3 Times Students Rose Up and Changed History


As we come upon that graduating time of year, universities and colleges reveal their choice of commencement speakers. And in response to some speakers, students rise to protest. The speakers this year in particular have inspired a large degree of controversy — at least ten campuses so far have protested invited commencement speakers. Students at Swarthmore College protested the invitation of Robert B. Zoellick, the former president of the World Bank and a Swarthmore alumnus, because of his support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As a result, Zoellick withdrew as speaker in April. In the era of social media and the Internet, it has become easier for students to quickly react and mobilize in protest. But beyond just commencement speakers, what have students protested for and against — even died for? The list below details a few of the most significant student protests in history.

1. Vietnam War Protests

The anti-war movement of the 1960s mostly began on college campuses, as student members of an organization called Students for a Democratic Society began organizing teach-ins to talk about their opposition to the Vietnam War. As the draft began and more and more young men were called into the armed forces, more and more student protesters mobilized. One of the most famous was at Kent State University in 1970. Four students were killed during a protest when Ohio National Guardsmen fired into the crowd. The shootings instigated a nation-wide strike that forced many colleges and universities to close.

2. Serbian Protests

After the Serbian elections of 1996, thousands in opposition to the government of president Slobodan Miloševic gathered in order to protest electoral fraud, with University of Belgrade students joining in. It took Miloševic and his regime 96 days to recognize the victories of opposition parties, and his regime's concession of local elections was largely due to the volume and length of the protests. Protests in Belgrade were the largest, gathering up to 200,000 people.

3. Tiananmen Square Protest

Perhaps the most famous student protest, Tiananmen Square is infamous not for what the participants were protesting, but for how the government reacted. In 1989, student protesters occupied the square in react to the death of former Communist Party Secretary General Hu Yaobang, who had been a reformist. His death was the spark that subsequently led to pro-democracy protests. During June 3 and 4, divisions of the People’s Liberation Army moved into the square on foot and in tanks, firing tear gas and then guns. No one knows for certain the exact number of casualties.