According to the Atlantic, you’re lucky to be living through the “renaissance of student activism.” Students are a prominent – and often the driving – force behind many movements. They include the likes of Black Lives Matter, Global Climate Strikes, and the Debt Collective.
But this isn’t a recent phenomenon. You can find students among both participants and organizers of multiple protests in the 20th and 21st centuries alike. And some of those protests helped turn the course of history – or are working towards that right now.
So, let’s break down the six most important student protests in US history. Let them inspire you to join the next sit-in or strike organized by your on-campus organization. And don’t let homework stop you from playing your role in making history!
“What do I do with it, though? Can I ask someone to do my homework for me on Essaypro, maybe?” Yes, exactly! And with your assignments done well, you’ll be giving the administration one less excuse to suspend you if they won’t like you protesting.
Civil Rights Protests: Greensboro Sit-Ins (1960)
You already know the names of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. But, there are also student figures that contributed a great deal to this movement. The Greensboro Four, for example, were all freshmen at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
They decided to think creatively and organized one of the most famous sit-ins in the history of the movement. The four decided to come to the Woolworth store, which had a segregationist policy in place at the time. They’d ask to be served at the lunch counter and refuse to leave once denied service.
On the first day of the sit-in, there were only four. But the next day, over 20 black students showed up at the store. The number grew, and on the sixth day, over 1,000 protesters and counter-protesters filled it by noon.
The Greensboro sit-ins, although they weren’t the first ones in the country, fanned the flame of the whole sit-in movement throughout the South. And if you visit Greensboro, you’ll find the International Civil Rights Center and Museum where that Woolworth store once stood.
Columbia University Uprising (1968)
These massive protests were part of the two most high-profile movements of the 1960s. Those are, of course, the Vietnam War protests and the Civil Rights Movement. They were sparked by two separate causes:
- In 1967, an activist discovered the university’s ties to a think tank affiliated with the U.S. Department of Defense and supporting the Vietnam War;
- In 1965, Columbia University announced the plans to build a segregated gymnasium on the territory of city-owned Morningside Park.
The series of protests erupted in April 1968, several days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Over its courses, students managed to:
- Occupy the Hamilton Hall, which housed the university’s classrooms and offices;
- Take over Low Library and three other campus buildings;
- Take an acting dean hostage for 24 hours.
As a result of these actions, activists achieved both of their goals. Columbia University distanced itself from the think tank, and the plans for the gymnasium were scrapped. Furthermore, the university claims that it took 20 years to “fully recover” financially and reputationally from these protests.
Vietnam War Protests: Kent State Shootings (1970)
By 1970, American society was divided over the Vietnam War. The anti-war movement had gained traction, but the pro-war one had arisen as well.
On April 30, 1970, Richard Nixon, then-President, announced the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. That prompted around 500 Kent State students to go out on a demonstration the very next day. While it was peaceful, violent riots broke out in the town the same night and the nights after.
The riots were met with a declaration of emergency state by Kent Mayor on May 1. Three days after, as planned, over 2,000 protesters gathered on the Kent State campus. The demonstration was peaceful. The National Guard, however, ordered the crowd to disperse and later opened fire, killing four people and wounding another nine.
This shooting didn’t go unnoticed – it made the headlines, and photos taken in its aftermath became famous worldwide. It fueled massive strikes across the country in the days after. At their peak, almost 900 campuses mobilized to demonstrate against both the shooting and the Vietnam War expansion.
Black Lives Matter (2013-Present)
Yes, the founders of Black Lives Matter weren’t students at the moment of its creation. But a significant part of the movement’s activists consists of them.
For example, after the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014, students, just like many others, took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.
But that, by far, isn’t the only example of students’ involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement. Here are just three more:
- In 2015, the students of Twin Cities walked out of schools to rally against racially-motivated police brutality;
- The same year, their counterparts at UC Berkeley organized a vigil to commemorate and protest after a mass shooting at an episcopal church in Charleston;
- In 2016, black, Muslim, and Latino activists enrolled at the University of Illinois in Chicago took to the streets to protest Trump’s rally.
Debt Collective Protests (2014-Present)
The Debt Collective is a movement seeking to abolish student debt once and for all. It sprung out of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2014. The reason? The scandal around for-profit Corinthian Colleges and its Everest Colleges.
In short, Corinthian and Everest were connected to predatory lending practices. Everest’s degree also turned out to be essentially worthless. Furthermore, credits earned there were impossible to transfer to other colleges. All of that led to Corinthians’ dismantlement. Besides protesting, the Debt Collective also helped Corinthian alumni get debt relief.
The Debt Collective is also calling on those with student debt to stop paying it out. At the moment, almost 1,500 people, some of the entrepreneurs, are essentially on a student debt strike.
The latest action of the movement took place on April 4, 2022. Hundreds of protesters marched to the Education Department demanding to cancel the student debt.
Global Climate Strikes (2019-Present)
Students are among the most prominent voices in the global climate change movement. Inspired by Greta Thunberg’s decision to skip school every Friday to protest, this movement assembled around 4 million worldwide at its peak.
In the United States, the first protest was a solitary picket. Alexandria Villaseñor came to the United Nations to pass on the climate urgency message weekly. In the following weeks, more students joined Alexandria in solitary pickets in other locations.
Three months later, on March 15, 2019, activists organized a nationwide demonstration. It gathered over 17,000 people in 100+ locations across the nation. Another strike gathered thousands in Boston, Chicago, Houston, and other locations on May 3, 2019.
September 20, 2019, marked the largest climate mobilization in US history. Across all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico, more than 1,000 events took place. In New York alone, 250,000 protesters are estimated to have taken part in rallies.
You can find a trace of students’ involvement in all major turning points in US history throughout the previous century and the current one. They’re the driving force behind many of the already existing and newly created movements. You can be sure: you’ll meet some fellow students at the next protest you attend.
And there can be no doubt: when there is a need to mobilize once again, students of all walks of life will be at the forefront to have their say.