Protests of 1968

Protests of 1968
Part of the counterculture of the 1960s and the Cold War

Helsinki demonstration against the invasion of Czechoslovakia
Date 1968
Result Social revolutions

The protests of 1968 comprised a worldwide escalation of social conflicts, predominantly characterized by popular rebellions against military and bureaucratic elites, who responded 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 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 the socialist countries there were also protests against lack of freedom of speech and violation of other civil rights by the Communist bureaucratic and military elites. In Central and Eastern Europe there were widespread protests that escalated, particularly in the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, in Warsaw in Poland and in Yugoslavia.


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 United States involvement in the Vietnam War.[1]

Post-war world

Mexico 68 protests

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.

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.

Social movements

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, especially important ones in Poznań in 1956.

The feminist movement made a 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.

Waves of social movements throughout the 1960s began to shape the values of the generation that were college students during 1968. In America, the Civil Rights Movement was at its most violent. So, too, in Northern Ireland, where it paved the way for an organised revolt against British governance. Italy and France were in the midst of a 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. 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.

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.

The 2–3 June 1968 student demonstrations in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, were the first mass protest in the country after the Second World War. The authorities suppressed the protest, while President Josip Broz Tito had the protests gradually cease by giving in to some of the students’ demands. 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]

In 1968, Czechoslovakia underwent a process known as the Prague Spring. In the August 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 is 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.

Mass movements

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 Friends of the Earth were formed and the French scientific community organized Survivre et Vivre (Survive and Live). The 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.

In January, police used clubs on 400 anti-war protestors outside of a dinner for U.S. Secretary of State Rusk.[11] In February, students from Harvard, Radcliffe, and Boston University held a four-day hunger strike to protest the war.[12] 10,000 West Berlin students held a sit-in against American involvement in Vietnam.[12] 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.[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.[14] On March 17, an anti-war demonstration in Grosvenor Square, London, ended with 86 people injured and 200 demonstrators arrested.[15] Japanese students protested the presence of the American military in Japan because of the Vietnam War.[16] 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.[16] In August, the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was disrupted by five days of street demonstrations by thousands of anti-war protesters. Chicago's mayor escalated the riots with excessive police presence and by ordering up the National Guard and the army to suppress the protests.[17] In September, the women's liberation movement gained international recognition when it demonstrated at the annual Miss America beauty pageant. The week-long protest and its disruption of the pageant gained the movement much needed attention in the press.[18]

United States

In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement had turned away from the south and toward the cities in the north with the issues of open housing and the Black Consciousness Movement. The Black movement unified and gained international recognition with the emergence of the Black Power and Black Panthers organizations and their support of violence as a means of protest.[19] The Orangeburg massacre on February 8, a civil rights protest in Orangeburg, South Carolina, turned deadly with the death of three college students.[20] In March, students in North Carolina organized a sit-in at a local lunch counter that spread to 15 cities.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23] On April 23, students at Columbia University protested the school's allegedly racist policies, three school officials were taken hostage for 24 hours.[14] This was just one of a number of Columbia University protests of 1968.


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.[24] 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.[25]

West Germany

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. 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.[26] 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.[27]


Main article: Mexico 68
Award ceremony at the '68 Summer Olympics.

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] On October 2, after a summer of protests against the Mexican government and the occupation of the central campus of the National Autonomous University (UNAM) by the army, a student demonstration in Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City ended with police, paratroopers and paramilitary units firing on students, killing over a hundred persons.[29]

Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union

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.[30] In August the 25, anti-war protesters gathered in red square only to be dispersed. It was titled the 1968 Red Square demonstration.


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.[31] In April, Spanish students protested against the actions of the Franco regime in 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.[26] Students protesting against the military dictatorship were killed in Brazil.[32]


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. In March, Italian students closed the University of Rome for 12 days during an anti-war protest.[26]


Wall slogan in a classroom
'Vive De Gaulle' is one of the graffiti on this Law School building.
University of Lyon during student occupation, May–June 1968

The French May protests started with student protests over university reform and escalated into a month-long protest. The trade unions joined the protest resulting in a general strike.[33]

Other protests

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 20, Enoch Powell made an anti-immigration speech that sparked demonstrations throughout Britain. His Rivers of Blood speech helped define immigration as a political issue and helped legitimize anti-immigration sentiment.[34] On May 24–27, students in Stockholm institute the occupation of the Student Union Building. In October, the Rodney Riots in Kingston, Jamaica, were inspired when the Jamaican government of Hugh Shearer banned Guyanese university lecturer Dr. Walter Rodney from returning to his teaching position at the University of the West Indies. Rodney, a historian of Africa, had been active in the Black power movement, and had been sharply critical of the middle class in many Caribbean countries. Rodney was an avowed socialist who worked with the poor of Jamaica in an attempt to raise their political and cultural consciousness.

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. 1 2 Rootes, Christopher. "1968 and the Environmental Movement in Europe." . Retrieved 02-2008.
  10. O'Hagan, Sean. "Everyone to the Barricades." The Observer. January 2008. . Retrieved 02-2008.
  11. Kurlansky 2004 pg 42
  12. 1 2 Kurlansky 2004 pg 54
  13. Kurlansky 2004 pg 55
  14. 1 2 Surak, Amy. 1968 Timeline. New York University Archives. Retrieved 02-2008.
  15. 1968 Battles outside US Embassy, Grosvenor Square, London. 1968 and All That. 15 January 2008. Retrieved 02-2008.
  16. 1 2 Kurlansky 2004 pg 84
  17. O'Hagan, Sean. "Everyone to the Barricades." The Observer. January 2008.. Retrieved 02-2008.
  18. Freeman, Jo. "No More Miss America! (19681969)." . Retrieved 02-2008.
  19. Black Power. African American World. Retrieved 02-2008.
  20. The Orangeburg Massacre. About African-American History. Retrieved 02-2008.
  21. Kurlansky 2004 pg 85
  22. Inda, Juan Javier La Comunidad en Lucha, The Development of the East Los Angeles Student Walkouts Working Paper, Stanford University (1990)
  23. Walsh, Michael. "Streets of Fire: Governor Spiro Agnew and the Baltimore City Riots, April 1968." . Retrieved 02-2008.
  24. 1968: The Year of the Barricades. The History Guide. Retrieved 02-2008.
  25. Kurlansky 2004 pg 127
  26. 1 2 3 Kurlansky 2004 pg 82
  27. Klimke, Dr. Martin. 1968 In Europe. Online Teaching and Resource Guide. Retrieved 02-2008.
  28. O'Hagan, Sean. Everyone to the Barricades. The Observer. January 2008. Retrieved 02-2008.
  29. Erickson, Ric. "May '68 Dates." Metropole Paris. 4 May 1998. . Retrieved 02-2008.
  30. Czechoslovakia, 1968 Prague Spring. The Library of Congress Country Study. Retrieved 02-2008.
  31. Kurlansky 2004 pg 16
  32. Kurlansky 2004 pg 83
  33. Pike, John. 1968 "Student Massacre." 27 April 2005. Retrieved 02-2008.
  34. Husbands, Christopher. "Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood Speech." . 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 
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