For generations, Princeton students have used protest and other forms of activism to stand up for intersectional equity, inclusion, peace, and justice.

Images: Princetonians engaging in activism over the years. (University Archives)

In the 1940s, nearly a century after Princeton’s founding, a group of white, male students formed the Liberal Union, which fought for the admission of Black students to Princeton. They were jeered by their fellow classmates as “N***** Lovers” and “Communists.”

In 1942, one of the union’s leaders, Francis L. Broderick ’43, wrote a series of editorials entitled, “White Supremacy at Princeton” on the front page of the Daily Princetonian. He and his fellow union members vociferously denounced Princeton’s racially restrictive admissions policies, seeking to act as allies to the Black community.

Image: Liberal Union publicity brochure, ca 1947. (University Archives)
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Over the years, Princeton students have occupied various administrative spaces to protest unjust University policies. In 1978, students created the People’s Front, conducting a sit-in in Nassau Hall to challenge Princeton’s investments in South Africa under apartheid.

In 1986, students associated with the Women’s Center organized a seven-hour sit-in in the Dean of Students’ office to protest the University’s reluctance to include students in hiring a new Center director and to endorse an explicitly political, feminist statement of purpose.

Image: Dean of Students J. Anderson Brown, Jr., crouched, talking with students at the 1978 Nassau Hall sit-in. (Princeton Alumni Weekly)

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Princeton students have long sought equitable representation in the University’s curriculum. In the 1990s, Latinx and Asian students and their allies joined together to advocate for ethnic studies. In 2009, a Latino Studies program was finally created, and after 40 years of student and alumni activism, an Asian American Studies certificate program was established in 2018.

Image: 1995 protest for Asian American and Latino studies. (University Archives)

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“If we did, as [then-Dean of Student Affairs] Brown charged, create a tension in Nassau Hall or in the community at large, it is certainly a healthy thing. Secluded as Princeton is from the harsh reality of oppression and poverty which dominates so much of the world, we tend to lapse into academic lethargy. We recognize that any society is governed by rules and that rules need to be respected. Yet respect for the rules is conditioned in the long run by respect for human rights and human dignity.”


In 2015, the Black Justice League and allied students occupied President Christopher L. Eisgruber’s office in Nassau Hall, prompted by a faculty panel discussion in December of 2014 entitled, “What Kind of Diversity? Is Princeton Too Narrowly Focused on Race and Ethnicity Rather than Economic Diversity?”

Students demanded specific actions that would recognize and redress systemic racism at Princeton, including an acknowledgement of and measures to confront the legacy of Woodrow Wilson. A number of key leaders of the BJL were queer and trans students.

Image: Black Justice League leaders during the 2015 Nassau Hall sit-in. (Daily Princetonian)

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The sit-in accelerated the decades-long fight to establish a Department of African American Studies. As a result of student efforts, the University created a Dean for Diversity and Inclusion position and increased resources for the Carl A. Fields Center, LGBT Center, and Women*s Center. 

Image: Student activists occupying Nassau Hall in 2015. (Julio Cortez / The New Yorker)

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In June 2020, following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, the Editorial Board of the Daily Princetonian urged Princeton to implement anti-racist curricula and support reparations efforts. In an editorial entitled, “After five years of student activism, it’s time for the U. to stop dragging its feet,” they wrote that their goal is to ensure that student activists are included in active efforts to dismantle unjust structures.

Image: Protestors kneeling on Nassau Street in 2020. (Nora Peachin / Planet Princeton)
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More than 1000 protestors gathered outside FitzRandolph Gate on June 2, 2020, comprising Princeton students, members of the surrounding community, and activists from other institutions. Princeton resident Kenneth Davis said, “I’m protesting because of course, all Black lives matter....It needs to stop...I want legal recourse for what’s going on, especially having people change it to become the legislation.”

Image: Over 1000 protestors gathered outside FitzRandolph Gate. (Daily Princetonian)

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My sophomore fall is when the Black Justice League held the walkout in the center of President Eisgruber’s office. And I just remember there was so much tension on campus, because what had started as a walkout to kind of help students to address grievances that they had about what campus climate was like for students of color, it just exploded completely...

Princeton students have gathered by the hundreds to fight for racial equality.

Hundreds gathered in the ’60s and ’70s to protest the Vietnam War and South African apartheid. During this time, some student protestors were arrested, placed on disciplinary probation, or suspended.

Image: A 1978 protest in front of Nassau Hall against Princeton’s investments in South Africa during apartheid. (Princeton Alumni Weekly)
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Hundreds of students walked out of classes to participate in a “die-in” after the 2014 deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. For 45 minutes, students lay on the ground, symbolizing the deaths of the two unarmed Black men who were killed by police officers.

Image: Students on the ground in front of Frist Campus Center during a 2014 protest against police brutality.
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They have mourned.

After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968, a memorial service in the University Chapel and vigil in Palmer Square were organized by the Dean of the Chapel and the Association of Black Collegians (ABC) to honor his legacy. Dr. Carl A. Fields, the first Black dean of an Ivy League university and a mentor to the ABC, formed a prayer circle at the vigil.

Image: Marion Sleet ’69 at a campus vigil for Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. (Princeton Alumni Weekly)
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“At the end of the day all of us met up on the front steps of Nassau Hall, and I remember Dr. [Carl A.] Fields having us form a circle and joining hands with our hands crossed in front of us, and then clasping the hand of each guy next to us. There were 40 or so of us present. I remember Dr. Fields leading a kind of prayer. Why didn’t we join hands sooner?”


They have fought for gender equity.

Starting in 1987 and continuing to the present day, Take Back the Night events have given women a platform to share stories about sexual assault. At the inaugural march past the eating clubs, participants were spit on and heckled by male classmates with shouts of “We can rape anybody we want.”

Image: Students holding a banner for Princeton’s Take Back the Night march. (The Daily Princetonian)
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In 2019, after Princeton took disciplinary action against a sexual assault survivor who wrote “Title IX protects rapists” on campus walkways, students held a nine-day protest against Princeton’s sexual misconduct policies.

Image: Students demanding changes to the University’s handling of sexual misconduct cases. (Vignesh Panchanatham / The Nation)
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They have stood up for immigrant rights.

Along with co-plaintiffs Princeton and Microsoft, Maria Perales Sanchez ’18 went before the Supreme Court in 2019 to contest an announcement to end DACA. The Court ruling restored the program and protected Dreamers.

Image: University President Christopher Eisgruber, Maria Perales Sanchez ’18, and University Trustee Brad Smith standing in front of the Supreme Court in 2019. (Princeton University Office of Communications)
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The tradition of activism continues.

Following protests in the summer of 2020, the Black Leadership Coalition raised more than $18,000 for I Am Trenton, a community foundation that supports local and minority-owned businesses. They also created a report with anonymous accounts of racism submitted by students.

Image: Students protesting against systemic racism on Nassau Street in 2020. (Nora Peachin / Planet Princeton)

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“Anti-racist work intersects with indigenous struggles, environmental justice, feminism, immigrant rights, LGBT advocacy, disability rights, and other efforts. We all benefit from the simultaneous uplifting of these causes. Our struggles are intertwined, as are our futures. We must face injustice in solidarity—with honesty, hope, and creativity.”


Image: Professor Ruha Benjamin speaking at the Princeton Black Lives Matter protest on June 2, 2020.

Ch 3. Race and Free Speech