© David Wilson

Background to 68 student movements in the United States

avril 2018

On 23 April 1968, students at Columbia University occupied the first of several campus administration buildings they were to seize over the week, holding acting dean Henry S. Coleman hostage for 24 hours.
These students were protesting two of the most pressing issues of the day: social inequality and the ongoing war in Vietnam. The actions at Columbia were mirrored by student and popular unrest across the country in a politically charged election year.


Par Matthew Baker

The student body more than doubled in size in the 1960s due to post-war government initiatives1. Students in 1968 had come of age in the 1950s and early 1960s. While post-war prosperity had brought signs of affluence including the television as well as youth-centered music such as Elvis Presley and later the Beatles, students in the late-1960s also witnessed the near annihilation of the planet during the Cuban missile crisis, the shock of the Kennedy assassination, as well as increasing unrest surrounding ongoing social injustice. Television brought events home like never before. From the mid-1960s, much student attention was focused on the escalating war in Vietnam, which was being broadcast nightly on TV.

Unlike the events of May 1968 in France, which attracted the support of other disaffected sectors in society (for example workers), the mainstream reaction in the United States was often unfavorable to protests surrounding civil rights and peace, even as the war in Vietnam grew unpopular. The presidential elections of 1968 saw the victory of a candidate promising a return to law and order. Police sent in to control protesting students often saw them as spoiled members of the middle or upper classes, and held little sympathy for the concerns of those they were sent to contain. Yet student protesters were often encouraged by the success of their actions in winning concessions from their university and in the attention they drew to their causes.

The Columbia protests followed a nationwide “ten days of resistance”, organized by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) against the war in Vietnam. The SDS formed in 1960 around the nuclear arms race. Their political manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, was signed in Port Huron, Michigan in 1962 and confirmed the group’s dedication to “radical change”2. As the decade progressed this group increasingly became the main student voice for racial equality and against the Vietnam war. While SDS membership reached a peak of 100,000 students in the autumn of 19683 it eventually dissolved into numerous factions, including the more radical Weathermen, in 1969.

The occupations at Columbia, led by the local SDS chapter and Student Afro Society, were similarly sparked by racial injustice and the war in Vietnam. In particular, many students were upset over the University’s association with a think-tank with close ties to the Pentagon - the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) - as well as a planned gymnasium between Harlem and Morningside Heights, which raised concerns of segregation in the community. After days of negotiations, the protesters were forced out by New York City police on 30 April. Yet these protests did achieve their aims in that Columbia agreed to disassociate itself from IDA and abandoned plans for the Morningside Heights gymnasium, and students saw in the aftermath that their actions could lead to change.

  • 1. University enrollment more than doubled from 3.6 million students in 1960 to 7.9 million in 1970 - Thelin, 2011
  • 2. Gitlin, 1993
  • 3. DeBenedetti, 1990

Civil rights

On 8 February 1968, South Carolina police killed 3 and injured 27 people on the campus of South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, following nearly one week of unrest over the continuing segregation of the All Star Bowling Lane.

Segregation, practiced in much of the South since Reconstruction, had been gradually eroded through a series of court decisions in the 1950s including Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Yet enforcing anti-segregation legislation against the opposition of local populations and police was harder, and segregation continued into the 1960s.

Through acts of civil disobedience, including “sit-ins” at segregated lunch counters or the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963) and the Selma to Montgomery marches (1965), civil rights activists highlighted the continued problems of racial inequality. For example, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in 1960 by Ella Baker, organised “Freedom Rides” from 1961 to desegregate public transportation. Police and local populations often reacted brutally to such demonstrations, which nevertheless helped achieve notable legislative victories including the Civil Rights Act (1964)4.

Dr. Martin Luther King was instrumental in organizing several of the major protests of the period starting with the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–1956). Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his emphasis on non-violent resistance to racial segregation, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on 4 April 1968. News of King’s assassination sparked riots in over 100 cities, including Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

“Race riots” had increased in intensity since 1963, with major riots in Watts (Los Angeles) in 1965, or Newark and Detroit in the “long hot summer” of 1967.

As the 1960s progressed, the emphasis on non-violence, promoted by the SNCC and Martin Luther King, gave way to a more radical approach. The “Black Power” movement was largely influenced by Malcolm X in stressing self-determination rather than assimilation into mainstream society. The Black Panther Party, formed in Oakland, California in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton with the idea of protecting the African-American population against police brutality, were among the better known groups in the Black Power movement.

