Student Protesters: Then and Now

College students played a significant role in Wisconsin protests over scaled-back labor-union rights. And Egypt's recent political transformation would not have been possible without the support of students in that country. Learn how events like these fit within the history and heritage of student activism.

By Douglas Fehlen

student protest activism history legacy heritage social change Egypt Wisconsin Iran May 1968 United Kingdom Italy rally rallies Tianamen Square China

Influencing History

There is a rich history of social activism on campuses across the United States and around the world. While select aspects of its roots extend back to before 1950, the student protest movement really crystallized in the second half of the 20th century. It was during this time that students began to get more politically active and mobilize in larger numbers.

In the United States, young people began to conceptualize colleges as prospective agents for social change in the 1960s. One of the first major groups to emerge was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a collective of individuals championing civil rights, anti-war policies and free speech. The SDS and other groups carried out widespread student strikes and campus protests that effectively shut down universities. These events ultimately became extremely heated and often resulted in violent clashes with authorities, epitomized by the Kent State shootings in 1970.

It was not only in the United States that violence marred student protests. In the U.K., progressive students of the New Left, aligned with the anti-war movement, routinely were exposed to police clubbings during rallies. And perhaps the most contentious - and iconic - event from student protest history occurred in May of 1968 on the streets of Paris and other French cities. Joined by striking workers, students occupied buildings and combated police for two weeks while calling for the dismantling of Western capitalism and authoritarianism. Inspired by French students, protests quickly followed in other countries across Europe and around the world.

student protest activism history legacy heritage social change Egypt Wisconsin Iran May 1968 United Kingdom Italy rally rallies Tianamen Square China

A Powerful Legacy

Student protests may have been at their most active in the 1960s and 1970s, but that doesn't mean a lot of compelling events haven't occurred in the intervening years. Anyone who has seen images of the Tiananmen Square massacre - which occurred in Beijing, China, in 1989 - knows the length to which students will endanger themselves for a cause. In this case, young people and workers protested against the communist government for seven weeks before soldiers took the area with tanks. In all, somewhere between several hundred and several thousand people were killed.

Similar grit and determination has been shown by other students looking for government reform. Protesting Serbian students bore the blows of police batons while protesting in the country's major cities after widespread election fraud in 1996. In Iran, many students met an even worse fate amidst six days of protest in 1999. Rallies following raids on a student dorm in which a person was killed were put down by government officials, but only after additional student deaths and imprisonings. More recently in Iran, the 2009 Green Revolution directed against President Ahmadinejad's reelection was also infused with students.

Students continue to protest today. Many significant resistance events have occurred in the past year, including rallies in the U.S., the U.K. and Italy mobilized against cuts to education. Young people who are now in school stand to accumulate a greater financial burden if cuts to higher ed go through. In some cases, tuition and fee increases are likely to be catastrophic enough so as to price select students out of postsecondary education. To address this issue and others, committed groups of students are sure to continue raising their voices in protest.

Learn about recent efforts by students to highlight the importance of funding higher education.

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