1968 New York Student Strike (51 images)


1968 New York Student Strike (51 images)


Black Power


Student activism hit a new high point in 1968, when dozens of campus protests broke out at colleges and universities across the country and internationally. Events evolved at a quick pace that year. In the wake of the Tet Offensive in January, an estimated 500 students at New York University demonstrated against Dow Chemical recruiters on campus. Dow was the manufacturer of napalm, a chemical agent used by U.S. military in Vietnam to burn plant life and human beings during the war. Students at NYU and elsewhere opposed the links between the university and what came to be known as the “military-industrial complex.” That same month, Minnesota senator, Eugene McCarthy, entered the Democratic presidential nomination process as an anti-war candidate, shocking Lyndon B. Johnson’s re-election campaign by earning 40% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary.

Shortly thereafter, Robert Kennedy entered the race and Johnson shocked the nation by announcing he was dropping out of the race. In Early-April, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, spurring dozens of urban rebellions in cities nationwide, including Harlem. At NYU, administrators suspended class for two days to hold a series of student-faculty seminars on race relations and formed a new committee to create a policy focused on African American students and other students of color.

From April 22-27, student activists in SDS and the NYU Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV) organize and lead a week-long “International Student-Faculty Strike to Bring Our Troops Home, End the Draft and Racial Oppression,” consisting of a series of campus anti-war protests and discussions, a class boycott on Friday, April 26, and then a march down 5th Avenue the following day. That same day, members of SDS and the Student Afro Society at Columbia University seize several campus buildings in what will ultimately become a significant international incident.

In May, student activists in Paris trigger a nationwide strike there. In June, Robert Kennedy is gunned down in Los Angeles after winning the Democratic primary in California. In August, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, crushing the “Prague Spring” protest movement. A few days later, Chicago police attacked New Left protesters outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

In mid-September, a new controversy erupted at NYU surrounding the appointment of John Hatchett to head up the Martin Luther King Afro-American Student Center on campus. Hatchett had been a civil rights activist during the early-1960s, most significantly participating in sit-ins, marches and other demonstrations in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1963, he moved to New York City to attend graduate school at NYU and Columbia University. He also taught in the New York public school system, where he continued to advocate for the interests of local black communities. On October 11, three months after Hatchett assumed his position as head of the AASC, administrators fired him amid claims that an article he wrote, “The Phenomenon of the Anti-Black Jews and the Black Anglo-Saxon: A Study in Educational Perfidy,” was anti-semitic and anti-white. In a speech, he had also referred to Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Richard M. Nixon and the president of the United Teachers Federation, Albert Shanker, as “racist bastards.” NYU President, James Hester, told reporters that the primary cause of Hatchett’s firing was that he had “proved to be increasingly ineffective in performing his duties because of the incompatibility of many of his actions and public statements with the requirements of his position in the university.” The firing was applauded by many local Jewish, Catholic and Protestant religious leaders, but sharply criticized by campus militants. The American Jewish Congress stated at the time that they hoped the university would replace Hatchett with “someone who is more likely to guide black students into harmonious relationships with their fellow students and the communities in which they will live.” 

In response to the firing, NYU student activists mounted a series of demonstrations, including a general strike that lasted for about ten days before fizzling. Student radicals also occupied two buildings on the NYU Bronx campus. The university ultimately offered a compromise, allowing Hatchett to remain an adviser to African American student groups on campus. In November, the AASC became independent of the university, run by a board made up of African American students and faculty.

The images in this set were taken by Roz Payne during the NYU protests of 
Hatchett’s firing. Interestingly, a number of the signs also reference the local Ocean Hill-Brownsville “community control” movement that was powerful at the time in New York public schools. Activists saw both as examples of the need for greater autonomy for black and brown people within local educational institutions.

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville district had been reorganized as an experiment in local control of public schools, with a community-controlled school board instituted in the primarily African American neighborhoods. Rhody McCoy was appointed superintendent of the new board. McCoy, who was popular in the black community, was a controversial figure because he was a follower and friend of Malcom X. Some claimed he was heavily influenced by Harold Cruse’s seminal book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, and believed Jews were too involved and powerful within the black freedom movement. McCoy also appointed Herman Ferguson as the principle of one of the schools in the district. According to an article he wrote in The Guardian, Ferguson advocated that schools offer "instructions in gun weaponry, gun handling, and gun safety" as important survival skills for children of color in a racist society. Ultimately, the appointment was withdrawn.

Over several months, tensions simmered between the new Ocean Hill-Brownsville board and a number of white teachers and staff who the board claimed were trying to sabotage the experiment in local control. In response the school board attempted to fire 83 teachers and staff, almost all of whom were Jewish. The teacher’s union balked at the move, which violated terms of their labor agreement with the district. Albert Shanker, the head of the teacher’s union called the board action, "a kind of vigilante activity."  In response, teachers went out on strike. When they attempted to return to the school on May 15, a group of parents and community members who supported the board attempted to block them. Local police broke the blockade, allowing the teachers to return, though the board closed the schools. On May 22-23, teachers again protested by staying home, promoting the board to fire 350 more teachers.

At the start of the new school year in August and September, a city-wide teachers' strikes shut down the New York City public schools for 36 days. The strike caused divisions among civil rights leaders and union members. Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph supported the striking teachers, causing sharp criticism from many black parents, teachers and a new generation of racial justice activists. While large percentages of teachers participated in the strike, black and brown teachers, as well as white teachers who taught primarily black and brown students, tended to support the strike in much lower numbers.

The strike ended in mid-November with the state seizing control of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district and reinstating the fired teachers. Some argued that militant black teachers were “purged.” Undoubtedly, the conflict heightened tensions between the African American and Jewish communities.


Roz Payne


Roz Payne


Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska-Lincoln



Original Format




Roz Payne, “1968 New York Student Strike (51 images),” Roz Payne Sixties Archive, accessed July 16, 2024, https://rozsixties.unl.edu/items/show/774.

Output Formats