The last few years have broken records when it comes to social movements.
In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement brought together a half million Americans in marches across the country after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd. The record-breaking BLM protests followed the 2017 Women's March that brought out 5 million people across the world and changed dialogue around sexual harassment and assault.
Protests haven't been limited to the streets; they also have a long history on college campuses. From protests against the Vietnam War to the Civil Rights movement, college students have successfully pushed for social change — although sometimes campus activists have smaller goals in mind. America's first student protest took place way back in 1766, when Harvard students rioted against the quality of food served on campus, demanding better butter.
Student activists have succeeded in pushing for better conditions, demanding social justice, and bringing attention to global issues. Looking back at successful campus protests offers valuable lessons for future activists.
Students Demanding Better Conditions on Campus
Student protests have a long history. While students have marched against wars and promoted social movements, many of the most successful campus protests focused on conditions on campus.
In the 1960s, women at the University of Georgia demanded changes to the school's strict regulations — including a rule that women had to put on a raincoat if they left their dorm wearing shorts.
UGA students also marched to end curfews, a prohibition on drinking alcohol, and other policies that only applied to women. The protest successfully pressured administration to end those policies.
Student activists have also fought to protect their constitutional rights on campus. In the early 1960s, Alabama State College expelled Black students for attending a civil rights protest. The 1961 Supreme Court case Dixon v. Alabama ruled that the college had violated the students' constitutional right to due process. The ruling, along with others that protected free speech rights, helped galvanize the campus activists of the 1960s.
Vietnam Student Protests
The first campus protests against the Vietnam War started in 1963, before the draft and even before American troops deployed to Vietnam. By 1965, Berkeley had organized a march of 15,000 people against the war, and in the next several years students organized protests at dozens of other schools, including the University of Chicago, University of Wisconsin, and Cornell.
During their protests, students would burn their draft cards, hold sit-ins, and march outside ROTC offices.
In May 1970, a Kent State University protest turned deadly. National Guard members opened fire on a crowd of students, killing four. In the aftermath, campus protests spread to over 1,300 colleges, with hundreds of schools closing because of student strikes.
At Dartmouth, students occupied an administrative building in 1969 to protest ROTC presence on campus. Students voted to strike, shutting down the school, and faculty followed suit, pushing the administration to end the ROTC. At Brown, faculty pushed to turn ROTC classes into non-credit courses; three years later, the ROTC left campus. Harvard students protested the ROTC and found allies among faculty, who voted to remove the organization from campus.
It's hard to measure the impact of student-led anti-war protests on the Vietnam War, but students did succeed in tangible ways. Some campuses, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, banned the ROTC for decades.
Civil Rights and Social Justice Issues
Campus activists played a major role in promoting civil rights and social justice issues during the Civil Rights movement and beyond.
In 1960, four Black students from North Carolina A&T walked into the Woolworth store in Greensboro and sat at a whites-only lunch counter. They later became known as the Greensboro Four, and they took a powerful stand for civil rights and inspired hundreds of similar sit-ins across the country. Within a month, Black Americans were holding sit-ins in 55 cities. By July, Woolworths had ended its policy of segregated lunch counters.
Civil Rights protests transformed life on campus and off. For example, in 1966, San Francisco State University became the first predominantly white college to form a Black Student Union. Three years later, after a four-month student strike, the Black Student Union successfully pressured the university to create a Black studies department and an ethnic studies program.
In 1968, students at South Carolina State College protested at a whites-only bowling alley. Police shot at the protestors, killing three. The Orangeburg Massacre spurred activists at the National Student Association to create "white alert teams" who would stand between Black protestors and police officers.
College students also led the Freedom Rides movement, registered Black voters in the South, and pushed for federal civil rights laws.
In the 1970s and 1980s, campus protests helped end apartheid. Sit-ins and protests at Berkeley pressured the school to withdraw billions invested in companies that supported South Africa's apartheid government. Students at dozens of other colleges followed the same example to bring attention to apartheid and end higher education's financial investments in South Africa.
The Environmental Movement and Climate Change Protests
In 1970, students at over 1,500 campuses participated in the first Earth Day. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, more than 50,000 people joined a teach-in to raise awareness of the climate crisis.
Campus movements targeted specific issues like acid rain, pollution, and logging in the 1980s and 1990s. On Feb. 26, 1990, college students held rallies in nearly every state to protest logging in national forests. Blair Holman of the Student Environmental Action Coalition declared, "We are ushering in a new decade of environmental consciousness. This is the movement of the Nineties."
Students at Middlebury College in Vermont organized the Step It Up protest in 2007. With a goal of promoting carbon reduction, the protest brought in activists from over 1,400 communities.
Today, college students continue to play a major role in global climate strikes and activism around environmentalism and climate change.
21st Century Social Movements on Campus
In the 21st century, student activists have fought for racial justice, economic equality, lower tuition rates, and student debt relief.
Student activism helped the Black Lives Matter movement grow after its founding in 2013. In 2015, students pushed back against the University of Missouri's lack of response to racial slurs on campus, successfully pressuring the university's president, Tim Wolfe, to resign. That same year, protestors at Georgetown University succeeded in renaming two buildings that commemorated former college presidents who sold slaves to pay off the school's debts.
Economic equality has become a major topic for student protests. The Million Student March in 2015 brought together students at over 100 campuses. The protestors called for tuition-free college and a $15 per hour minimum wage.
"The problems of skyrocketing college costs and low wages are linked together and result in poor economic mobility for people who graduate with the burden of student debt," said Beth Huang, a coordinator at the Student Labor Action Project. "The march is about mobilizing students across the country to shape the national conversation about what college costs look like today, especially in an age of student debt, low wages, and high tuition."
Some activists have successfully convinced their schools to expand tuition-free policies. In 2019, students at the University of Texas petitioned their institution to cover tuition costs for students from low-income families.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought a wave of strikes, lawsuits, and protests from college students. When campuses closed, students demanded room and board refunds, tuition discounts, and other concessions. Without access to on-campus resources, students at Columbia College petitioned for a tuition cut. In response to student activism, some schools did lower tuition for fall 2020, including Northwestern, Princeton, and Georgetown.
So far, 21st century campus movements have already applied lessons from successful movements in the past. Bringing together a wide coalition of students, faculty, and community members can make a major difference. So can demanding concrete changes, like anti-apartheid divestment. In the past, student activists have shown the power of their voices — and they will continue to build on that successful legacy in the future.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.
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