Student activism has a long history in the United States, as well as the rest of the world. From pre-Civil Rights demonstrations in the early 20th century to anti-gun marches last year, young people have gone to great lengths over time to make their voices heard—sometimes risking their lives doing so. Student protesters have come in all races, classes, genders, and nationalities. Their ages have ranged from middle school kids to graduate students, and protests have taken place everywhere from public universities to Ivy League schools. The common denominator has been the students' dedication to social justice.
In the United States, student activists have advocated for a wide range of issues including women's rights, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, peace and democracy, reproductive rights, affordable education, debt-free tuition, police accountability, gun control, and more. Globally, there has been a huge trend toward pro-democracy activism, and some of the biggest revolutions have originated with students.
The responses from authorities have varied. In some cases, the young people have been allowed to protest freely, while others have been silenced and suppressed, sometimes violently. History is full of examples of police and military forces breaking up peaceful protests employing batons, tear gas, beatings, and even gunfire. Ironically, the violence has often only served to call greater attention to the subject of the protest, drawing previously uninvolved people into the movement. Even in instances where authorities have succeeded in silencing the activists, the moves have typically only pushed the students underground.
To pay tribute to some of the young people who've taken risks on behalf of what they believe in, Stacker has put together a slideshow featuring the most famous student protests in history. Each showcased here was started by students or young activists and made major headlines. Take a look to see which ones you recognize.
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When German school officials announced in March 1901 that religion classes at the Catholic People's School in Września, an annexed section of Poland, would be held in German, more than 100 students launched a protest. They rejected the German textbooks, suffering detention and beatings as a result. On May 20, 1901, a large crowd of students and parents was dispersed in front of the school and many of the adults were jailed. Over the next three years, trials unfolded while kids continued striking, at least two of whom were beaten to death.
American Students at the historically black Fisk University in the mid-1920s launched a massive protest against the school's white president, Fayette McKenzie, who'd taken extreme measures—including shutting down the student newspaper and banning most extracurricular activities— to court donors. When alumnus W.E.B. Du Bois, then a rising star with a daughter at the college, visited the campus in 1924, he called out the president in a speech from the chapel: “Men and women of Black America: Let no decent Negro send his child to Fisk until Fayette McKenzie goes.” The speech prompted months of student strikes, marking some of the first black student-led activism and serving as a precursor to the Civil Rights movement.
More than 3,000 students at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1934 took to the streets to protest after five students were suspended amid the West Coast “red scare” for alleged communist affiliations. They threw a police officer in the bushes but no arrests were made. Meanwhile, with another war on the horizon, students at their sister school, UC Berkeley, launched protests of their own.
As fascism was unfolding in Nazi Germany, a group of students at the University of Munich got together in the summer of 1942 to form a resistance movement that came to be known as the White Rose Society. The group anonymously handed out fliers admonishing Adolf Hitler's regime and decrying the persecution of the Jews. In less than a year, however, the Gestapo had arrested most of the organization's key members and put the young activists on trial in kangaroo courts, sentencing many to death.
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 may never have unfolded had an organized group of student protesters not marched through the streets of Budapest on Oct. 23, carrying loudspeakers and chanting, “This we swear, this we swear, that we will no longer be slaves.” After reading an anti-communist proclamation demanding an independent Hungary, students stormed the radio building near the Hungarian Parliament, prompting police to open fire. The violence killed one student and marked the first bloodshed in the revolution that ultimately toppled the Soviet government.
In 1960, the United States and Japan began talks to amend a treaty known as “Anpo” (Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security) which pledged U.S. defensive support in exchange for Japanese land use. The negotiations drew ire from citizens, some of whom worried it would start another war. Over the course of six months, student protesters broke into the prime minister's private home, occupied the airport to ground his plane, and faced off with police using water cannons. At one point a University of Tokyo student was killed. The treaty was still ratified but the activists succeeded in pressuring the prime minister to resign.
