News Archives

1968 Global Politics & Protests

December 12, 2018

During assembly on Wednesday, December 12, Sara Jay (History) and Frederique Joubert (Modern Languages) continued this year's faculty focus on 1968 with a presentation on global politics and protests in 1968 — their similarities, their differences and their significance. Their prepared remarks (slightly edited) follow:


We at John Burroughs School, or even in the United States, are not the only communities who have chosen to take a few moments this year and think about the legacies and consequences of 1968.

Pictured at the right, are four countries where commemorations for 1968 have taken place: At the top left is the Czech Republic, commemorating the Prague Spring; at the top right is Poland; at the bottom right is Mexico and at the bottom left is Nantes, France.

All of this begs two important questions:

1) What is everyone commemorating?

2) Where does our commemoration in the United States, or even more locally our year-long programming at JBS, fit in within the context of what is going on around the world?

Indeed, the spirit of 1968 is not an American phenomenon, it was and is truly a global one. Students and young people led protests in Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Mexico, South Africa, Pakistan, Brazil, Jamaica, the UK, Northern Ireland, Scandinavia, and the list continues. While we do not have time to talk about all of these movements in great detail, we hope to give you a sense of the similarities as well as the important differences in the inspirations and course of many of these movements. While on the surface many of the national protests appear to hit the same notes, they are mostly young people who choose to march and strike — the reasons for the students frustration, the government and international reaction, and ultimately the legacy of each is quite unique and different.

One of the earliest movements, now known as the Prague Spring, actually began in the winter. On 5 January 1968, reformist Alexander Dubcek was elected First Secretary of the Communist party on a platform of openness, deregulation, and of a separate Czech identity from Soviet dominance. At this time, Eastern European countries fell under the sphere of the Communist Soviet Union, while Western European countries were generally aligned with the capitalist and democratic United States.

Dubcek wanted to grant additional rights to citizens by granting more control over the economy and country as opposed to letting the Soviet Union make decisions for them. In plain terms, he promised loosening of the restrictions of the media; he wanted to allow for more freedom of speech, and freedom of travel outside Poland. He also oversaw the decision to split into two the Czech Socialist Republic and Slovak Socialist Republic

The Soviets were enraged by this program and its popularity and were nervous by how quickly Dubcek began to implement the changes. They did not want other satellites to follow suit and saw Dubcek as a threat to Soviet power within the block. After failed negotiations, Soviet Union ordered 500,000 troops from the Soviet bloc countries to occupy the Czechoslovakia, which began on the night of 20 – 21 April, 1968 and arrested Dubcek. Many Czechs, especially students, took up acts of resistance and disruption including purposefully giving wrong directions to invading soldiers, marching in public, and striking. They were protesting the Soviet invasion itself, but were just as much angered by the loss of their hoped-for reforms and their general frustration with lack of freedom and transparency from their government. ....

The Soviets predicted it would take four days to subdue the country, but Czech resistance to the invasion was energetic and determined. The resistance held out for months. Under intense pressure, Dubcek was forced to sign the Moscow Protocol, which promised to protect socialism in Czechoslovakia, to restrain critical Czechoslovak media, and to reject any interference in the Eastern Bloc by the UN Security Council, whose members other than the USSR had all denounced the invasion. Dubcek was allowed to remain in power in order to subdue protests, but was quickly replaced in April 1969 by his first secretary who reversed the reforms and purged the party of its liberal members. The international condemnation of Russia’s action in sighted unrest in other areas of the Eastern bloc of communist countries.

In March 1968, Poland experienced a series of student protests against the government. Students were frustrated with the state control of their universities and began to strike on campus advocating for greater intellectual freedom. Students at the University Campus in Warsaw began the protest — and within a few days students in Krakow, Lublin, Lodz and other campuses all over the country began to march on the streets. The government of Poland crackdown on the protests was immediate and swift. They did not need any help or involvement from the Soviet government.

The Polish movements, therefore, represent a sharp contrast with the movements happening simultaneously in Prague: They were repressed quickly and did not initiate any substantive changes. Consequently, they are not emphasized as much in history texts or in commemorations of 1968, and much of the focus remains on Czechoslovakia and the Prague Spring. They are important, however, because we can see shared motivations by the students in both Eastern Bloc countries. Though protests in the Eastern bloc may look and sound similar to student movements in the United States, England, West Germany and the strikes, the circumstances the students and strikers were responding to and their objectives were in fact completely different.

Eastern Europe was concerned primarily with national sovereignty — an identity separate from the Soviet Union, more economic and intellectual freedom. In Western Europe and the United States the emphasis was on individual sovereignty, the rights of citizens within a nation-state and the rights of humans around the world.


It is hard to find any French person born before 1960 who does not have a vivid and personal recollection of May 1968. I don’t know if you have watched the news recently about protests in France that are taking place right now under our eyes but it seems that protesters are still referring to May 1968 and that some want to reenact it.

So what were the “events” of May 1968? A revolution (France is a quite a specialist)? A simple revolt of the youth? What happened? How was the crisis resolved and what is the legacy of May 1968?

