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Students Protest Apartheid

Student demonstrations against Harvard’s investment in South Africa hit an all-time high after Jesse Jackson spoke at Harvard

On May 2, 1985, furious anti-apartheid protestors flowed into the Lowell House courtyard upon learning that South African Consul-General Abe S. Hoppenstein was speaking to the Conservative Club. Protestors linked arms to create a human barricade, chanting “Conservative Club, what do you say? Would you invite the KKK?”

The rally quickly dissolved into chaos as student organizers lost control of non-Harvard protestors who joined the demonstration. The sound of shattering glass reverberated through the courtyard, panicking the crowds gathered there. According to an article written at the time, students blockaded Hoppenstein in the Lowell House Common Room for several hours to give him “the experience of thousands of Black and white South Africans jailed in hell-hole prisons.”

Police eventually held back the crowds to relocate Hoppenstein, which resulted in 20 students filing charges of police brutality.

The Lowell House blockade marked the peak of the anti-apartheid protests in the mid-1980s, resulting in disciplinary action for more than a dozen students.

Students from the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee (SASC) staged the protest as part of their efforts to push President Derek C. Bok to divest Harvard’s endowment from companies conducting business with the apartheid government in South Africa.

Though Harvard never fully divested from South Africa, the protests forced the administration to grapple with its role in indirectly financing the apartheid regime, and made a deep impression on the student participants, who said their lives were shaped by the turbulent events.

A BRICK IN THE WALL OF APARTHEID

Anti-apartheid protests began in Cambridge as early as the 1970s and steadily gained momentum, leading to a student take-over of Bok’s office and a torchlight parade in opposition to Harvard’s investments in South Africa in 1978.

But according to Damon A. Silvers ’86, one of the leaders of SASC, the committee was dormant in the early 80s during a period of relative quiet in South African resistance. As the situation in South Africa became increasingly dire, however, student support for the end of violence in South African grew rapidly.

“We felt Harvard University should not be another brick in the wall of apartheid,” said Jamin B. Raskin ’83, who participated in the 1985 protests while at the Law School.

On April 4, 1985, about 5,000 students gathered in Harvard Yard for a protest organized by SASC, which had invited Reverend Jesse I. Jackson to speak to the riled crowds. Jackson had written a letter to Bok a month earlier in which he urged the University to divest.

The rally was only the beginning of the passionate resurgence of anti-apartheid protests in 1985.

That year, protestors would occasionally stage “pop and stops”—activities to prove that they were well-organized enough to seize control of a major administrative building if necessary. Massive groups of students would instantly materialize and pile into the offices of Massachusetts Hall, where they handed the secretaries flowers and mysteriously said, “We’ll be back later,” before quickly dissipating.

Students also created an alternative fund to collection donations from the senior class that would not be invested in South Africa.

“Our work was profoundly creative,” Michael T. Anderson ’83 said. “It wasn’t just some pious liberal statement about the solidarity of suffering Africans. It was, ‘We can do something about this by squeezing a major institution in the country, one that claims to be very progressive.’”

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