A Takeover for African Liberation

When two dozen student protesters seized Massachusetts Hall at dawn on April 20, 1972 and began a 153-hour seige, it was the climax of events that started in August and escalated as the Pan-African Liberation Committee (PALC) pushed and pulled against President Derek C. Bok's new administration.

The war began with a report that PALC sent the two-month-old Administration. The paper detailed the relationship of the Gulf Oil Co. to Portuguese colonies in Africa and asked the University to divest itself of its 680,000 shares of Gulf stock. Throughout the controversy that followed, PALC charged that Gulf's African investment "facilitates the daily slaughter of Africans" and that "Harvard is deeply implicated in this crime."

At a meeting on Sept. 17, 1971, President Bok refused to take immediate action, saying that the issue was not of top priority and that the University would study the matter.

PALC, a Boston-based organization that claimed support from black undergraduates, the Harvard Black Faculty and Administrators Organization, marched on President Bok's office on Feb. 24, 1972.

Twice finding its doors locked, the 100 demonstrators marched to University Hall, where they held a "millin" in the first-floor offices of Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III. They left after one and a half hours, when Daniel Steiner '54, general counsel to the University--and unofficial "troubleshooter" for the President--told them that the President would meet with representatives that evening on the 10th floor of Holyoke Center.

Bok issued a statement after the meeting, promising to "arrange for representatives of the group to present their views to the Harvard Corporation, which is responsible for Harvard investment policies."

"There is no question in my mind that Portugal has inflicted grave wrongs on black people in Angola and Mozambique," Bok's statement read. However, it refused to commit to selling Harvard's shares, worth $21 million at the time.

The statement did not satisfy PALC leaders, who continued to meet during the following days as security tightened around Mass. and University Halls.

To bring more attention to the plight of Africans killed while opposing Portuguese colonial rule, about 50 members of PALC and the Harvard-Radcliffe Association of African and Afro-American Students (Afro) planted 500 black crosses in Harvard Yard March 6.

President Bok announced that the Corporation would not sell its stock in Gulf at a press conference April 19. The Corporation instead asked the company for certain reforms and said it planned to send a fact-finder to Angola. Bok stated that he personally opposed America's policy toward Portuguese colonies in Africa.

A PALC spokesperson called the Corporation's decision "morally irresponsible" and added that the fact-finder plan was "meaningless at best and an insult at worst."

PALC and Afro then held a joint strategy meeting.

Fourteen hours after Bok's announcement, on April 20, two dozen students used crowbars to enter Mass. Hall through a window at 5:30 a.m.

Because demonstrators triggered campus fire alarms, Harvard police sealed off the building. Up to 100 demonstrators gathered in support outside, despite a steady, cold sleet. Inside, the activists used loudspeakers to broadcast their demands until Harvard authorities cut off power to the building; supporters in nearby Matthews Hall rigged an extension-cord power line from a second-floor window.

A statement issued at 8 a.m. repeated demands that Harvard divest and make "a public statement that it will not be involved in racist imperialist adventures in the future."

Steiner asked Cambridge police not to stay in the Yard so that no attempt to storm the building could be made without University approval--if the protesters disregarded a court order to leave, their being in contempt of court could require any Cambridge officers at the scene to arrest them.

Throughout the occupation, Bok, Steiner and other officials followed a policy of holding, but not exercising, a legal right to use police to remove the protesters by force.

"We are deliberately taking every step possible to protect both the University and the people in the building. We don't want anyone hurt," said Charles U. Daly, vice president for government and community Affairs.

That night, a meeting of 2,000 students in Sanders Theatre voted for a five-day strike in support of PALC and against the Vietnam War.

Attendance fell to about 25 percent at classes the next day.

Other signs of support for the protesters came from round-the-clock picketing outside; the black Faculty and administrators; Phillips Brooks House Association; 38 Faculty members who signed a statement calling investment in Gulf "morally indefensible"; and six black members of the track team who left the squad indefinitely, issuing a statement supporting the "efforts to influence the end of imperialism, exploitation and political repression."

On the third day of the siege, Ewart Guinier, chair of the Afro-American studies department, donated $500 to the protesters.

Occupants declared an indefinite hunger strike on the fourth day.

In a letter on April 25, Steiner asked for the occupation to end and warned that, "Unless there is immediate compliance, we will be obliged to ask for a court order."

He combined this threat of physical eviction with warnings that the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities--the University's disciplinary arm--could punish occupants.

A rally outside of Mass. Hall on April 26 attracted nearly 1,000 supporters and concluded with a surprise announcement from inside the hall.

"This is the seventh day of our occupation," the speaker said. "We have decided to make it our last."

After citing University plans to have protesters found in contempt of court, the speaker continued, "We would face six-month jail sentences that would remove us from the struggle. The issue is Harvard out of Gulf and not Mass. Hall. Join us."

The PALC and Afro protesters marched out of the hall, their fists thrust upward in a proud, but less-than-victorious, end to the building occupation. They and the cheering supporters paraded through Holyoke Center and down Mt. Auburn Street.

Whether or not it was influenced by the recent events, the Corporation voted in favor of two disclosure resolutions filed with the General Motors Corp. and the Ford Motor Co. The University had never before sided against management in a proxy fight.

Thirty-four students were eventually brought before University disciplinary bodies for participating in the strike. None received punishments that had any effect more serious than a permanent disciplinary record.

Bok commented that "a number of problems" had arisen because of the mildness of the punishments, but he stopped short of explicitly condemning the rulings.