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Protest and Politics

1968, Year of the Barricades

Examining Protest Movements Around the World by Using Photos and Other Sources

Learning Targets

  • I can examine photographs and written or recorded sources for details to help me understand an event that happened in the past.
  • I can describe a historic event to my classmates by using photos and other sources as evidence.
  • I can describe similarities and differences between individual protest movements (for extension activity).
  • I can articulate in writing issues about which I care (for extension activity).

This activity includes background information on the four countries covered in this collection. In addition to looking at photographs, students will listen to an audio file (and/or read the transcript), and then read a short book excerpt and some brief first-hand accounts from 1968. You may assign these as homework before the activity, or allow time for this in class.


United States 
Protest had a long history in the United States before 1968. The Civil Rights movement, more than a decade old, offered a model of non-violent tactics and had mobilized and organized huge numbers of participants, many of them young people. As opposition to the war in Vietnam grew, citizens had turned out in droves, marching in the streets. And, fuelled by numerous economic and other injustices —such as lack of access to fair housing, education, and jobs—black Americans had staged riots in cities from Los Angeles to Detroit to Newark, to name but a few. In response, urban police departments militarized their forces, in some instances acquiring helicopters and surplus military vehicles. As tumultuous as things had been to date, they would get worse in 1968. As in countries around the world, students in the United States would play a key role in demanding change.

The second week of 1968 set a record for the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam. The war was costing the country vast sums of money, while polls showed it was becoming increasingly unpopular. The Selective Service announced an increase in the draft rolls. This came on the heels of two prominent figures, child-rearing expert and pediatrician, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Yale University’s Chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, publicly stating that young men should defy the draft. Those that did faced legal charges. The North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive at the end of the month, and the chaos and violence of these attacks against South Vietnam and U.S. forces unfurled in front of television viewers in a flurry of news video that the White House had no hope of “spinning.” In February, college students in Boston held a four-day hunger strike against the war. By mid-month, famous TV news anchorman Walter Cronkite would arrive in Vietnam on a tour that would culminate in his televised public expression of severe doubt as to the country’s chances in this war.

By spring, demonstrations on campuses were a common occurrence, with students protesting not only the war but a host of grievances related to outdated rules, narrow curriculum offerings, and ties between universities and military/defense industries, such as Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of napalm. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had recently become vocally anti-war, on April 7, African American uprisings broke out in cities nationwide.

At Columbia University in New York City, students boycotted classes to protest the war and, in April, staged a major takeover of the university. They were angry about the school’s ties to the defense industry, what they regarded as an outdated curriculum, and Columbia’s plan to build a gym on the site of a Harlem neighborhood park. (Non-student Harlem residents were not going to be eligible to use the facility.) On April 23, Columbia’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called a rally and was joined by the Student Afro-American Society (SAS). At the gym construction site, protestors pulled down fences and scuffled with the police. Next, students occupied administrative offices in Hamilton Hall, locking the dean in his office. SAS students stayed in Hamilton and others went on to seize several other buildings. The occupation lasted eight days, during which protestors reached out to the Harlem community, debated protest techniques, talked politics, held film screenings and concerts, and conducted press conferences. There was even a wedding.

When the university called in the New York City Police at about 2:30 in the morning on April 30, mayhem ensued. Officers beat students and dragged them out of buildings. Hundreds were arrested, and the NYC Police Bureau received an unprecedented high number of complaints. Many faculty and non-protesting students now rallied around the activists. Public opinion, previously partial to the administration, was also swayed. Faculty created a board with external leadership to study what had happened. The board determined that University President Grayson Kirk was, in part, to blame. Kirk subsequently suspended SDS leader Mark Rudd and others, leading to another building takeover and battle with police. In August, Kirk took early retirement. Kirk had this to say about events of 1968: “I know of no time in history when the gap between generations has been wider or more potentially dangerous.”