While there were student-led civil rights protests in the years that preceded and followed, it was from 1960 to 1968 that the height of college civil rights activism flourished in the United States. The first major student-led event occurred when a group of African-American students refused to leave a Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C., launching a series of sit-ins throughout the South. Student protests continued over the next eight years, and by 1968 they were at a boiling point. The movement culminated with an uprising at Columbia University, where more than 1,000 protesters took over five buildings and the dean was taken hostage. The events at Columbia were later called “the most powerful and effective student protest in modern American history."
On July 2, 1962, after a military coup overthrew parliament, students at Rangoon University in Myanmar (then Burma), gathered to voice their opposition to the new regime led by General Ne Win. The school had long been a hub for student activism but Win's military regime shut it down quickly, killing more than 100 protesters and blowing up the student union building. The universities were closed and when they reopened four months later, they were under strict government control. Student activists went underground for more than two decades, meeting quietly but not resurging in public with any great numbers until the 8888 Uprising of 1988, named for Aug. 8, 1988.
Although the Vietnam War started a decade earlier, it wasn't until the mid-1960s that the U.S. student movements picked up steam when the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) began orchestrating widespread “teach-ins” to voice opposition to the war tactics being used by the U.S. government. The first of these occurred in 1965 at the University of Michigan. By 1970, tensions hit a boiling point with the Kent State tragedy in which four students were killed by the National Guard, inspiring the Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young hit “Ohio” the following year.
During the summer of 1968, unrest boiled in Mexico City as it prepared to host the Olympics. In an effort to present a good face to the world, President Gustavo Díaz carried out oppressive suppression tactics, particularly with regard to labor unions. Students from multiple universities organized, holding numerous demonstrations over the summer. On Oct. 2, 10 days before the games were to start, a large group marched into the plaza to hold another peaceful protest. This time, troops opened fire, killing 300 to 400 people in what came to be known as the Tlatelolco massacre. The next day, the government-controlled media painted the incident as a violent student protest; however, many now cite that day as the first in Mexico's transition to democracy.
In 1968, a group of students at Cornell University took over the campus union at Willard Straight Hall, marking one of the first major LGBT student protests in the United States. The Student Homophile League (SHL) also was formed that year at Cornell, making it the second in the nation after Columbia University. The following year, the Stonewall riots occurred in Greenwich Village, marking a tipping point in the Gay Liberation movement and fueling nationwide student activism over the next five years.
With second-wave feminism in full swing, college campuses in the country were primed and ready for women's rights activism in 1973 when students at the University of Southern Florida held the nation's first “Take Back The Night” protest. Taking cues from related protests in Belgium and England, students draped themselves in black sheets and marched around campus carrying broomsticks, beseeching the administration to create a women's center. These student-organized events preceded the Philadelphia march two years later that kicked off the national “Take Back The Night” movement which continues fighting sexual violence to this day.
After more than six years of military rule, tensions were growing in Greece in the fall of 1973. On Nov. 14 that year, a group of leftist students at Athens Polytechnic staged an impromptu sit-in. What began peacefully quickly spiraled into a full-on student revolt that saw Molotov cocktails thrown and ended with the military driving a tank through university gates. No Polytechnic students were killed but 24 civilians died, including several high school students. Following the incident, a high-ranking military officer leveraged the events that unfolded to stage a counter-coup, overturning the dictatorship that had been in power since 1967.
The Soweto uprising in 1976 marked the fiercest resistance to apartheid the South African government had seen up to that point. It began on June 16 when a group of students, emboldened by the growing Black Consciousness Movement, marched to Orlando Stadium under the guidance of the Soweto Students' Representative Council (SSRC). The immediate impetus was the government's implementation of Afrikaans as the official language taught in schools. Police responded with swift violence, killing up to 700 people, according to many estimates (though the government reported it as 176). Many South Africans who'd previously been uninvolved with the anti-apartheid movement were enraged by the police violence and jumped in in full force. Some historians cite the uprising as one of the first major pivots that put South Africa on the path to change.
