Campus Revolts in the 1960s

A complex set of issues originating in the 1950s formed the background of the most extensive and influential decade of campus revolts in recent history. Cold War militarism, authoritarianism, and colonialism in East and West collided with democratic ideas well in advance of the democratizing potential of even the most open societies. At the same time, social and cultural trends that once concerned a tiny vanguard now became part of mass YOUTH CULTURE. Intellectual liberation was accompanied by sexual trends in conflict with the traditional structure of the family. The scene was set for an assault on conformism and intolerance in its many guises. The coming of age of the BABY BOOM GENERATION, and university institutions ill-accustomed to mass enrollment by students from a variety of social (and in the United States also ethnic) backgrounds provided the context. The momentum necessary for mass mobilization came from a continuous series of confrontations occasionally sparked by minor issues and culminating in the worldwide events of 1967 and 1968.

The United States

Even when universities were not the sites for actual rebellions in this period, they were the sites for organizing mass actions carried out elsewhere. In the United States, student radicalism first focused on the problem of nuclear disarmament; and the Student Peace Union, formed in 1959, staged a march on Washington in 1962. Meanwhile, students participated in the Greensboro sit-ins in February 1960, which helped bring racial segregation in the South to national attention. In the spring the same year, students at the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated against local hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, clarifying the divide between conventional politics and student politics. While the Kennedy administration attempted to tap some of the energy of student activism, in 1960 the more radical students formed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) led, for a time, by Tom Hayden.

Civil rights and the Vietnam War headed the agenda of the student movement in subsequent years. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee collaborated with the Congress of Racial Equality in the mass registration of African-American voters in Mississippi and other Southern states in summer of 1964. Some of these students, returning to the University of California at Berkeley that fall, rebelled against university administration attempts to curtail political activities on campus. The rebellion, which went on through the end of the term and involved mass meetings, tense negotiations with university and city officials, and clashes with police, set the pattern for similar rebellions elsewhere. While the Berkeley revolt was in progress, SDS began to organize an antiwar march on Washington, D.C., for the following year.

The escalation of the war effort in Vietnam was accompanied by a corresponding increase in the incisiveness of the protest. The 1967–1968 academic year opened with a sit-in at the University of Wisconsin to protest chemical weapons, soon followed by a siege of the Oakland military induction center near Berkeley and a massive march on the Pentagon. In February, demonstrations for civil rights and better facilities to accommodate black students ended in violent confrontations at the University of South Carolina at Orange-burg. Howard University students protesting police violence at Orangeburg demanded a "black university" and other changes at the University of South Carolina at Orangeburg. Similar actions on campus soon afterwards at Bowie State in Maryland were repressed by the police. A combination of civil rights and antiwar issues characterized the April 23, 1968, uprising at Columbia University, the second largest after Berkeley. In August, students demanding troop withdrawal and supporting the antiwar candidacy of Eugene Mc-Carthy for the Democratic nomination staged demonstrations in Chicago, where the party's national convention was being held. Confrontations with police there reached unprecedented levels of violence, helping to guarantee public support for Richard Nixon in the next presidential elections. Even before the war ended, the tragic showdown between students and police at Kent State in May 1970, where four students were killed, served to discourage further violent confrontations for a time.


From a European perspective, the Vietnam War seemed to symbolize the worst effects of Western militarization and colonialism, while U.S. student actions off- and on-campus showed the potential for mass mobilization. The pattern of confrontation spread rapidly from place to place. European protests also involved concerns about crowded, impersonal universities and about shaky job prospects, along with ideology that attacked the shallowness of consumer societies and continuing class barriers to university access.

In France, the rift between the De Gaulle regime and student politics had begun to grow in 1960, when the National Students Union (UNEF) declared its support for Algerian independence. In 1963, rumblings of discontent culminated in the Sorbonne explosion, ostensibly sparked by the breakdown of university structures in the face of growing enrollments. After a day of struggle between 10,000 Sorbonne students and 4,500 police, some 300,000 students in the nation's twenty-three universities went on strike, along with half the professors. The following year, on the occasion of a university tour by the Italian president, who was accompanied by the intransigent French education minister Christian Fouchet, University of Paris students and the UNEF organized protests calling for democratic reforms within the universities.

