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Protests and Protesting

US has long history of college protests: Here's what happened in the past

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators have taken over parts of college campuses across the U.S., the latest in a decades-long string of protests ignited by political activism — some of which have spiraled into violence amid police crackdowns.

In the past, free speech sit-ins quickly escalated into massive rallies, Vietnam War college demonstrations turned deadly and U.S. civil rights protests ended in mass arrests.

The circumstances of each protest were different, but the story is familiar: Young people demanded changes on their campuses or in the world — and their impassioned demonstrations often escalated amid clashes with authorities.

Columbia, the university at the center of the current wave of protests, before, including during the Vietnam War in 1968. Demonstrations led the university to end classified war research and stop military recruitment, among other changes, wrote Rosalind Rosenberg, a professor of history at Barnard College, for .

Today's demonstrators also have specific changes in mind, often involving divestment from Israel, citing the deaths of who died in Gaza amid Israel's bombardment and ground assault. That military campaign was triggered by Hamas' incursion into southern Israel on Oct. 7, when about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and more than 240 people were taken hostage.

But as campus authorities react swiftly, citing safety concerns and calling in police to break up encampents, it's unclear if or how the current protests will influence the Israel-Hamas war.

ӣƵ revisited four monumental campus protests to explain how college protests have become a staple of American life and often influence the outcomes of political strife. Here's a look at how previous campus protests unfolded — and whether they were successful in their causes.

University of California, Berkeley: Free Speech in 1960s

At the University of California Berkeley starting in 1964, students on political activities and free speech during the civil rights movement and Vietnam-war era.

Students for a Democratic Society leader Mario Savio speaks to demonstrators at a sit-in at U.C. Berkeley on Nov. 30, 1966.

"In the wake of  anti-Communist sentiments during the 1950s, public universities in California had enacted numerous regulations limiting ," for the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee University. "At the University of California, Berkeley, student groups taking part in any on- or off-campus political activities were banned from campus."

What transpired were "small sit-ins and demonstrations" that "escalated into a series of large-scale rallies and protests demanding full constitutional rights on campus," reads the UC Berkeley website.

were arrested by local police as a result.

The students' protest ultimately worked in their favor. The university eventually overturned policies that would restrict the content of speech or advocacy, according to the college.

"Today, the Movement stands as a symbol of the importance of protecting and preserving free speech and academic freedom," reads the UC Berkeley website.

Kent State University in Ohio: Vietnam War in 1970

The most prolific university protest of the Vietnam War happened at Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970. Students started protesting the Vietnam War and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia on their campus on May 2. Two days later, the National Guard opened fire into a sea of antiwar protesters and passerbys. The soldiers killed four young people – Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Knox Schroeder – and injured several others with their violence.

"The impact of the shootings was dramatic," wrote Jerry Lewis and Thomas Hensley for Kent State University. "The event triggered a nationwide student strike that forced hundreds of colleges and universities to close."

Ohio National Guardsmen head back toward Taylor Hall and the Pagoda after stopping on a practice field near the Prentice Hall parking lot on May 4, 1970 in Kent, Ohio.

The shootings also influenced national politics, Lewis and Hensley wrote.

"In The Ends of Power, (H.R.) Haldeman, (a top aide to President Richard Nixon), states that the shootings at Kent State began the slide into Watergate, eventually destroying the Nixon administration," the article reads.

Today, the protest and shootings "certainly come to symbolize the deep political and social divisions that so sharply divided the country during the Vietnam War era," Lewis and Hensley wrote.

Jackson State College in Mississippi: Racial Injustice in 1970

Days after the shootings at Kent State, police opened gunfire at a college dormitory Jackson State College in Mississippi, a school with a predominantly Black student population.

Black students there were protesting racial injustice, including how they were treated by white drivers speeding on campus, .

Bullet holes riddle the windows of a women's dormitory at Jackson State College in Mississippi. On May 15, 1970, police fired into the dormitory killing two and wounding 15 students of the Historically Black College. After state workers attempted to repair Alexander Hall and remove evidence of the shooting, Millsaps College students joined Jackson State Students in blocking the entrance of the dorm on May 20, 1970 in Jackson, Miss.

Police received a call that Black young people were throwing rocks at white drivers near the campus. Police arrived at the scene and shot hundreds of bullets into Alexander Hall, according to an FBI report, . Police killed two students – Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green – and injured 12 others. The college also canceled its graduation due to the killings and unrest.

At a 2021 commencement ceremony, the university honored 74 of the students who were unable to walk the stage in 1970, . At the commencement ceremony, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said police “unjustly gunned down two innocent young Black men, terrorized and traumatized a community of Black students and committed one of the gravest sins in our city’s history," .

The killings at Jackson State College and Kent State University national sparked outrage. College students across the nation protested on their campuses, , a collaboration of historical content from the groups Ի.

"The spring of 1970 saw the first general student strike in the history of the United States, students from over four hundred colleges and universities calling off classes to protest the invasion of Cambodia, the Kent State affair, the killing of two black students at Jackson State College in Mississippi, and the continuation of the war," ."

Angus Johnston, an adjunct assistant professor at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York and a historian of student activism, said after both events: "There was a period of about 30 years or so where it tended to be fairly unlikely that campuses would respond with mass arrests even in the case of admin building occupations."

Nationwide: South Africa anti-Apartheid protests in 1985

Another form of popular college campus protest occurred in the 1980's. Students across the country wanted their colleges to cut ties with groups that supported from the South African apartheid.

"Under apartheid, race restricted every aspect of life for South Africans who were Black, Indian and colored — a multiracial classification created by the government," . "There were strict limits on where they could live, attend school, work and travel.

An anti-apartheid protest by students at the entrance to the Hamilton Hall building of Columbia University, New York City, April 4, 1984. The protesters called for the university to divest itself of its investments in South Africa.

Columbia University was at the center of the movement. Students led by the Coalition for a Free South Africa at Columbia University "blockaded Hamilton Hall, the university’s administrative building, leading to the first successful divestiture campaign at the university," .

There was less pushback for protesters during this time, due to a “certain embarrassment among elites in the United States that there was complicity with South Africa’s white government,” said Daniel Farber, a history professor at the University of Kansas who has studied American activism, .

Columbia University from doing business with South Africa and 155 universities U.S. Congress also passed in 1986, which aimed to prevent new trade and investment between the nation and South Africa.

What is the future of college protests in America?

Free speech experts told ӣƵ that students should continue to peacefully protest in open campus spaces to avoid conflict.

Alex Morey, the director of campus rights advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, encourages universities to remain neutral in times of unrest and not to call in authorities unless a demonstration turns violent. The national nonprofit defends Americans rights to free speech and thought.

"Peaceful protest is a hallmark of a healthy speech climate on American college campuses and it has been for decades – whether it's the Berkeley free speech movement, or students protesting the Vietnam War era or civil rights," Morey said. "Generations of students have felt passionately about certain issues and the open air places on campuses are great places to support their views."

Contact Kayla Jimenez at kjimenez@usatoday.com.Follow her on X at @kaylajjimenez.

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