The Black Panthers were strongly anti-imperialist and active in the third world movements on US campuses, in addition to providing social services to local communities such as a free breakfast programme. Their objectives are laid out in the  "Ten-point programme" (1966).

Racial inclusion was the source of numerous campus protests across the country, including: at the University of Michigan where the Black Student Union occupied the administration building (9 April); Northwestern University where students occupied the bursar’s office over segregation in housing and the low levels of African American student recruitment (3 May); New York University where Kimball Hall was occupied over the firing of the head of the newly established King Student Center for African-American students (18 October); UC Berkeley where students occupied various UC Berkeley buildings in response to the University’s refusal to allow Black Panther spokesman Eldridge Cleaver to lecture in an accredited course (23 October); and Brown University where African-American students walked out on 5 December after Brown University refused to raise admissions rates of African-American students, to name a few.

On 1 November 1968, George Mason Murray, English teacher and Black Panther Minister for Education, was suspended from teaching for remarks considered incendiary by the San Francisco State University administration. On 6 November 1968 the Black Student Union and “Third World Liberation Front” began a five-month strike which closed the university until 20 March 1969.  In addition to improve African-American representation on campus, protesters demanded a programme of study dedicated to all ethnic groups. This led to the establishment of the College of Ethnic Studies in 1969, the first of its kind at a US university5.

The region around San Francisco was a hotbed of anti-war, civil rights activity throughout the 1960s, particularly at Berkeley. Governor and future president Ronald Reagan had promised during his 1966 gubernatorial campaign to “clean up the mess at Berkeley”6, following protests inspired by the Free Speech Movement. Berkeley mayor Wallace Johnson declared a state of emergency and a three day curfew on 30 June 1968 following days of protest in support of the strikes in Paris.

  • 4. Ransby, 2003
  • 5. Whitsun, s. d.
  • 6. Kahn, Jeffery. Ronald Reagan launched his political career using the Berkeley campus as a political target.

Vietnam war

The war in Vietnam was a focus for resistance at Berkeley like at campuses elsewhere. For example on 17 May, a “Vietnam Commencement” ceremony, at which students signed an agreement refusing to participate in the war, was held on campus against the strong opposition of governor Reagan.

The year 1968 marked a turning point in popular attitudes towards the war in Vietnam. On 30 January 1968, Việt Cộng and North Vietnamese forces launched a series of surprise attacks which coincided with the Vietnamese New Year, or Tết. While this offensive failed to achieve its objective of inspiring further uprisings in South Vietnam, the ability of the Việt Cộng and North Vietnamese forces to carry out such a sustained attack - with images of Việt Cộng guerrillas attacking major urban targets such as the US embassy in Saigon - eventually convinced a significant portion of the US population that the war was unwinnable.

The US military presence reached a peak of nearly 550,000 soldiers in 1968, with one-third of those who fought being drafted. The Military Selective Service Act of 1967 provided a draft exemption for students enrolled in full-time study (II-S : Registrant deferred because of activity in study), until "such person completes the requirements for his baccalaureate degree, fails to pursue satisfactorily a fulltime course of instruction, or attains the twenty-fourth anniversary of the date of his birth, whichever first occurs”7. Continuing in undergraduate education became a priority for many who wished to avoid becoming eligible for conscription, although graduate students needed to either be enrolled by 1 October 1967 or follow a course deemed in the national interest to remain exempt from the draft.

Numerous offices associated with the war were attacked across the country and on US campuses in 1968. For example, the offices of the CIA were bombed in Ann Arbor, Michigan on 1 September, while on many other campuses the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC)  and selective services were particularly targeted, for example at Stanford (8 May), Berkeley (13 September), San Francisco State College (14 October), and at the University of Wisconsin (2 October), among others8.

  • 7. Eligibility of Graduate Students for Student and Fatherhood Draft Deferments, 37 Fordham L. Rev. 617 (1969)
  • 8. Hewitt, 2005

1968 presidential elections

The 1968 elections were held against the backdrop of domestic unrest, and ended in the election of a candidate promising a return to stability.