The Tiananmen Square massacre in China remains one of the most infamous student-led protests in world history. It came in the wake of the death of Hu Yaobang, a high-ranking Communist Party official who'd become a reformer later in life. As pro-democracy students gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to pay their respects, political organization unfolded. The crowd grew as students from other universities caught word and came down, prompting an occupation that escalated over the next six weeks with hunger strikes and other demonstrations. On May 20, 1989, martial law was declared and on June 2, after more than a month of clashes, the military moved in with tanks, opening fire on hundreds and producing the iconic “Tank Man” photo. Death toll numbers vary from several hundred to thousands.
Few student activist groups can say they were responsible for toppling a government but that was indeed the case for the youth of the Velvet Revolution. Most impressively, it was accomplished with almost no violence. On Nov. 17, 1989, in what was then Czechoslovakia, about 15,000 students entered Prague after days of anti-communist demonstrations. They were attacked by riot police but there were no serious injuries. However, a fake report that a student was killed set the stage for negotiations. Students met with Communist Party officials and continued striking over the next week and a half. By Nov. 29, they had succeeded in changing the Constitution and by the end of the year, a new president had been elected following four decades of one-party rule.
On May 12, 1998, frustrated by the Asian financial crisis and upset with their government, students at Trisakti University in Jakarta, Indonesia, staged a non-violent protest, marching from their university to the legislative building. After being stopped by police not far from campus, the students' march transitioned into a sit-in, but riot police showed up and students began dispersing. As students were returning to campus, police opened fire from behind, killing four. Public outrage over the slayings led to the eventual resignation of the president, who had been ruling as a dictator for 30 years.
Dubbed by some as the "Iranian Tiananmen Square,” the response to the 1999 student protests at Tehran University was among the most brutal in student activist history. After a group of students peacefully protested the shutdown of a reformist newspaper, paramilitary officers raided student dormitories, setting beds on fire, breaking windows, grabbing women by the hair, and throwing students out windows. At least one student died and, as demonstrations broke out nationwide over the next six days, thousands more were arrested. About 70 vanished without a trace. Rather than bringing greater freedom in Iran, the incident led to increased government suppression that included new “thought crime” laws.
On May 1, 2006, immigrants' rights group in the United States organized “A Day Without Immigrants,” one of the largest protests in the country's history. Students played a huge role in the protests, which saw 1 million to 2 million people marching in Los Angeles alone. In the Santa Barbara School District, roughly one-third of the student population was absent and in the Los Angeles Unified School District, 71,942 absences were reported in grades 6 through 12, accounting for 27% of the total. In Hillsborough County, Fla., about 12% of middle and high school students stayed home.
After the United Kingdom's coalition government announced an increase to the cap on higher education tuition fees in 2010, university students throughout the country took to the streets to protest the growing cost of education. Some of the biggest demonstrations took place in London where 30,000 to 50,000 students marched and chanted. Riot police showed up in Westminster amid window-smashing and bonfires and kettled some in the crowd, a move that led to later criticism. Opponents argued that the police tactic, which essentially corrals protesters into one area for long periods, put them at risk of being crushed and denied them basic rights to food, water, and bathroom facilities.
Although the mass protests that broke out in numerous Middle Eastern countries in 2011 (nicknamed the “Arab Spring”) were carried out by people of all ages, students played a huge part in organizing and providing sustained momentum. The youth movement has been credited for much of the success that took place in countries like Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, and Bahrain. Before the uprisings, students were also a driving force in Tahrir Square during the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “The events of the past few months have shown us that youth can be a force for change,” author Stephanie Schwartz said at the time. “... Social media, hip hop, the arts, and comedy have all played a role in anti-regime advocacy.”
Sometimes referred to as the “Chilean Winter,” students carried out widespread protests throughout Chile between 2011 and 2013. The demonstrations called attention to the educational system that was privatized in the early 1980s under the Augusto Pinochet regime. Students criticized profit-based models and advocated for free public education, clashing with police repeatedly during the two-year period, where at times tear gas and water cannons were employed against them. Although the major changes they requested never came to fruition, the students were successful in causing a shakeup in the administration, including the minister of education.