Students at Columbia would soon closely follow events in May in Paris, as the Parisians had followed protests in New York and elsewhere. A movement that transcended national, political, and linguistic boundaries was underway.

In 1968, French students strode onto the world scene and created a French Revolution to rival the country’s previous revolutions. This protest movement would set in motion the toppling of long-standing power structures and propel an old world society into the modern era. Like their counterparts around the world, the French rallied around international outrage against the Vietnam War, but students here—and the workers they managed to form an alliance with—were first and foremost expressing their dissatisfaction with France and its outdated institutions, and their actions were rooted in French history and culture.

France had long been one of the world’s major powers, and had well-established colonies in Africa and Southeast Asia. In 1940, the Nazi Blitzkrieg brought France to its knees and divided the nation into “occupied” and “free” zones, though Germany controlled both. While some French officials and citizens cooperated with the Nazis and even aided the Nazi’s deportation of Jews, there was also a strong French resistance. General Charles de Gaulle, exiled in London, advocated for a Free France against the cooperating “Vichy” government and managed to gain the support of France’s colonies and turn public opinion against Vichy and the Germans. De Gaulle and the troops of “Free France” joined the Allied invasion and helped liberate France in 1944. De Gaulle established the Provisional Government of the French Republic and served as Prime Minister for two years.

But France was not to have peace after World War II. The Japanese had occupied Vietnam, or “Indochina,” a French protectorate, during the war. After World War II, the French reoccupied Vietnam and soon were embroiled in a bloody conflict that lasted from 1945 to 1954. This war was deeply unpopular with those in France on the political Left, including writer and cultural icon Jean-Paul Sartre. The turmoil in Indochina laid the groundwork for the U.S./Vietnam War, which many in France would also oppose.

Indochina was not France’s only problem. Another hotspot was its colony in Algeria, where an independence movement with many factions had been forming. The agitation would erupt into the Algerian War, which played out in North Africa and, in the form of terrorist “Café Wars,” on the French mainland from 1952 to 1962. Events in Algeria would deeply shake and divide the French people and cause the downfall of the Fourth Republic. With a military coup rumored in Algeria, a coup d’état in France, supported by the French Parliament, installed old stand-by Charles de Gaulle as president in 1958. De Gaulle rewrote the French constitution, giving vast powers to the office of the president, and formed the Fifth Republic. He was officially elected by the people in 1959. Late that year, de Gaulle spoke publicly for Algerian independence, reversing his previous position. It took three more years to get to a referendum in which people overwhelmingly approved Algerian independence. Throughout the conflict, there had been reports of misconduct on the part of French soldiers, and the war had been unpopular with French intellectuals and the powerful French Communist Party. Along with students, they had opposed the war and staged street protests in Paris.

In the years following the war, France, though finally at peace, was poised for internal strife. As in many other nations, the 1960s saw a rapidly growing economy, a rise in consumerism, and the coming of age of a population boom—about a 30 percent increase in the post-World War II years of 1946 to 1950. There were about 175,000 university students in France in 1958; in 1968, there were 530,000. At the same time that the youth population was expanding, an increased exposure to education, rock ‘n’ roll music, and new consumer products was creating a distinct youth culture, France itself was slow to change. In 1968, Charles de Gaulle was still at the helm of France. Born in the nineteenth century, his autocratic, paternalistic ruling style made the government—and the French university system it maintained control over—seem out of step with the new reality. The system was decidedly “top down,” facilities were inadequate, and students were subjected to huge lecture-style classes with little or no access to professors. Students would be the main force ushering in the end of “Gaullism.”

