May 3, 1968, the Dead appear on the campus of Columbia University out of nowhere. Audience is not clear on what's happening - but they know something is happening...
May 3, 1968 was a tumultuous time for Columbia University students. Days earlier police had violently squashed a student protest that led to 148 injuries and an astounding 372 police brutality complaints. Enter the Grateful Dead who performed a free outdoor concert for students at the NYC institution.
In 1968, the Vietnam War was not only a catalyst for protests but a sort of nexus for all other injustices–the part contained elements of the whole: racism, class war, capitalist profiteering, imperialism. In April of that year, one inflection point happened on New York’s Columbia University campus.
The University wanted to build a military gym, not on campus, but in Morningside Park, a public space that bordered on Harlem. The student body immediately protested the construction. For one thing, it was planned to feature one entrance for students and faculty, and another entrance in the basement for Harlem’s mostly African-American residents. Protestors saw this, and the displacement of black residents from their neighborhood park, as racist. The Student Afro-American Society (SAS) of the University nicknamed it “Gym Crow.” At the same time, another activist group, the Students for a Democratic Society, discovered links between the University and the Department of Defense. The two events were separate, but stood for a bigger problem.
Students staged protests, sit-ins, and generally disrupted the University, vowing to continue until their demands were met–specifically divestment in the war machine and halting construction of the gym.
That was April. On May 3, enter the Grateful Dead. Still a young band, the Dead were comparatively unknown on the East Coast, but set out to support the students with a free concert. What you see in the video is one of the few reels of footage of the illegal gig, with music from earlier concerts used over the silent footage. No sound recording exists of this event, but the uploader seems to think “The Eleven” was part of the set.
Mickey Hart, who had only recently joined the band as a second drummer, recalled how they made their way onto the campus:
[Grateful Dead manager] Rock [Scully] reached out to the strike organizers and offered to do a free show for the students. Always up for an adventure, we of course, went right along. Since the police and guards were closing off access to the majority of the campus – we were “smuggled” on campus to Low Library Plaza in the back of a bread delivery truck. Equipment and all. We were already jamming away before the security and police could to stop us.
One YouTube commenter says he was there:
They set up on the porch of Ferris Booth Hall, which was the student union, in effect. A small crowd gathered; the Dead were not widely known yet in New York. I had a nice chat with Garcia [while] they were setting up. They started to play, but someone from the administration cut the power, which was not received favorably by the students. After some brief negotiating — someone pointed out that legally Ferris Booth Hall was owned by the students and does the university really need another riot — the power was turned back on and the show continued.