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Protests of 1968

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Protests of 1968

Protests in Mexico City in 1968 - Mexico 68

The protests of 1968 comprised a worldwide escalation of social conflicts, predominantly characterized by popular rebellions against what they perceived to be military, capitalist, and bureaucratic elites, who retorted with an escalation of political repression.

In capitalist countries, these protests marked a turning point for the Civil Rights movement in the United States, which produced revolutionary movements like the Black Panther Party. In reaction to the Tet Offensive, protests also sparked a broad movement in opposition to the Vietnam War all over the United States and even into London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. Mass socialist or communist movements grew not only in the United States but also in most European countries. The most spectacular manifestation of this were the May 1968 protests in France, in which students linked up with wildcat strikes of up to ten million workers, and for a few days the movement seemed capable of overthrowing the government. In many other capitalist countries, struggles against dictatorships, state repression, and colonization were also marked by protests in 1968, such as the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, and the escalation of guerrilla warfare against the military dictatorship in Brazil.

In socialist countries there were also protests against bureaucratic and military elites. It was amidst the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China (1966–1976), and in Eastern Europe there were also widespread protests that escalated particularly in the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia.


Background speculations of overall causality vary about the political protests centering on the year 1968. Some argue that protests could be attributed to the social changes during the twenty years following the end of World War II. Many protests were a direct response to perceived injustices, such as those voiced in Opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.[1]

Capitalist states

After World War II, much of the world experienced an unusual surge in births, creating a large age demographic. These babies were born during a time of peace and prosperity for most countries. This was the first generation to grow up with television in their homes.[2] Television had a profound effect on this generation in two ways. First, it gave them a common perspective from which to view the world.[3] 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 worlds. 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.[4] 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 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[5] 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 than they had already.[6] 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.

Communist states

Protests were held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, as the first mass protest in Yugoslavia after the Second World War. After youth protests erupted in Belgrade on the night of July 2, 1968, students of the Belgrade University went into a seven-day strike. Police beat the students and banned all public gatherings. Students then gathered at the Faculty of Philosophy, held debates and speeches on the social justice, and handed out copies of the banned magazine Student. Students also protested against economic reforms, which led to high unemployment and forced workers to leave the country and find work elsewhere. President Josip Broz Tito gradually stopped the protests by giving in to some of the students’ demands and saying that "students are right" during a televised speech. But in the following years, he dealt with the leaders of the protests by sacking them from university and Communist party posts. The protests were supported by prominent public personalities, including film director Dušan Makavejev, stage actor Stevo Žigon, poet Desanka Maksimović and university professors, whose careers ran into problems because of their links to the protests. Protests also broke out in other capitals of Yugoslav republics - Sarajevo, Zagreb and Ljubljana—but they were smaller and shorter than in Belgrade.[7][8]

The Eastern Bloc had already seen several mass protests in the decades following World War II, including the Hungarian Revolution, the uprising in East Germany and several labour strikes in Poland.

In Poland in March 1968, student demonstrations at Warsaw University broke out when the government banned the performance of a play by Adam Mickiewicz (Dziady, written in 1824) at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, on the grounds that it contained "anti-Soviet references". It became known as the March 1968 events.

Helsinki demonstration against the invasion of Czechoslovakia

In the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovakian citizens responded to the attack on their sovereignty with passive resistance. Soviet troops were frustrated as street signs were painted over, their water supplies mysteriously shut off, and buildings decorated with flowers, flags, and slogans like, "An elephant cannot swallow a hedgehog." Passers-by painted swastikas on the sides of Soviet tanks. Road signs in the country-side were over-painted to read, in Russian script, "Москва" (Moscow), as hints for the Soviet troops to leave the country.

On 25 August 1968 eight Russian citizens staged a demonstration on Moscow's Red Square to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. After about five minutes, the demonstrators were beaten up and transferred to a police station. Seven of them received harsh sentences up to several years in prison.


