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Back To The Barricades

June 2024
10min read

For the first time in a generation, student activism is on the rise. Do these new protesters have anything like the zeal, the conviction, and the clout of their famous 1960s predecessors?

Some 30 years since the storied generation of Vietnam-era student activists began to graduate and disperse into the grown-up world, American universities seem to be emerging once again as a theater for protest and political engagement. Galvanized by debates over free trade and globalization, college students have lent critical muscle to efforts by labor and environmental groups aimed at raising public consciousness about the social costs of an unfettered market.

Some commentators are delighted. Writing last May in the liberal American Prospect, Thomas K. Lowenstein celebrated the accomplishments of several dozen Harvard undergraduates who had just emerged from a nearly three-week sit-in at the university’s eighteenth-century administration building. The protesters, most of whom belonged to the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM), were demanding that Harvard pay its custodial and kitchen staffs a “living wage” of $10.25 per hour, well above the $8 many of them were earning. Lowenstein declared, “real leadership has finally emerged on the left. … The students in Massachusetts Hall have found a way to take action, something that seems beyond the Democratic party these days.”

Others aren’t so sure. Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for the Boston Globe, would “find it a lot easier to respect what they’re doing if they showed some sign of being willing to pay a bit of a price themselves. One of the first demands that the sit-in protesters made was that there should be no academic repercussions for what they’re doing.” Chris Matthews, the famously audible host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” agrees that the PSLM’ s goals merit commendation but also finds today’s student protesters just a little more whiny and self-interested than their parents. “Well, break my heart,” he intoned, dismissing the idea that Harvard’s new activists have made significant personal sacrifices for their cause.


Whether one agrees with Lowenstein (yes, the students are doing their parents proud) or with Jacoby and Matthews (no, today’s college protesters just aren’t the real thing), the comparison between now and then is inescapable. Are we in fact on the cusp of a new campus sensibility, one resembling the celebrated wave of student activism that swept universities in the 1960S?

The problem is, many of the assumptions underlying this comparison are flawed. The magnitude of youth engagement in the 19605 has been vastly overstated in the popular media, and many student protesters were less self-sacrificing than public memory would have us believe. In fact, today’s student activists may be greater in number and purer in motive than their parents were before them.

One widespread misconception about the 1960S is the notion that virtually everyone under the age of 30 was marching or demonstrating. The adage about squeaky wheels and grease applies here. Polls suggest that only 2 or 3 percent of students who attended college between 1965 and 1968 considered themselves activists, and only 10 percent participated in demonstrations. The vast majority of baby-boomer collegians spent the decade sitting on the sidelines.

More important, not all youth activists were marching for the same cause. Left-wing groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were loud and flashy, but they were rivaled in size by a quieter yet better-organized conservative adversary, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), an organization spearheaded by William F. Buckley, that claimed a national roster of 60,000 members by the close of the decade. To be sure, members of YAF fell way outside their generation’s mainstream. Group organizers called for the immediate invasion of Cuba, demanded that the United States summarily tear down the Berlin Wall, and derided John F. Kennedy’s inner circle as a “ludicrous array of bearded University of Chicago beatniks.” Still, in many ways YAF was probably closer to the mainstream than was SDS.

Even at the height of political upheaval in the late 1960s, only one of every four college students wanted to boot the ROTC program off campuses; only 2.2 percent supported a ban on defense-industry spending. On Vietnam, the majority of students tended to mimic the ebb and flow of their parents’ faith in America’s Cold War mandate. Most young people supported the war effort until early 1967, shifted to opposition around midyear, swung back to supporting the war in late 1967, until finally—in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive and in light of a steady increase in casualties—the bulk moved firmly into the antiwar camp.

None of this is to say that student unrest wasn’t very real or significant. Roughly 45 million men and women belonged to the “sixties generation”—those who were born between 1942. and 1954—and by the decade’s close, one of every three Americans between 18 and 22 years old was attending at least some form of post-secondary schooling. This means that upward of 10 million young people lived on college campuses through-out the decade. Those who participated in political demonstrations could have numbered in the millions; the 2. or 3 percent who described themselves as activists, in the hundreds of thousands. These are not inconsiderable figures.

MANY STUDENT ACTIVISTS IN THE 1960S were driven by conviction and idealism. The young black men and women who courageously battled Jim Crow in the South number first among that group; so does the small but influential cadre of white students who put their bodies on the line in places like Mississippi and Alabama. But the vast majority of protesters most likely acted on a variety of impulses: some, idealistic; others, more parochial and prosaic. At the heart of their engagement was a reaction against Cold War culture, a reaction born of the growing sense that America’s rhetorical commitment to freedom and prosperity rang hollow. America, many students came to believe, had betrayed them.