Students at a suburban Paris university, Nanterre, bordering a poor immigrant neighborhood, would be the first to sound an alarm. A small group of students—angry with the lack of resources and opportunities for discussion and reform, at single-sex dormitories with few visiting privileges, and no doubt inspired by events in the United States, Italy, and other countries—dubbed themselves Les Enragés (angry people) and began agitating. In January, the police came to break up a small demonstration. This became a regular event. The Vietnam War was a rallying cry for students as well, and opposition to the war was fierce. A university dean refused to advocate for Nanterre students who were arrested at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration that had taken place at an American Express bank on March 20, and were slated to be disciplined by the Education Ministry. On March 22, Les Enragés occupied a faculty space in a university building and gave birth to the “March 22 Movement.”

In early May, one of the Nanterre student leaders, Daniel Cohn-Bendit (“Dany the Red”) was scheduled for a disciplinary hearing related to his protest activities. Students at Nanterre staged a demonstration, stealing loudspeaker equipment from the school. Paris was about to host international peace talks over Vietnam, and de Gaulle’s government was determined to keep law and order. The Ministry of Education closed Nanterre, but instead of stifling the youth movement, this action shifted protest to Paris and the 700-year-old Sorbonne. The rector, or head, of the Sorbonne called in the police: 600 students were arrested, and the Sorbonne closed. This incursion into the sacred space of the university angered students and faculty.

The movement ballooned to include students and workers all over France. The government called out the CRS, armed riot police, and on the night of May 10th and 11th, protestors waged an urban battle in Paris’ Latin Quarter. This has become known as the “Night of the Barricades.” Invoking previous periods of revolt in French history, such as the 1871 Paris Commune, protestors pulled up cobblestones to form barricades. They overturned buses and cars, threatening to occupy until the government met their demands: re-open the Sorbonne, release jailed student activists, and remove police from the Latin Quarter. In sympathy and to press for their own demands, the major trade unions called for a general strike. De Gaulle fled the country to reflect on his options. By the end of the month the entire country was shut down, with ten million protesting and on strike.

The events of May 1968 in France are often noted for their violence—the hurling of cobblestones by angry youth, and the use of the club and tear gas by the CRS. But many first-person reminiscences claim that, in equal measure, 1968 was about the French people opening up and talking to each other. The many posters printed by students at L’école des Beaux Arts to adorn city walls portrayed the violence. One depicts a bandaged face with a safety pin on the mouth and the words: “A youth who became unquiet too often.” But many of the French slogans of 1968 depicted the playfulness and hope of the student movement. To quote a few: “Under the cobblestones, the beach.” “Be realistic: Demand the impossible.” “A barricade closes the street but opens a path.” The protests of 1968 did open a path for the education system to evolve. In subsequent years, the government dedicated more money to education at all levels and the student experience improved.

The term “Prague Spring” may have a familiar ring, especially due to the coining of the similar “Arab Spring” in the twenty-first century. However, events and circumstances in Czechoslovakia in 1968 are probably less well known than their name. Similar to each of the youth protest movements around the world, the Prague Spring and subsequent resistance to the summertime Soviet invasion was both linked to and distinct from movements in other countries. In Czechoslovakia, citizens of all ages opposed the Soviet invasion and supported their internal government’s reform intended to create “socialism with a human face.” As in other countries, however, students and artists were primary agents of change by calling for reform and were fearless defenders of their beliefs in the face of Soviet aggression.

Czechoslovakia became a country in 1918 amid the shifting of national borders in Europe after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Czech and Slovak regions, ethnically distinct, formed an uneasy union. Following the Soviet liberation of Czechoslovakia from Nazi occupation during World War II, the country’s Communist Party nationalized banks and major industries, and—in tone and politics—took its lead from the Soviets. Though popular sentiment was pro-Socialist, the country was not prepared for the brutal Stalinist “Sovietization” that began around 1948, in which hundreds of thousands of dissenters were imprisoned and persecuted. Even after Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet Bloc countries remained oppressed. Czechoslovaks and others watched as Soviets crushed the unrest in Poland and the Hungarian revolution in 1956.

