On April 4, 1986, the 18th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Yale Divestment Coalition (of which I was a member) erected a shanty town — meant to symbolize the illegal shanty towns that black migrant workers had been forced to construct in South African cities by the apartheid government — on Beinecke Plaza. We undertook this act of civil disobedience to protest the Corporation’s refusal to respond to the demands of many in the Yale and New Haven communities that the University divest its investments in multinational corporations with operations in South Africa.
Student activists first began to demand that American colleges and universities divest from South Africa in the late 1970s. By 1986, nearly 200 campuses had announced plans to fully divest. That fall, the U.S. Congress voted to override Ronald Reagan’s veto of a comprehensive sanctions bill against the South African regime. Years of student protest had played an essential role in reshaping the political debate about apartheid. And when in subsequent years Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison and South Africa held its first free and fair presidential elections, those of us in the student anti-apartheid movement could rightly feel that we had played our part in the international campaign against South Africa’s racist regime.
But when I first became involved in the Yale divestment movement in the spring of 1985, such a triumphant outcome seemed far from assured. True, the Free South Africa Movement had brought national attention to the issue by organizing civil rights leaders to commit acts of civil disobedience at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. And yes, Columbia activists had received national press attention for their sit-in on the steps of Hamilton Hall. But the divestment campaign at Yale seemed to have stalled. Over the next year, however, a remarkable coalition of undergraduate, graduate, faculty and staff activists would come together under the leadership of the Black Student Alliance at Yale and the Yale Coalition Against Apartheid to form the Yale Divestment Coalition. The divestment campaign was the result of a tremendous amount of work, including research into Yale’s investments and the practices of the apartheid regime, educational events targeted at both the Yale and New Haven communities, networking with anti-apartheid activists across the country and negotiations with the Yale administration. At one point, the New Haven Register mocked our efforts with a cartoon featuring an ivory tower (Yale) surrounded by a shanty town (New Haven) and a little voice coming out of the top of the tower saying: “I know, let’s put up a shanty town.” Far from being embarrassed, those of us in the divestment campaign loved the cartoon. It made precisely the point that we were trying to make: that there was a direct link between Yale’s economic support for apartheid and the fact that the wealth of one of the nation’s wealthiest universities resided in what was at the time the seventh-poorest city, per capita, in the country.
The Yale Divestment Coalition was never able to convince the Corporation to divest from South Africa. Still, those of us who helped build the coalition were justly proud of our many achievements, including repeated demonstrations of widespread support for divestment throughout the Yale and New Haven communities, the convening of the first public debate on divestment to include members of the Yale Corporation and the building and sustaining of the shanties. Most importantly, we engaged Yalies of every rank, status and political persuasion in a vital debate over what the University’s ethical responsibilities were on a central global issue of the time.
The threat of global warming, the rise of the private prison industry and most importantly the election of Donald Trump have brought the University to a similar moment. The parallels are striking. The short-term preservation of Yale’s wealth is being juxtaposed against its ethical responsibilities to the planet and its most vulnerable populations. I stand with Fossil Free Yale and Yale Students for Prison Divestment in insisting that the Corporation divest its holdings from corporations that profit from the exploitation of the poor and the weak and from extractive practices that threaten future generations.
Matthew Countryman graduated from Yale College in 1986 and is a professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .