Protests of 1968

The Protests of 1968 consisted of a worldwide series of protests, largely led by students and workers. Some observers saw them as a revolutionary wave.


First World

The protests that dominated 1968 were the product of social changes during the twenty years following the end of World War II. After the war most of the world experienced an unusual surge in births, creating a large age demographic. In the First World, these babies were born during a time of peace and prosperity for most countries. Permissive theories of childrearing, popular in the west, taught them that their happiness was important to others. This was the first generation to grow up with television in their homes. Television had a profound effect on this generation in two ways. First, it gave them a common perspective from which to view the world. The children growing up in this era shared not only the news and programs that they watched on television, they also got glimpses of each other’s world. Secondly, television allowed them to experience major public events. Public education was becoming more widely attended and more standardized, creating another shared experience. Chain stores and franchised restaurants were bringing shared shopping and dining experiences to people in different parts of the world. These factors all combined to create a generation that was more self-aware and more united as a group than the generations before it.

Waves of social movements throughout the 1960’s began to shape the values of the generation that were college students during 1968. In America, the Civil Rights Movement was at its most violent. So, too, in Northern Ireland, where it paved the way for an organised revolt against British occupation. Italy and France were in the midst of a socialist movement. The New Left political movement was causing political upheavals in many European and South American countries. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict had already started. Great Britain’s anti-war movement was very strong and African independence was a continuing struggle. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War was another shared experience of this generation. The knowledge that a nuclear attack could end their life at any moment was reinforced with classroom bomb drills creating an atmosphere of fear. As they became older teens the anti-war movement and the feminist movement were becoming a force in much of the world. The feminist movement made the generation question their belief that the family was more important than the individual. The peace movement made them question and distrust authority even more that then they had already. By the time they started college many were part of the anti-establishment culture and became the impetus for a wave of rebellion that started on college campuses and swept the world.

The college students of 1968 embraced the New Left politics. Their socialist leanings and distrust of authority led to many of the 1968 conflicts. The dramatic events of the year showed both the popularity and limitations of New Left ideology, a radical leftist movement that was also deeply ambivalent about its relationship to communism during the middle and later years of the Cold War.

Socialist states

Protests were held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia as the first mass protest after the Second World War.

The Protests

The protests that raged throughout 1968 were for the most part student led. World wide, campuses became the front-line battle grounds for social change. While anti-war protests dominated the protests, students also protested for civil liberties, against racism, for feminism, and the beginnings of the ecological movement can be traced to the protests against biological and nuclear weapons during this year. Television, so influential in forming the political identity of this generation became the tool of choice for the revolutionaries. They fought their battles not just on college campuses but also on the television screen by courting media coverage.

Mexico City, West Berlin, Rome and many U.S. cities saw relatively small protests against university administrations. Some countries, like Spain, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Brazil had more widespread protests against repressive governments. In Paris, Italy and Argentina, the students were joined by the labor unions. The German student movements were largely a reaction against the perceived authoritarianism and hypocrisy of the German government and other Western governments, particularly in relation to the poor living conditions of students. In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement had turned away from the south and toward the cities in the north with the issues of open housing and the Black Consciousness Movement. The Black movement unified as a movement and gained international recognition with the emergence of the Black Power and Black Panthers organizations and their support of violence as a means of protest.

