Student Afro-American Society (SAS) of the University nicknamed it “Gym Crow.” At the same time, another activist group, the Students for a Democratic Society, discovered links between the University and the Department of Defense. The two events were separate, but stood for a bigger problem.
Students staged protests, sit-ins, and generally disrupted the University, vowing to continue until their demands were met–specifically divestment in the war machine and halting construction of the gym. Things got so bad, with some 148 injuries and 372 reports of police brutality from New York’s Finest, that the University went into lockdown.
That was April. On May 3, enter the Grateful Dead. Still a young band, the Dead were comparatively unknown on the East Coast, but set out to support the students with a free concert. What you see above is one of the few reels of footage of the illegal gig, with music from earlier gigs used over the silent footage. No sound recording exists of this event, but the uploader seems to think “The Eleven” was part of the set.
Mickey Hart, who had only recently joined the band as a second drummer, recalled how they made their way onto the campus:
[Grateful Dead manager] Rock [Scully] reached out to the strike organizers and offered to do a free show for the students. Always up for an adventure, we of course, went right along. Since the police and guards were closing off access to the majority of the campus – we were “smuggled” on campus to Low Library Plaza in the back of a bread delivery truck. Equipment and all. We were already jamming away before the security and police could to stop us.
This other footage shows more context–shots of Morningside Park, the protests, the police response, the sit-ins, a chalk noticeboard featuring messages from the outside to the students–all truly a time capsule. One YouTube commenter says he was there:
They set up on the porch of Ferris Booth Hall, which was the student union, in effect. A small crowd gathered; the Dead were not widely known yet in New York. I had a nice chat with Garcia [while] they were setting up. They started to play, but someone from the administration cut the power, which was not received favorably by the students. After some brief negotiating — someone pointed out that legally Ferris Booth Hall was owned by the students and does the university really need another riot — the power was turned back on and the show continued.
In the end, the student protests continued right through graduation–students held their own ceremony off campus–but they worked. The gym was not built and the University broke off its work with the DoD.
Flash forward to 2019 and it’s all coming around again: students and faculty demanded the University divest from all fossil fuels, in support of the Extinction Rebellion hunger strikers. As of this writing (February 2020), the University is still mulling it over. (No free concerts have been announced either…yet.)
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.