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The Student Movement of the 1960s

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  • 1:14 Rise of the New Left
  • 2:19 Tackling Racial…
  • 3:23 Student Movement on…
  • 5:21 Protesting the Vietnam War
  • 7:27 Fracturing of the…
  • 8:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The societal disillusion felt by the younger generation of the 1950s was translated into a massive student movement during the 1960s. Learn about the formation of the movement, its campaigns and its inevitable end.

Origins

The beginning of the student movement, which arose during the 1960s, can be traced back to the post-Second World War era of the 1950s. The older generation, those who survived the depression and war years, viewed the 1950s as a period of security. It was a time of peace and relative prosperity for the nation.

Yet, the youth culture of the period viewed the era in vastly different terms. Many believed that the 1950s represented a period of complacency, stagnation and authoritarianism. The younger generation was largely dismayed with the notion that little was being done by authorities to prevent future wars from taking place. They rebelled against the notion of conspicuous consumption, which is spending in order to show off one's wealth. Additionally, the plight of African Americans was seen as an incredible social injustice that was being ignored by their elders.

It is important for you to remember that the catalyst for the rise of the student movement is attributed to the desire to end the conformist culture of the 1950s, and to liberate African Americans from the social inequality and persecution that they faced. The ideas of the younger generation of the 1950s were translated into action during the 1960s.

Rise of the New Left

At the beginning of the 1960s, disillusioned college students banded together to form a new and greater political movement known as the New Left. It was called this because its members separated themselves from the Old Left, which rejected change in favor of the status quo, while rejecting the extremist conservative right. The most recognizable political organization that developed within the New Left movement was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). It is important to note that the antithesis to the New Left and organizations like SDS was the Young Americans for Freedom; while not as large as the SDS, it projected a conservative approach.

Members of the New Left rejected a government led by a few elected officials in favor of participatory democracy, which called for decision-making by all Americans. The belief was that this type of grassroots effort was the only way to address the growing societal ills of the United States. The notion of participatory democracy was developed by SDS leaders Tom Hayden and Al Haber and issued via the Port Huron Statement in 1962. This manifesto was the template for the student movement throughout the rest of the 1960s.

Tackling Racial Injustice and Poverty

The first major initiative of the New Left was to address the largely ignored racial injustice and poverty within the United States. Members from SDS joined other student groups, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 and the Freedom Riders in 1961, in an attempt to eliminate the deep-seated racism and discrimination found in the Deep South. These same individuals from SDS would also join prominent equal rights groups, such as the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). More in-depth information in regards to the students and the civil rights movement can be found within other lessons in this chapter.

Aside from addressing racial discrimination, the student movement attempted to engage in a highly idealist program of improving American cities. In the spring of 1964, students marched into urban ghettos, Newark and Detroit to name a couple, under the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) in order to revitalize the area and find meaningful work for those who were impoverished. Unfortunately, the campaign failed, not because it didn't have the support of students, but because the task was too large for a grassroots organization to handle.

Student Movement on United States Campuses

Another large aspect of the student movement was the lengthy battle against the old guard college administrators. Students viewed administrators as being a part of the consensus culture of the older generation. Administrators had supported unfavorable concepts, such as 'in loco parentis', or in place of the parent, meaning the college assumed the role as the students' mother and father. Additionally, administrators supported dress codes, appropriated funding for research related to the Vietnam War and curbed students' free speech.

The tipping point came during the fall semester in 1964 at the University of California, Berkeley. Students who supported the civil rights movement in the South were actively campaigning for volunteers on the campus. However, administrators decided to terminate the students' recruiting efforts. Students decided to defy the administration and continue to recruit for the civil rights movement, regardless of the implications. Yet, when administrators began arresting students for violating the university decree, a sizable revolt formed.

The student revolt against the intransigence of the Berkeley administration became known as the Free Speech Movement (FSM). The FSM was led by student activist Mario Savio, who organized dozens of sit-ins, public protests and issued the infamous 'Bodies Upon the Gears' speech in order to protect the student's right to free speech and the ability to recruit for the civil rights movement. The student-led Free Speech Movement became a catalyst for additional protest on college campuses throughout the United States.

For example, another prominent form of protest against what was viewed by students as racial discrimination came in 1968 when students commandeered several buildings at Columbia University. This was done in opposition to the Columbia University's desire to expand the institution onto lands that had been typically reserved for the surrounding black neighborhood residents. Students objected to dress codes, dorm hours, racial discrimination and college administrators acting in place of the parent. Students wanted the ability to break away from the old guard establishment in favor of creating a new way of learning and living on college campuses.

Protesting the Vietnam War

The first third of the 1960s student movement was dedicated to resolving issues involving civil rights, poverty and liberating college students. By 1965, the tide of protest changed for students as they began focusing on the war in Vietnam. 1965 was the year of escalation in the war; President Lyndon Johnson introduced the first ground troops in March, followed by a massive increase in July.

At first, students gathered to protest the war in general. They chided the war as an unnecessary display of imperialism by the United States. Students rejected the notion of protecting Southeast Asia from communist aggression, especially when there were unresolved issues within the United States that were more important. Protests generally occurred via sit-in (March 24 and 25 was the first nationally recognized anti-war sit-in at the University of Michigan) and mass gathering (the largest antiwar gathering at the time occurred on April 17, 1965 in Washington, D.C. where 25,000 students protested).

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