The historian James T. Patterson has written that “economic growth was … the most decisive force in the shaping of attitudes and expectations in the post-war years.” Sharp increases in government spending and greater worker productivity helped fuel an unprecedented boom, and consequently, “the average American … earned more in real dollars, ate better, lived more comfortably, and stayed alive longer than his or her parents.”


Battered by two decades of Depression-era scarcity and wartime rationing, many Americans—particularly young veterans and their families—happily left behind a world of self-sacrifice and deferred dreams. Between 1950 and 1960, the average American family experienced 330 percent hike in purchasing power, reflecting an amazing 55 percent increase in the gross national product over roughly the same period. In constant dollars, spending on personal consumption leaped from $12.8.1 billion in 192.9 to $2,98.1 billion in 1960. The average American home in the late 1950S held seven times more equipment and goods than in the 1920S.

Prosperity and abundance helped fuel American confidence, but they were not the only forces contributing to the intense optimism on which the sixties generation was nurtured. Americans had won a war against German and Japanese fascism; they were winning scientific wars against disease, social wars against structural unemployment and poverty, and diplomatic wars against communism. As the economist Robert Samuelson later recalled, “If you grew up in the 19505, you were constantly treated to the marvels of the time. At school, you were vaccinated against polio.… At home, you watched television. Every so often, you looked up into the sky and saw the white vapor trails of a new jet…. There was an endless array of new gadgets and machines. No problem seemed to be beyond solution.”


The first batch of sixties-generation college students arrived on campus steeped in this ethic of optimism. The civil rights movement would soon shake their confidence. “We were imbued with very idealistic American values,” Tom Hayden later recalled, “a belief in racial integration, not just as a future ideal, but as an ideal to be practiced in the here and now; a belief that places like Mississippi were not part of the American dream, but nightmares that America would awaken from.”

The black struggle for equality didn’t just challenge young people to question the discrepancy between American rhetoric and reality. It also drew well over a thousand white students to the trenches between 1960 and 1964—to the deep South, where the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) enlisted neophytes like Hayden and now-senator Joe Lieberman in voter-registration and direct-action campaigns.

In the fall of 1964, a thousand such students returned home from the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, transformed by what they had seen and done and about to sow the seeds of activism that would define the sixties generation. One of them was Mario Savio.

“Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the struggle there for civil rights,” Savio announced in late 1964. “This fall I am engaged in another phase of the same struggle, this time in Berkeley. In Mississippi an autocratic and powerful minority rules, through organized violence, to suppress the vast majority. In California, the privileged minority manipulates the university bureaucracy to suppress the students’ political expression.”

Savio, a 21-year-old philosophy major at the University of California at Berkeley, was a master at drawing powerful rhetorical connections between the plight of Southern blacks and the everyday tribulations faced by his fellow collegians. On the surface, Savio’s experiences in Mississippi bore only superficial resemblance to events at Berkeley, where university administrators had banned on-campus political advocacy. But like activists on other campuses, he was able to make students feel personally affronted and affected by what they saw on television: the brutality of Jim Crow, the passivity and complacency of the federal government, the seeming indifference of establishment figures who urged moderation and patience.


Ideas like “Michigan State is the Mississippi of American universities”—as asserted by an editor of a campus newspaper, circa 1965—resonated with many students. Having grown up in a prosperous, middle-class culture that placed children at the center of domestic life, many members of the sixties generation came to feel both neglected and victimized by university administrators, and to understand their situation as part of a larger pattern of American exploitation, the most egregious example of which was Jim Crow.

Many undergraduates in the 1960s drifted, virtually anonymous, in a sea of bureaucracy. The postwar boom in higher education, fueled largely by the growth of government-funded scientific research, had bloated public and private institutions almost beyond recognition. Before 1940 no American university could claim a student population greater than 15,000; by 1970 more than 50 were at least that big, while 8 institutions enrolled more than 30,000.

Berkeley’s president, Clark Kerr, admitted that the new “multiversity” could be a “confusing place for the student.” Freshmen accustomed to the doting atmosphere of home and high school quickly learned that their names mattered less than their IBM punch cards. Many students probably agreed with one activist who complained, “They always seem to be wanting to make me into a number. I won’t let them. I have a name and am important enough to be known by it.… I’ ll join any movement that comes along to help me.”

Paradoxically, universities could be all too mindful of their students’ names—and whereabouts, and extra-curricular lives. Anyone who attended college through the mid-1960s will recall the in loco parentis regulations that gave administrators license to police the personal lives of their students, particularly “coeds,” whose comings and goings were subject to a crude double-standard.

AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS, FEMALE undergraduates faced a weeknight curfew of 10:30 P.M. On Friday and Saturday nights, 1:00 A.M. At the University of Massachusetts, coeds who broke curfew by 5 minutes lost privileges for the ensuing Friday night; 10 minutes cost them Saturday night; 15 minutes warranted a hearing before the women’s judiciary committee. At Barnard College, a man could visit a woman’s dorm room at set hours, but three of the couple’s four legs had to be touching the ground at all times—a hopeful dean’s preventative against premarital sex. At Illinois, women could entertain male guests in residence-hall lounges, but they were enjoined from wearing raincoats during these visits, lest they try to get away with not wearing anything else.

Institutions like Michigan State sent semester grade reports directly to the parents of any student under the age of 2.1, reinforcing the message that college kids were, above all, still kids. This procedure was amplified in 1966, when the Selective Service System began revoking the draft deferments of young men with low class standings. Naturally, universities and colleges furnished the Selective Service with necessary grade reports and rankings.

By the mid-1960s, many collegians were feeling oppressed by this double-edged sword of benign neglect and in loco parentis , and events in the South had galvanized a small but vocal-core of activists who, in turn, inspired a far larger number of their peers. “If there was one reason for increased student protest,” recalled a journalist at the University of Utah, “it would probably be the civil rights movement. The movement … convinced many of them that nonviolent demonstrations could be an effective device on the campus. It also served to make them more sensitive of their own civil rights.”

“The American university campus has become a ghetto,” claimed one activist at the University of Florida. “Like all ghettos, it has its managers (the administrators), its Uncle Toms (the intimidated, status-berserk faculty), its raw natural resources processed for outside exploitation and consumption (the students).”

It was this very intellectual connection that compelled Savio’s Free Speech Movement (FSM) to invoke a civil rights cry—“We Shall Overcome”—in its efforts to overturn Berkeley’s ban on political advocacy. In fact, a national survey conducted at the close of the 1964–65 school year revealed that students felt the most pressing issues facing them on campus concerned in loco parentis regulations. They named civil rights as the most important off-campus issue.

Some students also found common cause with victims of “imperialism” in the Third World—particularly, as the decade wore on, in Vietnam. Again, civil rights leaders in the South blazed new intellectual paths in first making this association. “Not wanting to negotiate with the Vietcong is like the power structure in Mississippi not wanting to negotiate with black political activists,” argued a civil rights worker in 1966. Such cries became more common, especially among radical white members of SDS and similar organizations.


Still, it wasn’t until the war escalated and casualty rates skyrocketed in 1967 and 1968 that mass student opinion swung decisively against the conflict. The opposition grew just as the Johnson administration ordered induction boards to shift the draft burden onto recent college graduates. Male students who had’ been safely beyond the grasp of the Selective Service now faced uncertain futures. Campus demonstrations declined in mid-1969, when the Nixon administration shifted the draft burden back to younger men (aged 19), instituted an arbitrary (but more evenhanded) lottery system, and sharply reduced the total number of draft calls. College students once again enjoyed limited immunity from the war.

Of course, the point is not that student protesters in the 1960s were unusually selfish or egocentric. Many were heartfelt opponents of segregation and the Vietnam War, while countless others established new beachheads in the women’s rights, environmental, and antipoverty movements. But many other sixties-generation activists might never have developed a political consciousness if not for their growing sense of personal victimization.

Today’s collegians, whether at Harvard or Berkeley, exist in a different milieu. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as a direct response to campus rotests, most colleges’and universities abandoned in loco parentis rules. The Selective Service System, once a dread specter on college campuses, is an all but forgotten historical relic.

Though many students probably continue to believe themselves disadvantaged or subjugated, they do so from specific vantage points: as people of color, as gays and lesbians, as women, as immigrants. The idea that students qua students are oppressed simply does not command the degree of Credibility it did 35 years ago.

Nevertheless, last May’s sit-in protest at Harvard was not an isolated event. Students today are markedly less politically engaged than their parents were—the percentage that believe it is “very important or essential” to follow politics dropped from 57.8 in 1966 to 31.9 in 1994—but if they have lost interest in the electoral process, they also worry about, and strive to reverse, a perceived deterioration of civility and mutuality in American life.

Polls conducted in the early and mid-1990s revealed that 66 percent of college students volunteer for service activities, that roughly 4 of every 10 entering freshmen had already participated in a demonstration or protest in high school, and that 62. percent of students hope to enter a career involving a “meaningful” social contribution. Indeed, many of today’s collegians appear to have a definite sense of obligation to their communities and to one another. Many of those who are campus activists—especially if we broaden the definition of activism to include volunteerism and advocacy—seem able to find cause for engagement without first locating personal stakes.

Generalizations are necessarily overreductive. But at second glimpse, it may just be that the celebrated student movement of the 19605 was smaller, less self-sacrificing, and certainly more complicated than popular memory would suggest. And today’s students may not be as self-absorbed as pundits would have us believe. As one veteran of the 2001 Harvard protests remarked, “This isn’t our fathers’ sit-in.”

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