30 famous student protests
Student activism has a long history in the United States, as well as the rest of the world. From pre-Civil Rights demonstrations in the early 20th century to anti-gun marches last year, young people have gone to great lengths over time to make their voices heard—sometimes risking their lives doing so. Student protesters have come in all races, classes, genders, and nationalities. Their ages have ranged from middle school kids to graduate students, and protests have taken place everywhere from public universities to Ivy League schools. The common denominator has been the students' dedication to social justice.
In the United States, student activists have advocated for a wide range of issues including women's rights, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, peace and democracy, reproductive rights, affordable education, debt-free tuition, police accountability, gun control, and more. Globally, there has been a huge trend toward pro-democracy activism, and some of the biggest revolutions have originated with students.
The responses from authorities have varied. In some cases, the young people have been allowed to protest freely, while others have been silenced and suppressed, sometimes violently. History is full of examples of police and military forces breaking up peaceful protests employing batons, tear gas, beatings, and even gunfire. Ironically, the violence has often only served to call greater attention to the subject of the protest, drawing previously uninvolved people into the movement. Even in instances where authorities have succeeded in silencing the activists, the moves have typically only pushed the students underground.
To pay tribute to some of the young people who've taken risks on behalf of what they believe in, Stacker has put together a slideshow featuring the most famous student protests in history. Each showcased here was started by students or young activists and made major headlines. Take a look to see which ones you recognize.
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1901: Września School Strike in Poland
When German school officials announced in March 1901 that religion classes at the Catholic People's School in Września, an annexed section of Poland, would be held in German, more than 100 students launched a protest. They rejected the German textbooks, suffering detention and beatings as a result. On May 20, 1901, a large crowd of students and parents was dispersed in front of the school and many of the adults were jailed. Over the next three years, trials unfolded while kids continued striking, at least two of whom were beaten to death.
1924-25: Fisk University protests
American Students at the historically black Fisk University in the mid-1920s launched a massive protest against the school's white president, Fayette McKenzie, who'd taken extreme measures—including shutting down the student newspaper and banning most extracurricular activities— to court donors. When alumnus W.E.B. Du Bois, then a rising star with a daughter at the college, visited the campus in 1924, he called out the president in a speech from the chapel: “Men and women of Black America: Let no decent Negro send his child to Fisk until Fayette McKenzie goes.” The speech prompted months of student strikes, marking some of the first black student-led activism and serving as a precursor to the Civil Rights movement.
1930s: UCLA anti-establishment protests
More than 3,000 students at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1934 took to the streets to protest after five students were suspended amid the West Coast “red scare” for alleged communist affiliations. They threw a police officer in the bushes but no arrests were made. Meanwhile, with another war on the horizon, students at their sister school, UC Berkeley, launched protests of their own.
1942: White Rose Society resistance in Germany
As fascism was unfolding in Nazi Germany, a group of students at the University of Munich got together in the summer of 1942 to form a resistance movement that came to be known as the White Rose Society. The group anonymously handed out fliers admonishing Adolf Hitler's regime and decrying the persecution of the Jews. In less than a year, however, the Gestapo had arrested most of the organization's key members and put the young activists on trial in kangaroo courts, sentencing many to death.
1956: Hungarian Revolution student marches
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 may never have unfolded had an organized group of student protesters not marched through the streets of Budapest on Oct. 23, carrying loudspeakers and chanting, “This we swear, this we swear, that we will no longer be slaves.” After reading an anti-communist proclamation demanding an independent Hungary, students stormed the radio building near the Hungarian Parliament, prompting police to open fire. The violence killed one student and marked the first bloodshed in the revolution that ultimately toppled the Soviet government.
1960: Japan's Anpo protests
In 1960, the United States and Japan began talks to amend a treaty known as “Anpo” (Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security) which pledged U.S. defensive support in exchange for Japanese land use. The negotiations drew ire from citizens, some of whom worried it would start another war. Over the course of six months, student protesters broke into the prime minister's private home, occupied the airport to ground his plane, and faced off with police using water cannons. At one point a University of Tokyo student was killed. The treaty was still ratified but the activists succeeded in pressuring the prime minister to resign.
1960-68: U.S. civil rights protests (Greensboro to Columbia)
While there were student-led civil rights protests in the years that preceded and followed, it was from 1960 to 1968 that the height of college civil rights activism flourished in the United States. The first major student-led event occurred when a group of African-American students refused to leave a Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C., launching a series of sit-ins throughout the South. Student protests continued over the next eight years, and by 1968 they were at a boiling point. The movement culminated with an uprising at Columbia University, where more than 1,000 protesters took over five buildings and the dean was taken hostage. The events at Columbia were later called “the most powerful and effective student protest in modern American history."
1962: Rangoon University protests in Myanmar
On July 2, 1962, after a military coup overthrew parliament, students at Rangoon University in Myanmar (then Burma), gathered to voice their opposition to the new regime led by General Ne Win. The school had long been a hub for student activism but Win's military regime shut it down quickly, killing more than 100 protesters and blowing up the student union building. The universities were closed and when they reopened four months later, they were under strict government control. Student activists went underground for more than two decades, meeting quietly but not resurging in public with any great numbers until the 8888 Uprising of 1988, named for Aug. 8, 1988.
1965-75: U.S. Vietnam War protests (SDS Teach-ins to Kent State)
Although the Vietnam War started a decade earlier, it wasn't until the mid-1960s that the U.S. student movements picked up steam when the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) began orchestrating widespread “teach-ins” to voice opposition to the war tactics being used by the U.S. government. The first of these occurred in 1965 at the University of Michigan. By 1970, tensions hit a boiling point with the Kent State tragedy in which four students were killed by the National Guard, inspiring the Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young hit “Ohio” the following year.
1968: Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City
During the summer of 1968, unrest boiled in Mexico City as it prepared to host the Olympics. In an effort to present a good face to the world, President Gustavo Díaz carried out oppressive suppression tactics, particularly with regard to labor unions. Students from multiple universities organized, holding numerous demonstrations over the summer. On Oct. 2, 10 days before the games were to start, a large group marched into the plaza to hold another peaceful protest. This time, troops opened fire, killing 300 to 400 people in what came to be known as the Tlatelolco massacre. The next day, the government-controlled media painted the incident as a violent student protest; however, many now cite that day as the first in Mexico's transition to democracy.