The Democratic primaries were opened up on 31 March 1968, when president Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not seek the Democratic party nomination in that year’s elections. A Democrat from Texas, Johnson pursued a progressive social agenda but became increasingly tied down by the war in Vietnam. Robert Kennedy, senator from New York and younger brother of former-president John F. Kennedy, had been considered favorite to win the nomination on a pro-civil rights platform, challenged only by anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the prized California Democratic primary on 5 June 1968.

Johnson’s vice president Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination amid the turbulence of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, despite not having won in the primaries.

The Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago, served as a magnet for numerous anti-war groups, including the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam ("the Mobe") and Youth International Party (Yippies). Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley led a heavy-handed police response which, joined by the Illinois National Guard, clashed with protesters around Lincoln Park and Grant Park. These clashes, later referred to as the Battle of Chicago, were heavily mediatised, with chants such as “the whole world is watching”, while Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff denounced the “gestapo tactics” of the Chicago police.  Riots outside the convention center were mirrored by tensions within as delegates were often violently opposed to each other’s positions.

By contrast, Richard Nixon’s law and order acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, in which he devised a “southern strategy”, was intended to reassure mainstream voters concerned with ongoing unrest and to attract votes from those opposed to Johnson’s policies of integration. Nixon won the 1968 election, held on 5 November, by 302 electoral votes to 191 electoral votes for Hubert Humphrey. Alabama governor George Wallace ran as an independent on a pro-segregation platform, winning 46 electoral votes.


Campus protests continued to escalate after 1968, with more student occupations in 1969 and the tragic shootings on the campuses of Kent State University and Jackson State College in 1970. The SDS broke apart to form the bomb-planting Weather Underground in 1969, among other groups. But the urgency of the anti-war movement subsided with the Paris Peace Accords, which on 27 January 1973 ended the war in Vietnam.

The 1970s has been referred to as the “hangover” of the 1960s. Images of staff fleeing by helicopter from the rooftop of the US embassy in Saigon before the city’s takeover by North Vietnamese troops in April 1975 added to economic recession following the 1973 oil embargo and political uncertainty with Watergate and Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Additionally, race riots continued throughout the 1970s and beyond along with racial injustice.

Nixon’s main challenger for the Republican party nomination in 1968 was California governor Ronald Reagan, who went on to shape US politics in the 1980s, when students from the late 1960s began assuming positions of responsibility in business and government, with three becoming president: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

The “Vietnam Syndrome” was said to be cured by the Iraq war of 1991, in which president George Bush urged support for the soldiers called on to fight regardless of one’s feelings on the war itself. This and the second war in Iraq were met with a much more muted response on US campuses than in 1968, possibly since conscription was discontinued after the war in Vietnam and not in place in 1991 or 2003. Meanwhile, the response to continued racial injustice has been more active, with unrest flaring up most recently over the police shootings of African-Americans.

The student movements of the 1960s offered lessons, but not solutions, to many ongoing problems. Others, such as the rights of women or LGBT+ students, which were yet to have a significant impact on campuses in 1968, have grown to play an important role in the intervening 50 years.


Matthew Baker is head librarian at Sciences Po Campus in Reims.

Références bibliographiques

CARTER, David Charles. The music has gone out of the movement : civil rights and the Johnson administration, 1965-1968. Chapel Hill (N.C.) : University of North Carolina Press, 2009, xv-359 p.
Notice détaillée : <http://catalogue.sciencespo.fr/ark:/46513/sc0001182672>
RANSBY, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black freedom movement : a radical democratic vision. Chapel Hill (N.C.) : University of North Carolina Press, 2003, XVII-470 p. (Gender and American culture,
Notice détaillée : <http://catalogue.sciencespo.fr/ark:/46513/sc0000525031>
BLOOM, Joshua. MARTIN, Waldo E.. Black against empire : the history and politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley : University of California Press, 2013, 529 p. (The George Gund Foundation imprint in African American studies,
Notice détaillée : <http://catalogue.sciencespo.fr/ark:/46513/sc0001239785>
DEBENEDETTI, Charles. CHATFIELD, Charles. An American ordeal: the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era. Syracuse, N.Y. : Syracuse University Press, 1990, XVI-495 p. (Syracuse studies on peace and conflict resolution,
Notice détaillée : <http://catalogue.sciencespo.fr/ark:/46513/sc0000044304>