Czechoslovakians wanted a say in the running of their country. Membership and participation in the official Communist Party was high. This fostered an atmosphere of debate and openness leading into the 1960s. Also, Prague was becoming a tourist destination. American poet Allen Ginsberg visited in 1965 and was crowned in a ceremony celebrating the first of May, traditionally a workers’ holiday. The country was becoming known for its writers and artists, such as playwright Válclav Havel and filmmaker Miloš Forman.

The Writers’ Congress in 1967 openly disagreed with state attempts to control freedom of expression. This coincided with a growing awareness among students that they wanted more from their schools and from their government. In 1967, students in Prague staged a small protest about heating and lighting in dormitories. They were crushed by the police. About 50 students were hospitalized. To the young idealists, many of whom believed in socialism and believed they had the right to speak out to make society a better place, this was shocking and unacceptable.

After this event, students began creating and distributing leaflets. Their actions were infectious, causing open discussion in the streets and factories. People asked for free elections. Prague Radio publicly criticized the censorship to which it submitted itself. Television programs began airing political debates.

In 1968, Alexander Dubček became head of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. The Soviets had seen nothing in Dubček that concerned them. Dubček would go on to propose an “Action Program” in April, however, with the intent of creating a “Socialist Democracy.” The breezes of the Prague Spring of 1968 blew in on this program, and on the pages of Western newspapers sold in a cafe that opened in historic central Prague. Czechs could read about the Soviet crackdown of student protest in Warsaw, of the increasing death count in Vietnam, and more. The Czech press itself was also daring to expose government corruption and openly ridicule the Soviets.

Moscow, feeling the entire Communist alliance was threatened, was infuriated. Soviet leader Brezhnev called a meeting of the Warsaw Pact nations, and demanded that the Czechoslovakian Communist Party control all mass media and stifle the dissent. But the Czechoslovakian people had spoken. Though Dubček assured Moscow that his nation did not want to break from the alliance with the Soviet Bloc, he asserted that “the overwhelming majority of the people of all classes and sectors of our society favor the abolition of censorship and are for freedom of expression. The Czech Communist Party is trying to show that it is capable of a different political leadership than the discredited bureaucratic-police method.”

Just before midnight on August 20, 1968, Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks crossed the borders into Czechoslovakia. “Operation Danube” was the name of the tactical aggression that brought some 500,000 troops into Czechoslovakia. Dubček, in a government building, watched as the soldiers opened fire on an angry crowd and decided that trying to resist the massive invading force would cost more lives—and give credence to the Soviet claim of counterrevolution in Czechoslovakia. He appealed to militia and citizens alike to remain calm and peaceful.

By the end of the first day, more than 20 Czechoslovakians were dead, and Dubček and his colleagues had been kidnapped and taken to Moscow. But the defiant Czechs had managed to get some live television footage out of the country. In Mexico, Japan, the United States—all over the world—students and others demonstrated on behalf of Czechoslovakia. There was even an unprecedented protest in Moscow’s Red Square.

For the most part, Czechoslovakians did remain peaceful during the months of the Soviet occupation. People used many non-violent tactics: They removed or moved road signs, confusing Soviet troops. They tried engaging the youthful invading soldiers in philosophical conversations. They staged sit-ins and roadblocks. They also relied on any radio broadcasts from beyond their borders that they could pick up, despite jamming equipment used by the invaders.

Moscow’s strong-arm tactics eventually forced Dubček and the Czechoslovakian Communist Party to sign an agreement leading to “normalization,” which was a return to Soviet domination and repression. By the end of the year, hope for reform was dashed, but students remained active, joining the Communist Party in droves with the hope of reforming from within, and staging a 100,000-person-strong, nationwide, three-day sit-in strike, with support from workers, to protest the undoing of the Prague Spring. It would be another 20 years before the country would once again push, peacefully, for its freedom. It would succeed in the “Velvet Revolution.”