Strikers in Southern France with a sign reading "Factory Occupied by the Workers." Behind them are a list of demands

The protests that raged throughout 1968 included a large number of workers, students, and poor people facing increasingly violent state repression all around the world. Liberation from state repression itself was the most common current in all protests listed below. These refracted into a variety of social causes that reverberated with each other: in the United States alone, for example, protests for civil liberties, against racism and in opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as feminism and the beginnings of the ecological movement, including protests against biological and nuclear weapons, all boiled up together during this year.[9] 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 streets and college campuses, but also on the television screen by courting media coverage.[10]

As the waves of protests coming along the 1960s intensified to a new high in 1968, repressive governments through widespread police crack downs, shootings, executions and even massacres marked social conflicts in Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and China. In West Berlin, Rome, London, Paris, Italy, many American cities, and Argentina, labor unions and students played major roles and also suffered political repression.

  • In the United States, the [11]
  • 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.
  • Workers were joined by students at the University of Madrid to protest the involvement of police in demonstrations against dictator Francisco Franco's regime, demanding democracy, trade unions and worker rights, and education reform.[12]
  • 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.[13]
  • 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.[14]
  • In January, police used clubs on 400 anti-war protestors outside of a dinner for U.S. Secretary of State Rusk.[15]
  • 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.[16]
  • Orangeburg massacre – On February 8, a civil rights protest in Orangeburg, South Carolina, turned deadly with the death of three college students.[17]
  • 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.[18]
  • In February, students from Harvard, Radcliffe, and Boston University held a four-day hunger strike to protest the war.[19]
  • 10,000 West Berlin students held a sit-in against American involvement in Vietnam.[19]
  • People in Canada protested the war by mailing 5,000 copies of the paperback, Manual for Draft Age Immigrants to Canada to the United States.[20]
  • On March 1, a clash known as battle of Valle Giulia took place between students and police in the faculty of architecture in the Sapienza University of Rome.
  • 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.[21]
  • In March, students in North Carolina organized a sit-in at a local lunch counter that spread to 15 cities.[22]
  • In March, students from all five public high schools in East L.A. walked out of their classes protesting against unequal conditions in Los Angeles Unified School District high schools. Over the next several days, they inspired similar walkouts at fifteen other schools.[23]
  • In March, Italian students closed the University of Rome for 12 days during an anti-war protest.[13]
  • 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.[24]
  • On March 17, an anti-war demonstration in Grosvenor Square, London, ended with 86 people injured and 200 demonstrators arrested.[25]
  • Japanese students protested the presence of the American military in Japan because of the Vietnam War.[26]
  • In March, British students turned violent in their anti-war protests (opposing the Vietnam War), physically attacking the British defense secretary, the secretary of state for education and the Home Secretary.[26]
  • On March 28, the Military Police of Brazil killed high school student Edson Luís de Lima Souto at a protest for cheaper meals at a restaurant for low-income students. The aftermath of his death generated one of the first major protests against the military dictatorship.
  • On April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed, sparking violent protests in more than 115 American cities, notably Louisville, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.[27]
  • On April 23, students at Columbia University protested the school's allegedly racist policies, three school officials were taken hostage for 24 hours.[24] This was just one of a number of Columbia University protests of 1968.
  • On April 27 an anti-war march in Chicago organized by Rennie Davis of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and others ended with police beating many of the marchers, a precursor to the police riots later that year at the Democratic Convention.
  • The admittance of the South African team brought the issue of Apartheid to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. After more than 40 teams threatened to boycott, the committee reconsidered and 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.[28]
  • In April, Spanish students protested the regime of Franco sanctioning a mass for Adolf Hitler. At the beginning of spring the University of Madrid was closed for thirty-eight days due to student demonstrations.[13] Students protesting against the military dictatorship were killed in Brazil.[29]
  • On April 20, Enoch Powell made an anti-immigration speech that sparked demonstrations throughout England. His Rivers of Blood speech helped define immigration as a political issue and helped legitimize anti-immigration sentiment.[30]
Wall slogan in a classroom
University of Lyon during student occupation, May–June 1968

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 Club of Rome was formed in 1968. The Nordic countries were at the forefront of environmentalism. In Sweden, students protested against hydroelectric plans. In Denmark and the Netherlands, environmental action groups protested about pollution and other environmental issues.[9] The Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland began to start, but resulted in the conflict now known as The Troubles.

