Student-led protests

by Keith Barber


On February 1, 1960, NC A&T State College freshmen Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. and David Richmond took a seat at the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s store in downtown Greensboro and made history. The African- American students were refused service at the “whites only” lunch counter. The bold actions of the four A&T students sparked a national wave of non-violent student protests against racial segregation.


On Feb. 8, 1960, Carl Matthews, a graduate of Winston- Salem Teachers College, took a seat at the lunch counter of the Kress store in downtown Winston-Salem and was refused service. Matthews began his protest of the city’s segregated lunch counters exactly one week after the NC A&T State University students’ protest. Matthews’ actions inspired other African American students at Winston-Salem Teachers College (now Winston-Salem State University) and a number of local high school students to join him in his protest of segregated lunch counters. On Feb. 23, 10 white Wake Forest students traveled downtown and joined 10 students from Winston-Salem Teachers College and Atkins High School student Patricia Tillman. The 21 students held a joint sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and were arrested, jailed and found guilty of trespassing. On Feb. 23, city officials announced a desegregation agreement to open the city’s lunch counters, and two days later, Matthews was the first black person to be served at an open lunch counter in Winston-Salem.


June 3, 1989 is a day that will live in infamy in the annals of Chinese history. On that day, the Chinese army moved tanks into Tiananmen Square to crush a student-led revolt against the government. “Several hundred civilians have been shot dead by the Chinese army during a bloody military operation to crush a democratic protest in Peking’s [Beijing] Tiananmen Square,” the BBC reported. “The injured were rushed to hospital on bicycle rickshaws by frantic residents shocked by the army’s sudden and extreme response to the peaceful mass protest.” Who could ever forget the television images of the Chinese student who stood bravely in the path on an oncoming tank? Chinese army troops hunted down student leaders from the Peking University and successfully quashed the uprising.


On Nov. 10, a student-led protest of tuition fee increases in Great Britain turned violent as protestors broke into the Conservative Party’s headquarters in central London, according to the London-based Telegraph. Protesters hurled rocks, wooden banners, eggs, rotten fruit and shards of glass at police as they tried to hold back the crowd with metal batons and riot shields, the Telegraph reported. Protesters shouted, “Die Tory scum!” as they vandalized the party’s headquarters. The protest, organized by the National Union of Students, was a reaction to the announcement that university tuition fees would be tripled to 9,000 pounds ($14,000) a year as the nation enacts a number of severe austerity measures.


Perhaps no other document captures the 2007 Burmese anti-government protests as well as Anders ‘stergaard’s 2009 documentary film, Burma VJ. The film reveals how the student-led protest was captured by courageous video journalists, known as VJs, and how those images were shared with the world to shine a light on the actions of the brutal military dictatorship that has ruled Burma for the past four decades. The film captures the historic and dramatic days in September 2007, when Buddhist monks started marching in protest, and the violent crackdown by the military junta that included the killing of monks.


The Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley during the fall of 1964 marked the first of the American student movements to make headlines all over the world, according to the Encyclopedia of American Social Movements. The Free Speech Movement lasted more than two months and resulted in the arrest of 773 students for occupying the university’s administration building. It also led to the removal of the university’s administration — including the firing of President Clark Kerr — and an expansion of student rights regarding political activism.


Fueled by Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 and the escalation of the war in Vietnam, UNC-Chapel Hill students began mass protests beginning the fall of 1969. By the spring of 1970, class boycotts became commonplace on the Chapel Hill campus. Protests culminated in a strike by graduate teaching assistants and more than 2,000 students. In May, the students and faculty marched on South Building, the main administration building, to demand an end to the war in Vietnam, according to the university’s website. The march coincided with the killing of four Kent State students by Ohio National Guard troops on May 4, 1970.


On May 4, l970 members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine Kent State students, according to the book Kent State: Answers and Questions. “The impact of the shootings was dramatic. The event triggered a nationwide student strike that forced hundreds of colleges and universities to close,” the book states.


On May 13, 1968, a group of 20,000 to 30,000 French students marched to the Champs-de-Mars, and at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, as part of a student strike against “modern consumer and technical society and embraced left-wing positions that were critical of authoritarianism and Western capitalism,” according to the book, The Beginning of an Era. The confrontations with university administrators and police were seen as a way to shake up traditional French society.


One of the most tragic of all student-led protests is the “Orangeburg Massacre” of 1968 when nine South Carolina Highway Patrol officers fired into a group of South Carolina State students protesting segregation at a local bowling alley. Three men were killed and 38 more were injured in the assault, which at the time, was the worst of its kind on American soil. The Orangeburg Massacre received very little media attention as compared to a similar incident at Kent State due in large part to the fact the victims were young black men protesting local segregation, author Jack Bass states in his book, The Orangeburg Massacre.