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Student Rebellion in the Sixties

© 2001 Donald J. Mabry

In the 1946-64 period, the number of college students in the United States doubled. By 1968, 50% of all 18- and 19-year olds were in college. Their sheer numbers gave them potential impact of society.


  1. These were the baby boomers, the children of affluence and privilege, who were accustomed to having their way.
  2. The sheer magnitude of students and of universities was important. Higher education was becoming democratized.
  3. The necessity of the civil rights movement and the violent reaction to it created disillusionment with the system.
  4. The Vietnam War bothered students as a morality issue and, for males, because they might get drafted and be killed.

It began with the Free Speech Movement in 1964 at the University of California at Berkeley. The administration forbade the distribution of protest materials outside campus gates. Students refused to obey. the administration called in the police. The California Regents decided to punish the students. The students took over Sproul Hall, the administration building. See Free Speech Movement for an elaborate Web site about this movement.

The idea that students did not have to obey authority simply because it was authority spread. Anti-establishment sentiment became prevalent. Some of this was ordinary adolescent rebellion, of course.

Anti war Movement

In March, 1965, students as the University of Michigan held the first teach-in, trying to convince people (including each other) that the Vietnam War was immoral and that the US should withdraw.

The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was formed in 1960. Issued its Port Huron statement in 1962 in which it said "we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation..." In its Agenda For A Generation, it argued:

We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.

When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world; the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people—these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.

As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract "others" we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.

While these and other problems either directly oppressed us or rankled our consciences and became our own subjective concerns, we began to see complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America. The declaration "all men are created equal..." rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North. The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradicted its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo.

We witnessed, and continue to witness, other paradoxes. With nuclear energy whole cities can easily be powered, yet the dominant nation-states seem more likely to unleash destruction greater than that incurred in all wars of human history. Although our own technology is destroying old and creating new forms of social organization, men still tolerate meaningless work and idleness. While two-thirds of mankind suffers undernourishment, our own upper classes revel amidst superfluous abundance. Although world population is expected to double in forty years, the nations still tolerate anarchy as a major principle of international conduct and uncontrolled exploitation governs the sapping of the earth's physical resources. Although mankind desperately needs revolutionary leadership, America rests in national stalemate, its goals ambiguous and tradition-bound instead of informed and clear, its democratic system apathetic and manipulated rather than "of, by, and for the people."

Not only did tarnish appear on our image of American virtue, not only did disillusion occur when the hypocrisy of American ideals was discovered, but we began to sense that what we had originally seen as the American Golden Age was actually the decline of an era. The worldwide outbreak of revolution against colonialism and imperialism, the entrenchment of totalitarian states, the menace of war, overpopulation, international disorder, supertechnology—these trends were testing the tenacity of our own commitment to democracy and freedom and our abilities to visualize their application to a world in upheaval.

Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living. But we are a minority—the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally-functional parts. In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox: we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will "muddle through," beneath the stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might be thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for them now. For most Americans, all crusades are suspect, threatening. The fact that each individual sees apathy in his fellows perpetuates the common reluctance to organize for change. The dominant institutions are complex enough to blunt the minds of their potential critics, and entrenched enough to swiftly dissipate or entirely repel the energies of protest and reform, thus limiting human expectancies. Then, too, we are a materially improved society, and by our own improvements we seem to have weakened the case for further change.

Some would have us believe that Americans feel contentment amidst prosperity—but might it not be better be called a glaze above deeply-felt anxieties about their role in the new world? And if these anxieties produce a developed indifference to human affairs, do they not as well produce a yearning to believe there is an alternative to the present, that something can be done to change circumstances in the school, the workplaces, the bureaucracies, the government? It is to this latter yearning, at once the spark and engine of change, that we direct our present appeal. The search for truly democratic alternatives to the present, and a commitment to social experimentation with them, is a worthy and fulfilling human enterprise, one which moves us and, we hope, others today. On such a basis do we offer this document of our convictions and analysis: as an effort in understanding and changing the conditions of humanity in the late twentieth century, an effort rooted in the ancient, still unfulfilled conception of man attaining determining influence over his circumstances of life.

The SDS became more radical as time passed, perhaps because of frustration at not being able to change much, and never dominated the student protest movement. It helped radicalize other students, at least by defining issues. It began a campaign against the draft, Reserve Officer Training Corp units being on college campuses, and campus recruiting efforts by such US governmental agencies as the Central Intelligence Agency. These issues resonated with millions of college students, even many who opposed activism.

As the war in Vietnam escalated, student protests escalated as well. In 1967, 300,000 marched on New York City to protest the war and 100,000 marched on the Pentagon. In 1968, between January 1 and June 15, there were 221 major demonstrations on over one hundred campuses. Few were in the South, where people are raised to obey authority and where fear of racial integration among whites discouraged and tampering with the status quo for fear that black people would somehow benefit. Instead, the leadership tended to be the most privileged students and the closing of campuses in protest of the war or supposed wrongs tended to occur on the prestigious campuses. Students who had family financial backing and had always had their way tended to be the leaders.