See also


  1. ^ Antiwar organizations of Vietnam War
  2. ^ Twenge, Ph. D., Jean. Generation Me. New York: Free Press, 2006. pg 6
  3. ^ Croker 2007 pg 19
  4. ^ Croker 2007 pg 12
  5. ^ Croker 2007 pg 32
  6. ^ Croker 2007 pg 124
  7. ^ "Belgrade's 1968 student unrest spurs nostalgia". 2008-06-05. Retrieved 2010-08-26. 
  8. ^ 1968 in Europe - Online teaching and research guide, archived from the original
  9. ^ a b Rootes, Christopher. "1968 and the Environmental Movement in Europe." [1]. Retrieved 02-2008.
  10. ^ O'Hagan, Sean. "Everyone to the Barricades." The Observer. January 2008. [2]. Retrieved 02-2008.
  11. ^ [3] Black Power. African American World. Retrieved 02-2008.
  12. ^ Kurlansky 2004 pg 16
  13. ^ a b c Kurlansky 2004 pg 82
  14. ^ [4] Czechoslovakia, 1968 Prague Spring. The Library of Congress Country Study. Retrieved 02-2008.
  15. ^ Kurlansky 2004 pg 42
  16. ^ [5] 1968: The Year of the Barricades. The History Guide. Retrieved 02-2008.
  17. ^ [6] The Orangeburg Massacre. About African-American History. Retrieved 02-2008.
  18. ^ [7] Klimke, Dr. Martin. 1968 In Europe. Online Teaching and Resource Guide. Retrieved 02-2008.
  19. ^ a b Kurlansky 2004 pg 54
  20. ^ Kurlansky 2004 pg 55
  21. ^ Kurlansky 2004 pg 127
  22. ^ Kurlansky 2004 pg 85
  23. ^ Inda, Juan Javier La Comunidad en Lucha, The Development of the East Los Angeles Student Walkouts Working Paper, Stanford University (1990)
  24. ^ a b [8] Surak, Amy. 1968 Timeline. New York University Archives. Retrieved 02-2008.
  25. ^ [9] 1968 Battles outside US Embassy, Grosvenor Square, London. 1968 and All That. 15 January 2008. Retrieved 02-2008.
  26. ^ a b Kurlansky 2004 pg 84
  27. ^ Walsh, Michael. "Streets of Fire: Governor Spiro Agnew and the Baltimore City Riots, April 1968." [10]. Retrieved 02-2008.
  28. ^ [11] O'Hagan, Sean. Everyone to the Barricades. The Observer. January 2008. Retrieved 02-2008.
  29. ^ Kurlansky 2004 pg 83
  30. ^ Husbands, Christopher. "Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood Speech." [12]. Retrieved 02-2008.
  31. ^ Pike, John. 1968 "Student Massacre." [13] 27 April 2005. Retrieved 02-2008.
  32. ^ O'Hagan, Sean. "Everyone to the Barricades." The Observer. January 2008.[14]. Retrieved 02-2008.
  33. ^ Freeman, Jo. "No More Miss America! (1968–1969)." [15]. Retrieved 02-2008.
  34. ^ Erickson, Ric. "May '68 Dates." Metropole Paris. 4 May 1998. [16]. Retrieved 02-2008.


  • Croker, Richard (2007), The Boomer Century, New York: Springboard Press 
  • Kurlansky, Mark (2004), 1968 The Year That Rocked the World, New York: Random House Publishing group 

External links

  • 1968 in Europe
  • 1968 in Italy
  • NPR Echoes of 1968
  • BBC Radio 4 - 1968 Myth or Reality?
  • 1968 Special Report - UK Guardian
  • Everyone to the Barricades - Europe 1968 Sean O'Hagen UK Guardian
  • 1968 In Italy -: Revolution or Cold Civil War
  • European protestmusic in 1968 - the birth of European identities in music
  • De 1968 au mouvement Occupy,
  • An archive containing photographs of 1968/1969 protests in the San Francisco area
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