Colleges and universities have historically been centers of political dissent. Perhaps because university students are in a rarefied state of independence, suspended between parental control and the mundane responsibilities of adult life, perhaps because the very nature of university education inspires students to form opinions and to take those opinions seriously, students have frequently been leaders in movements for social change. As early as the fourth century, Common Era, throughout the middle ages, and continuing into the modern era, university students have protested against politics and policies they find distasteful. The 1960s, shorthand for an era that began in the 1950s and continued into the 1970s, marked a time of massive social upheaval. African Americans began to organize to fight the state supported racism that oppressed them. Women and gays began to question the social order that kept them subservient and invisible. There was open dissent about government policies, particularly regarding the undeclared war in Vietnam. Citizens began to mistrust the government officials they had always been told knew best. And at the core of each of these growing movements were the energetic, angry challenges of the student movements, both in the United States and around the world.
Though media representations of the student protest movements of the 1960s may be content with showing long-haired demonstrators waving flowers at police, the fact is that many complex political movements evolved in the 1960s. Some students were deeply involved in these movements, while others were simply swept up in their wake. The 1960s really began with the formation of two radical student organizations that would exemplify major waves of student activity of the era, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick") and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
SNCC was formed in 1960 with the support of a major civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to give a voice to young black civil rights activists who were impatient with the careful tactics of their elders. Almost immediately, SNCC took a more radical approach to the fight for civil rights, though it maintained a commitment to non-violence. SNCC organized demonstrations, became involved in the "Freedom Rides" campaign to desegregate Southern buses, and worked to reform voting laws. In one of its most successful demonstrations, SNCC was instrumental in organizing the Freedom Summer of 1964, when busloads of mostly white students from the north came south where they lived with black families and did extensive organizing, from teaching in the Freedom Schools to registering black voters. Besides the extraordinary accomplishment of public education and outreach, the Freedom Summer played a large part in the passage of the United States Voting Rights Act.
By 1966, impatient with continued prejudice and discrimination, the membership of SNCC grew increasingly radical. Members like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown embodied this change of attitude. New catch phrases became, "Black Power!" and "Violence is as American as cherry pie." SNCC joined with another new organization for young black militants, the Black Panther Party, and demonstrations were no longer peaceful sit-ins, but angry, threatening near-riots. The Black Panther Party also began to look outside the United States for support, to countries like Cuba for whom revolution was more than a symbol.
Also formed in 1960, the Students for a Democratic Society put out its famous statement of purpose, the Port Huron Statement, in 1962. Drafted at a national meeting of SDS in Port Huron, Michigan, the statement began, "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit." The statement was an indictment of modern American values and called for students to demand a truly "participatory democracy," and to fight against social injustice and materialistic capitalism. In 1963, in an effort to act on this statement, SDS formed the Economic Research and Action Project to put participatory democracy into practice. In the summer of 1964, 125 SDS organizers attempted political organizing among the urban poor in various cities across the country. But it was its mobilization against the Vietnam War for which the SDS is best remembered.
By the mid-1960s, television broadcasts of wartime violence and American casualties were causing doubt among many Americans as to the rationale behind the war, and the greatest doubters of all were college students of draft age and their friends. Demonstrations against the war sprang up on college and university campuses everywhere, some at military recruiting offices, some at ROTC buildings, anywhere that held some connection to the war. On April 17, 1965, SDS organized the first of several mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. Fifteen thousand demonstrators joined them. In November, SDS cosponsored another demonstration that drew 30,000 antiwar protesters.
Like SNCC, SDS members grew impatient with the slowness of governmental response to their impassioned protests, and the group became more militant. By the time over 700 demonstrators were arrested at an SDS protest at Columbia University in 1968, the organization was already beginning to metamorphose into the fiercely militant Weathermen. In 1969, the Weathermen organized the "Days of Rage" of violent protest and rioting at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Eventually, radical members formed the Weather Underground, which considered itself a guerrilla warfare group, and continued to be active until 1977, taking responsibility for 12 bombings, and releasing 22 political communiques and a book, Prairie Fire. While many radicals later disavowed their militant stands, many others, like SDS' Bernadette Dohrn, stand behind their youthful politics and continue to work on the left for social change.
Most students were not members of any group, but a large number felt strongly about the social and political issues that motivated the organizations. Raised by a generation that had been largely unquestioningly patriotic, the students of the 1960s questioned everything their parents and their government told them. They began to feel they had been lied to, that the privilege they enjoyed was tainted because it came at the expense of people of color both at home and in Vietnam. Most of all, they did not want themselves or their friends to kill or be killed in Vietnam defending the lie. Following the pattern of groups like SNCC and SDS, student demonstrations of the early 1960s were largely peaceful rallies and marches, with the occasional teach-in about the war or sit-in in a controversial building on campus.