In 1968, Mexico was poised to show the world that it was among the most accomplished and important nations, with a growing middle class, robust agriculture and industry, and idyllic tourist destinations. The Olympic Games were to be held in Mexico City, and, for the first time ever, the live TV broadcast would be in color. But in the months leading up to the October world-sporting event, the student protest movement and the government’s brutal response would expose some less desirable truths about the country. As in many other countries, youth in Mexico were dissatisfied with governmental policies, and they weren’t afraid to speak out—with disastrous consequences.

Having gained its independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, Mexico continued to face internal and external struggles. These included the Maya uprising and Yucatán’s constant succession attempts. U.S. President James Polk, bent on expanding U.S. territory, used reports of a skirmish in territory he claimed as American to persuade Congress to declare war in 1846. The technological superiority of U.S. weaponry ultimately sealed Mexico’s defeat two years later, resulting the loss of about one-half of its territory. The U.S.-Mexican War was the first to be photographed. After the war, Mexico was a nation in turmoil, with conservatives advocating a return to monarchy and strict ties to the church while liberals preferred an American model.

Eventually, Mexico settled into an authoritarian regime, with three decades in power for General Porfirio Díaz. In 1911, rebels seized power, and 30 years of revolution and counterrevolution ensued. Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Lázaro Cárdenas are some of the national heroes from this time. Muralist Diego Rivera’s work portrayed some of the optimism of the revolutionary period of 1910 to 1946. Mexico supported the Allied Forces in World War II, and many Mexicans went to the United States during the war as legal “braceros,” working in jobs vacated by American soldiers. The braceros sent money back to families in Mexico, creating a class of wealthier, more-consumerist Mexicans.

The 1950s saw a number of changes in Mexico, including women’s suffrage (1953) and rapid population growth. Though successive presidents were implementing social programs and nationalizing industry and utilities (to the chagrin of Mexico’s neighbor to the north), the country was under single-party rule, and there was an ever-increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor. Mexicans on both ends of the political spectrum became unhappy with the ruling party, the PRI, which didn’t approve of political dissent or strong unions. In 1959, the PRI broke a railroad workers’ strike and jailed the popular union leader Demetrio Vallejo. In 1964 and 1965, under President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, they crushed a doctors’ strike.

Students at Mexico City’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) and National Polytechnic University, and other Mexicans disagreed with government expenditures related to the upcoming Olympic games. Instead, they believed the government should be making societal improvements and aiding the country’s poor. Additionally, Mexican students had the examples of revolutionary heroes Fidel Castro and Che Guevara—and they were also aware of student unrest in the United States, France, and around the world. When fights broke out between rival student gangs at the UNAM, the Díaz Ordaz government sent in the military to squelch the outburst. This violation of the university, supposed to be autonomous, propelled students into action.

Student groups organized and staged numerous nonviolent demonstrations, staged street theater to disseminate political views, and posted a list of demands that included freedom for political prisoners and for students who had been arrested in the clash with police, redirecting of Olympic funds to public housing, and restoring the universities’ autonomy. One after another, student actions evoked violent response. Students occupied school buildings to protest, only to be met with more force.

A National Strike Council had been formed and organized marches. One, in August, drew a half-a-million people; many other Mexicans joined the students in peacefully protesting their autocratic government. Díaz Ordaz, believing that foreign communist forces were instigators in the unrest and determined to project a sense of authority and control leading up to the opening of the Olympics on October 12, became increasingly hostile to the protestors.

On October 2, several thousand demonstrators came together in the Plaza of the Three Cultures, also called by the Aztec name Tlatelolco. There was a huge military presence, including helicopters overhead. Initial gunfire frightened the crowd, which tried to disperse but was met with bayonets and more shooting. On a balcony from which speakers had faced the crowd, protestors were held at gunpoint by military and watched as shots were fired into the crowd below. People were beaten, arrested, and killed, and bodies were dragged away. On orders from Díaz Ordaz’s government, the press covered up the extent of the government-authorized brutality. To the present day, it is not known how many people were killed at Tlatelolco. At the time, the British newspaper The Guardian estimated 325. Press coverage focused more on the Olympic Games than on the tragedy at Tlatelolco.

