Walkouts, Sit-Ins, and Merry Outlaws: A History of Student Protests, 1924-2024

Student protest feature image of Jane Fonda at the University of South Carolina Rally following the U.S. invasion of Cambodia by Brettmann via Getty Images

We’re now over seven months into Israel’s escalated attacks on Gaza and a month into the nationwide campus protest movement against the genocide. The last month has given birth to a seemingly endless stream of discourse about what kind of protesting is “appropriate,” who has a “right” to protest violence happening on foreign soil, and what it means to stand in solidarity with Palestinians and the people of Gaza. Something that keeps coming up is people seem to understand that campus protests are a part of our resistance history in the U.S. while at the same time they denigrate their tactics and their impact.

I’m not the kind of writer, organizer, teacher, or person who feels it’s necessary to respond to the discourse directly, so I’m not going to. Mainly because for the last seven months, we’ve watched as death and destruction is livestreamed out of Gaza and for the last month, we’ve watched as police and civilian violence is enacted on college and graduate students all across the country in varying degrees of brutality. At this point, nearly 3,000 students and allies have been arrested at these protests and encampments. To me, at this stage, what’s more important than just fighting back against people’s misconstrued narratives is situating this resistance in a long history of student organizing and activism that has always existed in this country.

When you zoom out, it would seem like American culture’s relationship with these movements of the past is actually pretty celebratory. But when you zoom in, you can see that’s not the case at all. Everything from the slave revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the suffrage movement to the Civil Rights and the Vietnam anti-war movements have been sanitized for easy consumption. When you study movement history, you don’t just learn that our sterilized perceptions of these events are wrong, you also learn what it means to truly resist.

Resistance can be a lot of things, but it isn’t neat, pretty, or convenient. By nature, resistance is disruptive to the “normal” order of our lives — everyone’s lives, not just the organizers participating in the resistance. That is what is supposed to happen. Because, otherwise, what reason would people have to listen? As we’ve seen throughout the history of the world, sometimes people’s hands need to be forced, their attention needs to be taken not asked for, and their eyes need to be pried open in order to finally see everything they’ve been missing. The college campus has been, historically, a place where resistance is dreamt up, organized, and eventually enacted. The university system has a lot of power in the U.S. and if radical changes can be made there or pushed by the institutions, perhaps other institutions would be more willing to change.

Even though I’m personally skeptical of the “radical potential” of college campuses and of the value placed on nonviolent protest tactics as opposed to violent ones, it’s true that the resistance history of this country (and elsewhere) encompasses a variety of strategies that have worked and not worked to different degrees. The student-led campus Gaza Solidarity Encampments that have popped up on over 50 universities in the last 30 days are not just part of that lineage —they are explicitly influenced by them. Recognizing, understanding, and celebrating the accomplishments, lessons, and impacts of these movements can help put the current moment into perspective, while also providing the fuel we need to keep moving forward.

Fisk University protests — 1924 – 1925

Fisk University is a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee but, like other HBCUs in the U.S., it did not always have Black administrators at the helm of university decision and policy-making. After Fayette McKenzie became president of Fisk in 1915, he created and enforced a strict set of university laws — most of which were anti-Black in their conception and designed to censor Black radical thought on campus. In 1924, a group of students at Fisk had enough and organized campus wide protests to bring attention to what was happening and oust McKenzie as president of the university.

According to reports, students didn’t just occupy space by holding peaceful demonstrations, they also broke McKenzie’s curfew, broke into buildings, and destroyed property on campus. In response, McKenzie brought in the all-white police force of Nashville to not only attempt to stop the protest but also arrest student organizers and search their dormitories for other materials that could potentially lead to criminal arrests and trials. Students then switched to other tactics by getting the rest of the Black community in Nashville involved in the protest, by boycotting classes for ten weeks, and applying for transfers to other HBCUs (especially Howard University). By Spring 1925, the rest of the university administration decided to can McKenzie, undo all of the policy damage he’d caused, and reinstate the students who were arrested and suspended. They also appointed Black Fisk alumnae to the university board of trustees to ensure that students’ voices would be part of university operations from then on.

The Green Feather Movement, or Robin Hood’s “Merry Outlaws” — 1953 – 1954

This was a short-lived campus movement, but one always worth mentioning because it helped fuel a lot of the campus activism of the early 1960s and beyond. At the height of McCarthyism, the Indiana School Textbook Commission proposed banning Robin Hood for grades kindergarten through 12th because of its message of “stealing from the rich to give to the poor.” When it made state news, a group of undergraduates at Indiana State University in Bloomington decided to organize against the state’s McCarthyist proposition. They “went to a local poultry farm and collected six large burlap sacks filled with chicken feathers and took them to the basement of a nearby house where they dyed them green to represent the one worn by Robin Hood.” The following day, March 1, 1954, they spread the feathers all around campus and attached buttons to them that said, “They’re your books; don’t let McCarthyism burn them.” A line!