In Britain, protests in 1965 at the London School of Economics were concentrated against white rule in Rhodesia. In Italy, the first protests, centered at the University of Turin in 1965, began with the question of official recognition for a degree in sociology and spread out to include student governance, curricular reform, and the relevance of instructional programs to contemporary affairs. Likewise at Turin, a seven-month occupation of the university buildings in 1967 began by focusing on university issues and broadened out to include social issues of national concern.

In German universities, student anger reached critical mass in June 1967, when students protesting a state visit by the Shah of Iran were subjected to a previously planned police attack involving brutal beatings and the execution of a bystander. About 20,000 students from throughout West Germany attended the bystander's funeral in Hannover on July 9. The Hannover meeting produced a manifesto connecting police brutality to the authoritarian and exclusionary structure of the German government as well as to the general crisis of the university. The meeting and its outcome propelled the student leader Rudi Dutschke and the Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund (SDS) into prominence. The same year, students formed the Kritische Universität in West Berlin as an alternative to the increasingly bureaucratized Free University, offering student-taught courses.

The 1968 season of student unrest opened in Czechoslovakia. In January, an unpopular neo-Stalinist secretary of the Czech Communist Party was replaced by Alexander Dubcœek, who introduced far-reaching reforms, including democratization within the party, freedom of movement, and freedom of expression. Students played an important role in the Prague Spring of discussion and protest that followed, with calls for a continuation of the reforming line and the dissolution of Communist Party rule. Encouraged by the Prague movement, students in Warsaw, Poland, took the occasion of the banning of a nationalist drama to demonstrate for more freedoms and democratization. The brutal repression of both movements would be a point of reference for student leaders in 1989.

In the West, the power of the student movement in Prague inspired actions chiefly motivated by such issues as NATO demands on Europe, the Vietnam War, and the effects of U.S. policies in the Middle East. In Rome, the via Giulia riots led to 250 student arrests. Next came Germany, where Rudi Dutschke was shot and severely wounded during the suppression of the Easter riots in April, crippling the movement. The same month, University of Copenhagen students demonstrated. In France, expulsion of the student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit from the University of Paris at Nanterre for his organizational activities moved the center of protest once more to the Sorbonne in early May. Police brutality and government intransigence brought the workers over to the side of the demonstrators, and by the end of the month some 10 million French workers were on strike, joining labor issues to the political ones. Only quick concessions by De Gaulle on labor issues, weakening the workers' support for the student movement, avoided political disaster. Inspired by the May events in Paris, outbreaks occurred from June 3 through 10 in Zagreb and Belgrade, Yugoslavia; in Zurich, Switzerland, and in London later that month; and still later in Warwick, United Kingdom, where students discovered documents showing university administrators' investigations into student political activity. Outside Europe, parallel events occurred at the universities in Dakar, Tokyo, Venezuela, Mexico City, and elsewhere.


The significance of the two-year period of protest is still a matter of debate among social historians. Most agree that the immediate results were less important than the long-term consequences. The movements produced few concrete gains besides more open enrollments (in Europe, vastly expanded enrollments), fewer entrance requirements, and greater accountability of universities toward students as consumers. Over the long term, some studies have blamed the movement for driving the radical leftist fringe toward a drastic change in tactics. Disappointed by the failure of the movement to bring about a general revolution, these studies say, some organizers resorted to forming a tiny vanguard of violent operatives dedicated to subverting the system. Examples include the Red Army Faction in Germany, Direct Action in France, the Red Brigades in Italy, and groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Under-ground in the United States. On the positive side, studies have suggested that the movement drew attention to the persistent class divisions that seemed to prevent realization of the democratic dream, while the postwar political parties began to abandon ideology in the general enthusiasm that accompanied the economic boom. It drew attention to the negative side of capitalist development and modern technology, emphasizing the limits to economic growth and highlighting environmental concerns.

See also: Youth Activism.


Erikson, Erik H. 1968. Identity, Youth, and Crisis. New York: Norton.

Feuer, Lewis S. 1969. The Conflict of Generations: The Character and Significance of Student Movements. New York: Basic Books.

Keniston, Kenneth. 1971. Youth and Dissent: The Rise of a New Opposition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Philip G. Altbach, eds. 1969. Studentsin Revolt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Statera, Gianni. 1975. Death of a Utopia: The Development and Decline of Student Movements in Europe. New York: Oxford University Press.