At the time of the massacre, only a single Mexican official publically objected. This was Octavio Paz, the famous poet and essayist who was then the Mexican ambassador to India. A year after Tlatelolco, lecturing in the  United States, Paz compared the student movement in Mexico to the movements of students in the Soviet Bloc countries and other places where democracy did not exist.

Begin the Activity

Using the background provided, create one fact sheet per country, and divide the class into country groups. Give each group the fact sheet and photographs for their assigned country, as well as the first-hand accounts and excerpts. Instruct the groups to read over the fact sheets, and then discuss each photo and source in light of the country’s particular situation. Next, reorganize students into new groups. In each group, one or two students should represent the individual countries. Students present their country to the rest of their group.

Note: Translations for foreign-language words appear with the caption information for the images from France and Mexico.

Photograph 5008, of a large strike on a Parisian street, depicts marchers carrying banners that state the names of numerous unions in France. While there is no translation for this photo, you may want to point out to students that one marcher carries a sign saying “40 heures toute de suite,” which means “40 hours immediately.” This is a demand to reduce workers’ hours to 40 per week.

First-Hand Accounts and Excerpts 

Download First Hand Accounts and Excerpts (PDF)

Instructions for Using the First-Hand Accounts and Excerpts

United States
Mark Rudd was an activist in the Students for a Democratic Society chapter at Columbia University and one of the leading figures in the occupation of university buildings that spring. He went on to be part of the controversial Weather Underground, which sought the overthrow of the U.S. government. Rudd created this well-crafted response to Columbia University President Grayson Kirks’s comments, accusing youth of rejecting all forms of authority and their having “taken refuge in nihilism.” Rudd sent “An Open Letter to President Kirk from Mark Rudd.” In the letter, he vehemently refutes Kirk’s claim that students lack values, and he accuses Kirk and contemporaries of injustices, including sending young people to Vietnam as “cannon fodder.”

Have students read the sources from France. To understand the mindset of 1968, it is helpful to hear the voices of those who were present during this tumultuous time.

Give students selected excerpts from The Czech Black Book: An eyewitness, documented account of the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The excerpts include two leaflets found during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and a street scene as printed in a local newspaper.

One leaflet by university students eloquently expresses outrage at the Soviet invasion. Another invokes Czechoslovakia’s history of invasion to condemn the current oppression. A third source shows students the inner-workings of the Czech government that opposed Soviet intervention. A fourth, brief selection is a whimsical press statement that encourages Czech citizens to be optimistic in the face of invasion.

Students may either listen to a radio broadcast or read the transcript (provided in the appendix) of “Mexico’s 1968 Massacre: What Really Happened?”

This radio feature was produced by Joe Richman and Anayansi Diaz-Cortes of Radio Diaries. Individuals who participated in the student protest movement or who witnessed events in Mexico City in 1968 give meaningful, reflective first-person accounts.

Alternate Activity

Have individual students write essays about events in one country, citing photos and sources.

Questions to Consider

  • What role did generational differences or expectations play in the protest movements in these countries?
  • What types of political ideologies inspired student activists?
  • How did educational institutions and government forces respond to protestors?
  • What kind of alliances did student groups seek?

Extension Activities

1. After the small groups have met, ask students as a class to talk about what the protest movements in these four countries had in common and the ways in which they differed. As needed, prompt them to discuss ways in which students created messages, the tactics they used, and so on.

2. Contemporary Connection: Have students write a formal letter that explains their own beliefs, values, or concerns, and proposing solutions or making demands, to a person or institution in a position of power. For instance, students might choose to craft an argument against a dress-code policy, a city curfew for underage people, a military tactic, or something else.

next: “On Assignment”

Grade Level

Middle & High School


English Language Arts
Social Studies
U.S. History
World History


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