Unfortunately, university administrations and campus police did not understand how to deal with such challenges to their authority and often responded by attempting to clamp down with tighter control, which usually resulted in greater and more violent rebellion. Along with antiwar protests, "student power" movements developed as students insisted on having a voice in the way their schools were run. The Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California at Berkeley began when the university attempted to ban student political organization on campus. When campus police tried to arrest a student distributing civil rights literature, 3,000 students sat down, immobilizing the police car, until beaten back by police with clubs. The FSM continued to protest the university policy, resulting in the occupation of Sproul Hall on campus on December 2, 1964 and the arrest of almost 800 students. Though large universities like Berkeley and Columbia are famous for dramatic student demonstrations, the wave of protest was nationwide and effected a broad spectrum of colleges. Buildings were occupied and even bombed in institutions from Washington University in Saint Louis to the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Student organizers reasoned that since they were fighting to save lives, both American and Vietnamese, damage to mere property was imminently justified.
Perhaps the most famous example of overreaction to student protest occurred at Ohio's Kent State University in May, 1970. Following an announcement by President Richard Nixon of a new escalation in the war, students across the United States rose up in a series of angry protests. The national guard was called out to control crowds of demonstrators at Kent State, not an unusual practice for frustrated administrators. With little training in handling crowds, overwrought guardsmen fired into the crowd, killing four students and setting off a fresh wave of outraged protests. Fourteen days later, a similar incident at Jackson State University in Mississippi caused the deaths of two students and wounding of nine others. Though these incidents provoked public horror, little investigation was done, and the guardsmen involved were never punished.
While American students were organizing demonstrations across the United States, around the world students in France, Japan, England, Spain, Czechoslovakia, and other countries were also rising up in protest against university or government policies. May and June of 1968, a turbulent year in the United States, saw a nationwide strike of students and workers in France. One of the differences between demonstrations in the United States and those in many other countries, especially in France, was that the European students often allied themselves with labor, protesting in conjunction with working people. In the United States, many working class people viewed protesting students with angry suspicion, as privileged brats who despised their achievements and denigrated their flag. Though some American students sought alliances with working people, others referred to them derisively as "hard-hats" and saw them as the enemy, the arms and voices of unthinking patriotism that supported the state lie and the materialistic American dream. These stereotypes—the wealthy, downwardly-mobile, foul-mouthed hippie and the "America, love it or leave it" narrow-minded hard-hat—often prevented communication between students and laborers that might have revealed their common interests.
There was some truth to the rebel stereotype. Counterculture young men did wear their hair long, both because it was fashionable and to challenge the authority that insisted they cut it. Young women wore their hair long and straight too, and eschewed makeup and bras and often did not shave their legs. Both sexes wore clothes that were casual to the point of raggedness. These styles were adopted by the youth of the 1960s, along with a direct mode of speech liberally peppered with profanity, partially as a reaction against the careful facades of propriety so important to their parents' generation, and partially to conform with the careful facade of impropriety so necessary to the rebel generation. There was a culture of protest and, along with its mandated style of dress and speech, it had its own literature and music. Radicals read Richard Wright's Native Son, Eldridge Cleaver's Fire and Ice, and Angela Davis' speeches in the Guardian. They listened to rock music that was specifically political, like Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and Country Joe and the Fish's "I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," or to music filled with a raw and painful passion, like Janis Joplin and the Doors.
Student protests continue around the world, with each generation defining its style and its issues. SDS activist Tom Hayden described the achievements of his generation grandly, "We ended a war, toppled two presidents, desegregated the South, and broke other barriers of discrimination." While some former protesters of the 1960s might be more jaded as to the long-lasting effects of their efforts, there is no doubt that the idealistic energy of the youth of that period did change history. Richard Nixon later admitted that fears of heightened protest limited his escalation of the war in Vietnam. While racial discrimination clearly still exists in the United States, state-sanctioned segregation no longer does. Shortly after the dramatic demonstrations of 1968, both France and the United States lowered their voting age to 18. The Green Party in Germany continues to fight for the causes that German youth demonstrated for in the 1960s. For a period of a few years, the hippies and activists of the New Left felt sure they could change the world, and that passion is perhaps their greatest legacy.
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Miller, Jim. Democracy is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1994.