  • Students at the University of Madrid protested the involvement of police in student demonstrations, protested the Dictator Francisco Franco’s regime, and demonstrated about trade unions and worker rights.
  • Students in 108 German universities protested for recognition of East Germany, the removal of government officials with Nazi pasts and for the rights of students.
  • In what became known as Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia’s first secretary Alexander Dubček began a period of reform, which gave way to outright civil protest, only ending when the USSR invaded the country in August.
  • In January, police used clubs on 400 anti-war protestors outside of a dinner for Secretary of State Rusk.
  • On January 30, 300 student protesters from the University of Warsaw and the National Theater School were beaten with clubs by state arranged anti-protestors.
  • On February 8, a civil rights protest in Orangeburg, South Carolina turns deadly with the death of 3 college students.
  • In February, protests by professors at the German University of Bonn demanded the resignation of the university’s president because of his involvement in the building of concentration camps during the war.
  • In February, students from Harvard, Radcliff, and Boston University held a four-day hunger strike to protest the war.
  • 10,000 West Berlin students held a sit-in against American involvement in Vietnam.
  • Canada protested the war by mailing 5,000 copies of the paperback, Manual for Draft Age Immigrants to Canada to the United States.
  • On March 8, the 1968 Polish political crisis began with students from the University of Warsaw who marched for student rights and were beaten with clubs. The next day over two thousand students marched in protest of the police involvement on campus and were clubbed and arrested again. By March 11, the general public had joined the protest in violent confrontations with students and police in the streets. The government fought a propaganda campaign against the protestors, labeling them Zionists. The twenty days of protest ended when the state closed all of the universities and arrested more than a thousand students. Most Polish Jews left the country to avoid persecution by the government.
  • In March, students in North Carolina organized a sit-in at a local lunch counter that spread to 15 cities.
  • In March, Italian students closed the University of Rome for 12 days during an anti-war protest.
  • On March 17 an anti-war demonstration in Grosvenor Square, London ended with 86 people injured and 200 demonstrators arrested.
  • Japanese students protested the presence of the American military in Japan because of the Vietnam war.
  • In March, Great Britain students had turned violent in their anti-war protests physically attacking the British defense secretary, the secretary of state for education and the Home Secretary.
  • On March 6, 500 New York University (NYU) students demonstrated against Dow Chemical because the company was the principal manufacturer of napalm, used by the U.S. military in Vietnam.
  • In April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, sparking violent protests in more than 115 American cities, notably Louisville, Baltimore and Washington, D.C..
  • On April 23, students at Columbia University protested the school’s allegedly racist policies, 3 school officials were taken hostage for 24 hours. This was just one of a number of Columbia University protests of 1968.
  • The admittance of the South African team brought the issue of apartheid to the 1968 Summer Olympics. After more than 40 teams threatened to boycott the committee reconsidered again banned the South African team. The Olympics were targeted as a venue to bring the Black Movement into public view. The entire summer was a series of escalating conflicts between Mexican students and the police.
  • In April, students from the University of Madrid shut down the university for 38 days as a result of a protest of a mass for Adolf Hitler and students protesting the military dictatorship were killed in Brazil.
  • On April 20th Enoch Powell makes an anti-immigration speech that sparks demonstrations throughout England. His Rivers of Blood speech helped define immigration as a political issue and helped legitimize anti-immigration sentiment.
  • The French May protests, started with French student protests over university reform and escalated into a month long protest. The trade unions joined the protest resulting in a general strike.
  • In August, the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was disrupted when the new Youth International Party protested the war. Chicago’s mayor escalated the riots with excessive police presence and by ordering up the National Guard and the army to suppress the protests.
  • In September, the women’s liberation movement gained international recognition when it demonstrated at the annual Miss America Beauty pageant. The week-long protest and its disruption of the pageant gained the movement much needed attention in the press.
  • On October 2, after a summer of protests against the Mexican government and the occupation of the central campus of the National Autonomous University by the army, a student demonstration in Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City ended with police, paratroopers and paramilitary units firing on students, killing over a hundred persons.
  • In October, the Rodney Riots in Kingston, Jamaica were inspired when the Jamaican government of Hugh Shearer banned Guyanese university lecturer Dr. Walter Rodney from returning to his teaching position at the University of the West Indies. Rodney, a historian of Africa had been active in the Black power movement, and had been sharply critical of the middle class in many Caribbean countries. Rodney was an avowed socialist who worked with the poor of Jamaica in an attempt to raise their political and cultural consciousness.

Movements that began in 1968

The environmental movement can trace its beginnings back to the protests of 1968. The environmental movement evolved from the anti-nuclear movement. France was particularly involved in environmental concerns. In 1968, the French Federation of Nature Protection Societies and the French branch of Friends of the Earth were formed and the French scientific community organized Survivre et Vivre (Survive and Live). The Nordic countries were at the forefront of environmentalism. In Sweden, the students protested against hydro-electric plans. In Denmark and the Netherlands environmental action groups protested about pollution and other environmental issues.



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