The president of the country was De Gaulle. He was 79 years old. He was very famous for his role as a resistant to the Nazis during World War II. A military man before he became a politician, he was often accused of authoritarianism, and he has been many times compared to Louis XIV or Napoleon. He was called back to power in 1958 to end the war with Algeria (which was seeking its independence) and he designed a new constitution that started the 5th Republic.

He controlled the media: he loved addressing people through the radio first and then with the new TV media. He didn’t tweet though! The press was free but the media was largely under the state‘s control. Radios and TV were not very critical of De Gaulle.

Economically speaking, the country was booming under a capitalist system. It was a very young country. Half of the French people were less than 20 years old because of the baby boom. Since the beginning of the 60s, things were starting to change though. The education system was in crisis. More and more young people from various classes were flowing in high school and universities but structures were not adapted — there was not room for everyone.

And students were anxious not to get the social promotion the diploma was supposed to give them. They also disliked the old pedagogical practices that didn’t put the interest of the student first when teachers were just stuffing their knowledge into the head of students with authority. Students were passive consumers of knowledge and were bored.

Many French students were interested in various extreme left movements (Marxist, Trotskyist, Maoist) that were denouncing capitalism as the cause for many problems. Their models were taken outside France, for example in China where the cultural revolution was at its peak. And of course, guess which country embodied all that they despised The U.S. ! Its war in Vietnam was denounced everywhere in Western Europe.

The spark of the 1968 events is the creation of the 22nd of March movement. And it didn’t start in Paris but in the University of Nanterre, a university that was brand new in 1968 to welcome all these new students from the baby boom. On that day, 250 students gathered to denounce the arrest of their friends who had just vandalized the headquarters of American Express in Paris to protest the war in Vietnam and American imperialism. Many students in this movement were also watched by the police as “anarchist militant” because they had asked the Ministry of Education to let male students access female students dormitories. Authorities had responded by imposing rigid regulations in the dorms, denying the students basic fun! You can see that the values of the generation in power were clashing with the aspirations of the youth for more freedom.

All these events took place in March in Nanterre, and from March to May the unrest worsened so that the university had to be closed by the authorities. In early May, students from the famous and old university La Sorbonne in Paris invited students from Nanterre to hold meetings. The university’s head called the police out of fear that a disruptive demonstration would break out. And he was not wrong. Surprisingly and spontaneously, as police tried to arrest students, a crowd blocked their path. The police responded heavy-handedly and a riot broke out. By the end of the first night, 70 CRS (riot) policemen and an untold number of students had been injured, and several hundred students had been arrested.

Students started straight away to erect barricades with paving stones. There was lots of improvisation. Lots of violence too. But no dead.

The revolts that started in Paris quickly spread to universities throughout France

The occupation of the Quartier Latin, which is the student district in Paris, began. The student commune promoted endless encounters, heated discussions, and dreams to reshape the world. On a more modest scale, discussions took place everywhere — on street corners, in cafés, in the courtyard of the Sorbonne. Jean-Paul Sartre, a very famous French philosopher, addressed thousands of students in La Sorbonne on the 21st of May, and said, "Violence is the only thing remaining to the students who have not yet entered into their fathers’ system and who do not want to enter into it.” You can see clearly the generation gap. Youth had erupted as a major actor.

What is specific to these French events were the graffiti slogans that were literally everywhere and have contributed to create the May 1968 myth. Since then, each social movement uses the same way to express and the same formulas reappear in demonstrations. That‘s exactly what is happening at the moment. The Arc de Triomphe was tagged two weeks ago.

Capitalism was a target as well as TV and radios were all controlled by the government. The press was accused of being partisan, giving fake news, in collusion with the police. The newsreels were showing the “events” from the point of view of the government and of the police. So students told the population not to listen to the radio. Instead people were encouraged to read posters and what was stuck on the walls. 

In mid-May workers joined in as well. In previous years, a series of wildcat strikes had already broken out. Within a week, workers throughout France were staging sympathy strikes, threatening the economy. Some ten million people spontaneously joined the protests, including factory workers who traditionally didn’t feel particularly connected to relatively privileged students sympathetic to communist ideas. Unprepared, the government adopted a confrontational attitude, going so far as to put the country on high alert.

By the end of May, the labor crisis had become a real political crisis, and the 10-year-old Republic seemed ready to collapse. President Charles de Gaulle mysteriously left the capital for a military base in Germany to confer with a trusted general. Upon his return, he seized the initiative by appealing (on radio and TV) to a silent majority who had grown increasingly frustrated with the disruptive inconveniences of the strikes. Blaming the unrest on foreign and communist elements, he dissolved the parliament and called new parliamentary elections. He inspired crowds of Gaullist supporters to jam the Champs-Élysées waving tricolor French flags, and in June 1968, his party won by a wide majority. The old France and the silent majority had won over the vocal young minority.