This protest inspired similar anti-McCarthyism demonstrations on campuses across the U.S. throughout 1954. The connection between what happened next and the movement is speculative, but in January 1954 McCarthyism was polling at about a 50% approval rating. By Fall 1954, those numbers were declining dramatically, and Senator McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate on December 2, 1954 after a series of controversial hearings he led on national TV.

Greensboro Sit-Ins — 1960

This is technically not a movement that occurred on campus, but it was organized at a college. The Greensboro Sit-Ins were started in Greensboro, North Carolina when a group of four Black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University organized a months-long sit-in at a local Woolworth’s lunch counter to protest segregation. The action was simple in its design: The organizers would show up at the lunch counter every single day, request service, and if asked to leave, they wouldn’t. They committed to doing this for as long as it took to desegregate the restaurant in the hopes that desegregation of individual institutions would eventually force the state’s hand.

News of the sit-ins grew quickly, fueled by media coverage of the event, and other Black people began joining the four organizers at Woolworth’s. But that’s not the only significant thing about this particular action. As news of the sit-ins spread nationwide, it only took about three months for other sit-ins to be organized in 55 cities across 13 states. In addition to that, the Greensboro Sit-Ins are viewed as the catalyst to the student organizing movement for Civil Rights in the 1960s. By the end of 1960, chapters of the newly formed Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee were being started across campuses all over the U.S., which helped birth larger Civil Rights actions throughout the early 1960s and, eventually, the more radical (complimentary) Black Power Movement of the later 1960s.

East L.A. Walkouts, or “Chicano Blowouts” — 1968

As a high school teacher, I feel like it’s important to mention at least a couple of actions in non-university contexts, because our culture spends a lot of time convincing young people they have no power in our society. The East L.A. Walkouts weren’t the first teenager-led protest movement in the U.S. (many of those actually happened to protest child labor laws) but they’re significant here because they happened on high school campuses.

In 1967, a group of Mexican American students came together to organize a series of walk-outs in protest of the inequitable treatment they were receiving at their high schools and by the Los Angeles Unified School District. Their demands were numerous because systemic racism was (and is) deeply embedded in the school system. Among them were equitable educational opportunities, changes to the curriculum to include the history and culture of Mexican people, and the explicit teaching of the Spanish language in schools. Even though the planning was thoughtful and meticulous, the very first walkout at Wilson High School happened spontaneously as a result of administrative decisions made there on March 1, 1968. In the days following, students from seven other high schools in L.A. joined in the walkouts, and that began a months-long protest movement that included students, parents, and teachers. Eventually, this led to the organization of the Educational Issues Coordinating Committee and to the arrests and prosecution of many student and community organizers. The walkouts certainly did not bring an end to racial discrimination in schools in L.A. or anywhere else, but they did lead to some significant changes — like an increase in diversity of high school teachers in the county — and have inspired similar movements over the last 56 years.

San Francisco State College Strike, 1968-1969

In response to the discriminatory practices happening at San Francisco State, a group of students from the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front organized a student strike that started on November 6, 1968. Similar to the East L.A. Walkouts, the organizers at SFSC had several demands including an end to racist admissions practices, more diversity in who was employed at the faculty and administrative levels, and an improved curriculum that included the study of the contributions, accomplishments, and histories of Black people and people of color in the U.S. and beyond.

The strike completely shut down the university for 115 days and ended on March 19, 1968. As a result of the strike, SFSC established the first College of Ethnic Studies at any U.S. university — this included the creation of a Black Studies department. It also put policies in place to help attract and hire diverse faculty members and created policies to increase the number of marginalized students admitted to the university. In addition to that, because many students were arrested and suspended as a result of the ongoing strike, the university committed to reinstating those students and providing aid to them if needed. These demands and policy changes helped change other universities in the years following.

Vietnam Anti-War Campus Movements — 1964 – 1970 (& beyond, really)

These have obviously been the most cited movements in the conversations around the Gaza Solidarity Encampments. The encampment at Columbia University took its queues from the original CU Student Occupation that happened in response to the American War in Vietnam in 1968. But the truth is, while that is one of the biggest and most famous student-led protests of the era, campus protests were happening prior at the University of Michigan and the University of Washington among many others.

The socialist Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organizing group was founded in 1960 at Michigan in response to the anti-communist Cold War politics and the fascist crackdowns on Civil Rights movements of the time. But by the mid-1960s, SDS spread to campuses all over the U.S. and began to focus their efforts on pushing for an end to the war. Student-led anti-war demonstrations, protests, and actions were held quite literally all over the U.S. Their organizing tactics included everything from campus occupations to hunger strikes to teach-ins and vigils to marches and student strikes, and eventually led to the creation of other more radical (again, complimentary!!) student-led organizations like The Weather Underground.