After the 2013 acquittal of the man who killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth shot in a Florida suburb, a wave of “I am Trayvon Martin” protests spread across the United States. In Miami-Dade County, at least 15 high schools reported student walkouts following the verdict and other schools reported similar protests. Over the next six years, the movement, which would become “Black Lives Matter,” gained a huge amount of strength from continued student activism on high school and college campuses.
In the wake of the Great Recession and subsequent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, a group of students in 2013 showed up to a small rally held by New York University's Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM). The students were protesting student debt incurred to attend the school. Over the next six years, SLAM continued holding rallies that grew in size, incorporating neighboring New York universities and gaining national attention. In 2018, one student reported being threatened by a school housing official who allegedly said his financial aid would be in jeopardy if he didn't quit protesting. This prompted a new wave of demonstrations.
After a female student was molested on campus in 2014, students began protesting at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, India. When their requests for an investigation were not met, they encircled several administration officials, including the vice chancellor, in a practice known as “gheraoing” (essentially encircling a person or group of people). Police arrived and split them up violently, using batons, and allegedly molested some women protesters. The brutal police response set off another wave of protests that lasted four more months, gaining momentum via the hashtag #Hokkolorob. After some students' “fast until death,” the vice chancellor ultimately resigned.
In response to a congressional decision to reform Hong Kong's electoral system, a group of student activists led a strike outside the Central Government Complex and blocked several major thoroughfares. Police unleashed a brutal response that included tear gas, beatings, and alleged involvement by triad gangsters. A local news station captured a four-minute police beating of a pro-democracy Civil Party member, prompting further demonstrations and unrest. During the clearance, protesters used umbrellas to defend themselves and photos that emerged earned them the nickname “Umbrella protesters.” As a result of the demonstrations, Hong Kong police became more aggressive in their tactics, imprisoning numerous participants. The student movement was nominated in 2018 for a Nobel Peace Prize.
When lecturers went on strike over budget cuts in August 2016 at Makerere University—the “Harvard of Africa”—Uganda's central government threatened the school with closure; however, educators voted to continue demonstrating and many students marched in solidarity. The vote angered other students, however, who argued that staff should seek solutions that would not force the school to shut down. Tensions escalated and on Nov. 1, President Yoweri Museveni closed the prestigious university “indefinitely.” As this was unfolding, military police raided the home of a local king in Kasese, slaughtering more than 100 people, including children. These separate issues converged, bringing student unrest to a new level and inciting violence and the destruction of property. The school remained closed for nearly four weeks before an agreement was reached.
After Donald Trump was elected in U.S. president in 2016, students nationwide walked out of classes and organized protests against the soon-to-be leader who they said promoted hateful rhetoric. Using the hashtag #lovetrumpshate—a reference to one of Hillary Clinton's campaign slogans—thousands of student marches took place throughout the country following the election. The student protests paved the way for the post-inaugural 2017 Women's March—the largest day of protests in U.S. history.
Although social activist Tarana Burke first coined the phrase in 2006, it wasn't until actor Alyssa Milano tweeted on Oct. 15, 2017, that the #MeToo hashtag became a viral women's movement. The Tweet, which was posted 10 days after The New York Times published a story on sexual harassment allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein, sparked student demonstrations worldwide. As allegations against other men unfolded, students harnessed the momentum of the movement, particularly on college campuses, where sexual violence was already a hot topic. Some have argued that the burgeoning awareness around college “rape culture” leading up to Milano's Tweet, in fact, is what set the stage for the movement to catch fire. “This didn't happen out of the blue,” Harvard junior Amelia Goldberg told the Atlantic.
Students staged a walkout two days after a mass shooter killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018. A tearful speech on Feb. 17 by survivor Emma González went viral, launching a nationwide student movement for gun control. Twenty students at Marjory Stoneman founded an organization called Never Again MSD and began planning a rally they dubbed “March For Our Lives.” The event took place in Washington D.C., on March 24 along with more than 800 related marches across the United States. With a turnout of between 1 million and 2 million people, it was one of the largest student-led protests since the Vietnam War.