The TET Offensive in 1968 shocked the nation because the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong came close to taking control most of the major cities in South Vietnam. That they were beaten didn't matter; it was the realization that the war was being lost that unnerved many in the US. On March 11th, Eugene McCarthy, the peace Democrat, won the New Hampshire primary against President Lyndon Baines Johnson. On March 31st, LBJ stunned the nation by withdrawing from the presidential race to devote himself, as he said, to the peace effort.

In April, 1968 at Columbia University in New York City, the SDS tried to get Columbia to break its ties to Institute of Defense Analysis and black students tried to stop the building of a gymnasium which would encroach on black housing in Harlem. The two groups marched together on Low Memorial Library but then split because they had distinct goals. The black students took one building and the whites another. Police were called in to clear the buildings. Columbia closed early.

In 1968, it seemed that the world had gone crazy. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee and riots broke out in many cities. In May, French students, who were opposing the very conservative government of Charles de Gaulle, rioted. The French students came reasonably close to bringing down the government. In June, Robert F. Kennedy, probably the most popular Democratic Party candidate who was perceived as opposed to the Vietnam War, was assassinated in Los Angeles by an Arab fanatic. In August, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia to squash liberalism there. The Mexican student movement had grown in size and scope since July but was brought to an abrupt end on October 2nd when the army and police slaughtered peaceful demonstrators at the Tlatelolco housing project in Mexico City.

Worse, perhaps, was the change in the behavior of young people. Instead of crew cuts, males were wearing long hair, sometimes longer than the females who, themselves, were wearing their hair in odd ways. Instead of the carefully coiffured look, some young women were wearing their hair long and stringy! Clothing among the young began to defy conventions. Regardless of their political views, students began wearing working men's clothes (blue jeans) and underwear as outerwear (T-shirts). Established practices of coloring clothing were abandoned in many instances; students, for example, began to tie-dye clothing. They started using delivery vans for transportation instead of cars. Whereas popular music has usually been about sex and love, the rock'n'roll revolution was characterized by much more flagrant sexuality. Shortly after 1965, the music became much more sexual and, sometimes, laced with references to the taking of drugs. Some young people, probably a minority, began smoking marijuana or dabbling in drugs. The most shocking change was the sexual revolution as the ideal of no sexual intercourse outside of marriage seemed to go by the wayside. Although the ideal had never been absolutely observed, as the Kinsey Reports revealed, the idea that people could have sex with anyone they wanted at any time was startling. Moralists could not accept this change (which wasn't as pervasive as they thought). No doubt some married people were jealous at the new freedom. More than the civil rights movements and the anti-war movements, it was the social conventions being overturned that upset people.

The average American was very upset with all this upheaval. Many believed that students had a very easy life, living on someone else's money, and should spend their time on studying, sports, and finding a mate of the opposite sex. Shutting down universities made no sense to them, especially to those who had to work to support themselves and others. The students seemed like ingrates, like spoiled brats. Although anti-war sentiment was growing, the majority still supported the war effort.

They wanted a return to the old values. They wanted students to study not protest. They believed that any war the US fought should be supported. They wanted order. Many were upset about the changes, actual and proposed, in the relationship between blacks and whites. And they wanted their children to cut their hair, dress conservatively, stop using drugs, and follow the same paths to maturity as they had.

Ironically, it was conservatives who were responsible for all this. They had created the cult of womanhood in order to get women out of the labor force at the end of World War II in order to return jobs to the who had been forced into the military during the war. Governments and private institutions bombarded society with the argument that a woman's proper place in the home, preferably raising children. As a corollary to this, they created a cult of childhood. According to this view, parents should have as many children as possible. The population boomed with babies. Parents and society could not do enough for children and should sacrifice almost everything to give them what they needed and wanted. Children, not adults, had priority in society. Suddenly, children had lots of money to spend. By the 1960s, they had more discretionary income than their parents and had become one of the richest, if not the richest, social groups in the world. Capitalists quickly understood this and exploited the opportunities inherent. Magazines, radio, movies, and television focused on young people as never before. Television, owned and operated by rich conservatives, grew parallel to the rise of the baby boomers. One soft drink manufacturer made it clear that it was the drink of the new, young generation. On the political front, the propaganda machine argued that the United States was free and democratic--the hope of the world--as opposed to Communism and the Soviet Union. The incessant barrage about democracy caused many students to look around and see the undemocratic parts of US life. They believed that they had been lied to by their elders. With all this attention and wealth, no wonder many young people abandoned the old ways. That American business created new markets from the student changes was a further irony.