Perhaps the biggest organizing accomplishment of the movement happened in May 1970, shortly after it was announced that the war would be expanding into Cambodia. University students at a number of college campuses organized a student strike that began on May 1, 1970. This resulted in many campus administrations calling in local police forces and, in the case of Kent State University, the National Guard. On May 4, the National guardsmen at Kent State opened fire on a group of peaceful student protesters, which resulted in four students being murdered and another nine injured. The massacre led to increased attention on the strikes and they eventually expanded to around 880 other college campuses in the U.S. by the end of that week. As a result of the strike, President Nixon’s administration began a large-scale crackdown on campus organizing activities that is still impacting campus organizing and organizing in general to this day.

It would take several more years, many more on-campus and off-campus, violent and nonviolent, organizing strategies — along with the war quickly became both a political and tactical failure — to change the American public’s perception and force the U.S. government to take action.

South African Apartheid Divestment Movement — 1964 – 1986

You might be surprised reading those dates because so much attention has been paid specifically to the Columbia University and University of California, Berkeley anti-apartheid actions that happened in the mid-1980s. Of course, this does not diminish the incredible and impactful organizing done by those students, but the reality is anti-apartheid activism actually began much earlier on the campuses of HBCUs like Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Tuskegee University.

In the first 20 years of the South African divestment movement, students at these HBCUs organized several different kinds of demonstrations in an attempt to get their campuses to divest from South African industry that supported apartheid and to bring more U.S. attention to what was happening in South Africa. According to Rita Omokha’s work on the subject, students “disrupted speeches when South African politicians visited America,” “barricaded schools and other business buildings,” raised money for South African anti-apartheid organizing groups in South Africa, and “constructed shantytown replicas that attracted national media attention and reflected the debilitated conditions of Black South Africans” on the lawns of the campuses.

In the mid-1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Students for a Democratic Society also organized anti-apartheid protests, most notably at the South African Consulate in New York City. These protests were ongoing throughout the following 20 years, and came to a boiling point when CU students and Berkeley students organized massive campus demonstrations and encampments to pressure their school endowments to divest from South Africa. The demonstrations spread to other campuses across the country — Michigan State University, Smith College, Harvard University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to name a few — and eventually did lead to these universities divesting from their South African stock holdings.

As more and more universities led the charge in divestment, more institutions in the U.S. also began following suit and, in 1986, the federal government passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act via veto override against President Reagan’s veto of the bill that placed economic sanctions on South Africa until the nation agreed to end apartheid.

Other Important Campus Protest Movements and Further Reading

LGBT rights protest at Cornell University, 1968: Although the Stonewall Riots are seen as the tipping point for LGBT rights activism in the U.S., there were many actions organized by young LGBT people that preceded it. This one at Cornell University helped fuel the organization on LGBT rights on college campuses in the years following it.

Take Back the Night at the University of Southern Florida (USF), 1973: Take Back the Night is, so far as I know, the oldest and longest standing annual demonstration against sexual violence in the U.S. (and possibly the world). Started in 1973 and inspired by global protests against sexual violence, a group of female students at USF held the first Take Back the Night demonstration by “dress[ing] in black sheets, h[olding] broomsticks, and march[ing] through campus demanding a women’s center.”

“A Day Without Immigrants” Demonstration, 2006: While this is not exactly a “student movement” or “campus movement,” I’m listing here because it was one of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history and many college and high school students participated in the organization and protest. According to reports, the Santa Barbara School District had one-third of the student population absent, the Los Angeles Unified School District had approximately 27% absent, and in Hillsborough County, Florida, about 12% of middle and high school students did not report to school.

Black Lives Matter, 2014 – ongoing: Again, not exactly a “student movement” or “campus movement,” but in both the 2014 protests following the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, the movement was active on college campuses, in particular. The 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd happened during the summer, but even then, campus activists still found a way to organize others at their universities.

March For Our Lives — 2018 – ongoing: Following the mass shooting that killed 17 students and teachers and injured 17 more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a group of students from the school came together to organize locally and nationally for stricter gun regulations in the U.S. The initial actions were a series of walkouts organized at schools in Florida and then across the country. An eventual march on Washington followed, and then MFOL organizers began working more intensely in legislative organizing. The hope was — and is — that more gun regulation will help prevent mass shootings from happening. Although their wins are not heavily publicized, MFOL has scored a number of legislative victories across the U.S.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 89 articles for us.


  1. Thank you for this history! I knew about some of these in detail—my mom participated in the SFSU strikes (and was traumatized by the police violence unleashed on students… another recurring historical theme), and I participated in some of the more recent movements, including smaller-scale, local- or state-focused student protest movements, as both a student and later as a faculty supporter. While I agree that the radical potential of universities as institutional spaces
    is… suspect… I think there IS something really powerful and special about youth movements, and campuses are key locations for youth organizing. No movement is perfect, but paying attention to all of this energy and work is exactly what I need when I start feeling hopeless. Thank you again.

  2. telling persian and iraqi and afghani and morrocan and yemeni jews of judean descent who kicked out of their arab diaspora countries to use all their time to tell them go back to poland is really something. the world is sick

  3. A pretty good timeline except you forget to mention the massacre at Jackson State from 1970, 11 days after the Kent State massacre. It was an anti-war student protest in Jackson, Mississippi. I mention it in my article at substack.

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