De Gaulle’s success in the June 1968 elections proved that the revolts would not immediately lead to a new government or constitution. Still, state ministries, labor unions, and the National Assembly did undertake real reforms, especially with respect to education and work. By mid-June, la Sorbonne was evacuated and the movement stopped supporting the young students.

So was all of it much ado about nothing? What is the legacy of May 68? We see them manifested in four areas mainly:

  • WORK: NE PAS PERDRE SA VIE À LA GAGNER ~ Don’t waste your life by earning it. An ensemble of social conquests changed workers’ condition after 1968: 40 hours of work per week limit for employees, new trade unions recognized, 35% increase in the minimum wage, a10% wage increase for everyone, creation of unemployment benefits, etc.
  • AUTHORITY: IL EST INTERDIT D’INTERDIRE ~ It is forbidden to forbid. De Gaulle was taken aback by this movement. He was the target, people asking that he quit the presidency (just like Macron at the moment). This led to different changes especially in education with more freedom for students who since 1968 can elect their representatives.
  • FEMINISM: LE PRIVÉ EST POLITIQUE ~ The personal is political. This slogan was used to support the women’s cause through the French Women’s Liberation Movement. The women’s liberation movement in France grew out of the 1968 upheaval. They challenged the status of the traditional family and its values. Women fought to get contraception (actually the law to authorize contraception was adopted in 1969). The fight for the legalization of contraception started also a new movement for the legalization of abortion that was voted in 1975. 
  • SEXUALITY ~ Before 1968, it was forbidden to have sex before marriage. After may 1968, sexuality isn’t a taboo anymore. A very famous slogan is JOUISSEZ SANS ENTRAVES ~ Enjoy life fully without constraints. Young people want to see the old moral’s norms shattered, and the gay rights movement grew out of the 1968’s upheaval too.

But for many people, May 68 destroyed moral values and in reaction it reinforced conservatism for a part of the population.

May 68 remains a key milestone in modern French history and if you doubt about it, just look at the many references in today’s protests in France. Fifty years later, the spirit of May 1968 is alive and well.


While the individual contexts of each uprising were unique, it is important to remember that the students participating in them had grown up during the era after World War II in which a new global language of human rights and anti-colonialism took center stage.

Young activists were inspired by the intellectuals from Africa and the African diaspora, and other former colonies that had gained their independence after World War II.

As you can see from the quotes from some of these intellectuals, they highlighted the abhorrent racial ideologies that had propped up colonial empires in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

They spoke about the importance of national sovereignty, economic opportunity, and basic human rights for all people and citizens of the nations of the world. They emphasized the importance of rising up and speaking out against oppressive regimes that did not adhere to these core values.

It was the people, they argued, that enabled regimes to stay in power and the people who had the power to change them. Both the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement drew on this language as inspiration.

Slide 17: Here is President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana speaking on his inauguration day as the first President of the newly independent Republic of Ghana in 1957. (Play Video from 3:11 – 3:48).

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was the personal guest of President Kwame Nkrumah for his inauguration as the first president of the newly independent Republic of Ghana. King witnessed the crowds of tens of thousands of people as Ghana’s flag replaced that of Great Britain. King said in an interview that day, “the minute I knew I was coming to Ghana, I had very deep emotional feeling. A new nation has been born. It symbolized the fact that a new order was coming into being and an older order was passing away."

In his recounting of Nkrumah’s inauguration in a speech he titled “The Birth of a Nation” for his congregation a few months later in April 1957, King told the story of an old Ghanan man who he witnessed weeping as Nkrumah made his final speech. The man, King recounted, cried out “Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.” King would later invoke these words and use them as the last lines of his famous “I have a Dream Speech on August 28, 1963. King’s connection with Nkrumah is just one of countless examples of how the independence movements in European colonies that took place in the 1950s and early 1960s shaped the global events of 1968.

Children who witnessed the anti-colonial movements in the fifties and sixties had blossomed into young adults in 1968. They heeded the rallying call of another famous anti-colonial activist Frantz Fanon who declared that “every generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

The calling of the generation of 1968 was clear: to point out inequality within systems of power and to dismantle them piece by piece.

So when we commemorate these events we are performing two almost diametrically opposed tasks. First, we memorialize a moment where ordinary citizens of the world spoke up and took action against policies and government actions that they felt were unjust and needed to change. Second, we reflect on the promise and hope that the 1968 generation emanated and assess their legacy.

What effect did these movements ultimately have on the course of Polish, Czech, French, Mexican, African and of course American history? Are we standing here, 50 years later remarking on how our country or perhaps even the world has changed for the better declaring that it was these events that started us on this path? Or do these commemorations actually serve as a moment of mourning the potential that somehow slipped away? Did the 1968ers indeed fulfill their generation’s mission?

While this question is too difficult to answer in the time we have left, I leave you with images of the generation of 2018 — your generation — perhaps taking up the mantle left for you by the youths of 50 years ago or perhaps carving your own path. How have your choices, calls to action, and worldview been shaped by the events of 1968? What will be your generation’s mission? Will you fulfill it? Will a group of JBS students be sitting here 50 years from now assessing similar questions about your legacy?