Student Movements (1960s)

The most striking result of the baby boom was the activism of college students during the 1960s. In the United States, the initial impetus for student activism came from the Civil Rights movement. As the decade wore on, students in the United States and elsewhere found more elements of the "establishment" that required political action: the Vietnam War, the draft, and charges that universities were complicit with the military.

The first major student protest organization, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was founded in 1960 by Ella Baker, who had organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for Martin Luther King, Jr. She believed that existing civil rights organizations were out of touch with African-American students who were willing to push the movement further. Also in 1960 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) emerged from the Student League for Industrial Democracy, created in the 1930s to try to build a political left in Great Depression America.

SDS became the central institution of what would soon be called the New Left. In June 1962, 59 SDS members and sympathizers, including some SNCC members, assembled at an AFL-CIO camp in Port Huron, Michigan, to develop a political manifesto.

The resulting Port Huron Statement was written by student Tom Hayden. It suggested that U.S. universities should become the locus for a new movement concerned with empowering individuals and communities.

SNCC was the first of these organizations to achieve national prominence. Its members, who had initiated sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, took part in the Freedom Rides of 1961, testing federal court orders desegregating interstate bus terminals. They conducted voter registration programs in several southern cities and demonstrated against segregation.

In 1964 SNCC and CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) staged "Freedom Summer", during which white college students were invited to teach African-American children and assist with voter registration efforts in Mississippi.

During that summer, three student activists, whites Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and African-American James Chaney, were murdered by white racists. The University of California, Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement began when students returning from Freedom Summer found their university restricting political activity on campus.

White resistance to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act led activists in both SDS and SNCC to see themselves as allies of revolutionaries in the rest of the world and to move further left.

Stokely Carmichael (later Kwami Ture), who became chairman of SNCC in 1966, coined the slogan "Black Power" to express African-American pride, which had the effect of driving white activists out of the organization.

SDS and other white-dominated activist groups had, by this time, become outraged at the escalation of the war in Vietnam. The first "teach-in" against the war took place at the University of Michigan during the spring of 1965. In April a march on Washington organized by SDS drew 20,000 protesters. It was the first of many.

Concentration on antiwar politics had an unforeseen consequence. In 1964 SNCC staffers Mary King and Casey Hayden anonymously circulated a position paper noting male dominance in movement organization.

Later, they publicly raised the importance of feminism in civil rights and antiwar groups. Some men in the movement saw women’s issues as a trivial distraction from their own concerns about the draft. King and Hayden’s work led to women’s caucuses.

In May 1968 youth uprisings in Paris nearly brought down the government of Charles de Gaulle. A general strike led by elite Sorbonne university students, joined by many French workers, decried France’s education system and its role in the Vietnam War.

That same year, Czechoslovakia’s "Prague Spring" tried to implement "socialism with a human face" in the teeth of Soviet domination. In August Warsaw Pact troops crushed the movement, while in the United States riots erupted between Chicago police and student activists during the Democratic National Convention.

Violence escalated in 1970 when National Guard units shot and killed students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State and Jackson State Universities, touching off protests on many other campuses. But by then SNCC and SDS were collapsing. SDS had splintered at its 1969 convention into a number of groups, the best known of which, the Weathermen, took its name from a Bob Dylan song.

Renamed the Weather Underground, this group is best remembered for a Greenwich Village explosion in which three members blew themselves up while assembling explosives. Broad-based student activism declined after the draft was discontinued in 1973.