Beyond the Vietnam War, one of the events of the 20th century where college students made the biggest impact on policy decisions was South African apartheid. Smith College was no different, with students driving the movement for Smith to divest from its South African investments.
Smith students picketed and protested the college’s position on divestment (“the action or process of selling off subsidiary business interests or investments”) for months throughout the mid-1980s. The Board of Trustees initially refused to sell off its investments in South African companies that were either directly or indirectly benefitting from apartheid, while Smith students argued that economic action was the only form of protest that would receive a state-level response in today’s neoliberal capitalist society. When making signs for protests, students would rip down posters regarding Smith’s nondiscriminatory policy and its labor laws before writing their messages on the backs, hoping to draw attention to the hypocrisy of Smith’s position as a college that claimed to be driven toward justice.
When these intermittent protests proved ineffective, with the administration initially agreeing to only partial South African divestment, Smith students ultimately decided to occupy College Hall in February of 1986. Organized by students known as “Unleaders,” the occupation blockade kept administrative staff and anyone not aligned with their cause from entering the building. Students set up camp in the hallways and stairwells of the administrative building where they would remain for nearly a week, singing songs, leading chants, and engaging in collaborative discussions among themselves and with members of the administration to advocate for divestment. They later held a day-long class moratorium on March 6 and instead hosted a variety of teach-ins and workshops related to issues of racism in both South Africa and the United States. All this work eventually paid off, as the Smith Board of Trustees announced it would complete a full divestment of its assets in South Africa by October 1988.
Smith students drew inspiration from these efforts when the Divest! Smith organization cropped up nearly 30 years after College Hall’s occupation. This time, students were protesting Smith’s investment in the fossil fuel industry, and achieved their goal of securing divestment in 2019 after approximately four years of advocacy and a much shorter College Hall “occupation.” As college students nationwide look to carceral labor as the next target for divestment, the College Hall Occupation of 1986 and the Smith activism surrounding apartheid will likely be a source of great inspiration and guidance.