The protests of 1968 comprised a worldwide escalation of social conflicts, predominantly characterized by popular rebellions against military and bureaucratic elites, who responded with an escalation of political repression.
In capitalist countries, these protests marked a turning point for the civil rights movement in the United States, which produced revolutionary movements like the Black Panther Party. In reaction to the Tet Offensive, protests also sparked a broad movement in opposition to the Vietnam War all over the United States as well as in London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. Mass socialist movements grew not only in the United States but also in most European countries. The most spectacular manifestation of these was the May 1968 protests in France, in which students linked up with wildcat strikes of up to ten million workers, and for a few days the movement seemed capable of overthrowing the government. In many other capitalist countries, struggles against dictatorships, state repression, and colonization were also marked by protests in 1968, such as the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, and the escalation of guerrilla warfare against the military dictatorship in Brazil.
In the socialist countries there were also protests against lack of freedom of speech and violation of other civil rights by the Communist bureaucratic and military elites. In Central and Eastern Europe there were widespread protests that escalated, particularly in the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, in Warsaw, in Poland, and in Yugoslavia.
Background speculations of overall causality vary about the political protests centering on the year 1968. Some argue that protests could be attributed to the social changes during the twenty years following the end of World War II. Many protests were a direct response to perceived injustices, such as those voiced in opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War.
After World War II, much of the world experienced an unusual surge in births, creating a large age demographic. These babies were born during a time of peace and prosperity for most countries. This was the first generation to grow up with television in their homes. Television had a profound effect on this generation in two ways. First, it gave them a common perspective from which to view the world. The children growing up in this era shared not only the news and programs that they watched on television, they also got glimpses of each other's worlds. Secondly, television allowed them to experience major public events. Public education was becoming more widely attended and more standardized, creating another shared experience. Chain stores and franchised restaurants were bringing shared shopping and dining experiences to people in different parts of the world.
The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War was another shared experience of this generation. The knowledge that a nuclear attack could end their life at any moment was reinforced with classroom bomb drills creating an atmosphere of fear. As they became older teens, the anti-war movement and the feminist movement were becoming a force in much of the world.
The Eastern Bloc had already seen several mass protests in the decades following World War II, including the Hungarian Revolution, the uprising in East Germany and several labour strikes in Poland, especially important ones in Poznań in 1956.
Waves of social movements throughout the 1960s began to shape the values of the generation that were college students during 1968. In America, the Civil Rights Movement was at its most violent. So, too, in Northern Ireland, where it paved the way for an organised revolt against British governance. Italy and France were in the midst of a socialist movement. The New Left political movement was causing political upheavals in many European and South American countries. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict had already started. Great Britain's anti-war movement was very strong and African independence was a continuing struggle. In Poland in March 1968, student demonstrations at Warsaw University broke out when the government banned the performance of a play by Adam Mickiewicz (Dziady, written in 1824) at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, on the grounds that it contained "anti-Soviet references". It became known as the March 1968 events.
The feminist movement made a generation question their belief that the family was more important than the individual. The peace movement made them question and distrust authority even more than they had already. By the time they started college, many were part of the anti-establishment culture and became the impetus for a wave of rebellion that started on college campuses and swept the world.
The college students of 1968 embraced the New Left politics. Their socialist leanings and distrust of authority led to many of the 1968 conflicts. The dramatic events of the year showed both the popularity and limitations of New Left ideology, a radical leftist movement that was also deeply ambivalent about its relationship to communism during the middle and later years of the Cold War.
The 2–3 June 1968 student demonstrations in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, were the first mass protest in the country after the Second World War. The authorities suppressed the protest, while President Josip Broz Tito had the protests gradually cease by giving in to some of the students’ demands. Protests also broke out in other capitals of Yugoslav republics—Sarajevo, Zagreb and Ljubljana—but they were smaller and shorter than in Belgrade.
In 1968, Czechoslovakia underwent a process known as the Prague Spring. In the August 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovakian citizens responded to the attack on their sovereignty with passive resistance. Soviet troops were frustrated as street signs were painted over, their water supplies mysteriously shut off, and buildings decorated with flowers, flags, and slogans like, "An elephant cannot swallow a hedgehog." Passers-by painted swastikas on the sides of Soviet tanks. Road signs in the country-side were over-painted to read, in Russian script, "Москва" (Moscow), as hints for the Soviet troops to leave the country.
On 25 August 1968 eight Russian citizens staged a demonstration on Moscow's Red Square to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. After about five minutes, the demonstrators were beaten up and transferred to a police station. Seven of them received harsh sentences up to several years in prison.
The protests that raged throughout 1968 included a large number of workers, students, and poor people facing increasingly violent state repression all around the world. Liberation from state repression itself was the most common current in all protests listed below. These refracted into a variety of social causes that reverberated with each other: in the United States alone, for example, protests for civil liberties, against racism and in opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as feminism and the beginnings of the ecological movement, including protests against biological and nuclear weapons, all boiled up together during this year. Television, so influential in forming the political identity of this generation, became the tool of choice for the revolutionaries. They fought their battles not just on streets and college campuses, but also on the television screen by courting media coverage.
As the waves of protests coming along the 1960s intensified to a new high in 1968, repressive governments through widespread police crack downs, shootings, executions and even massacres marked social conflicts in Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and China. In West Berlin, Rome, London, Paris, Italy, many American cities, and Argentina, labor unions and students played major roles and also suffered political repression.
The environmental movement can trace its beginnings back to the protests of 1968. The environmental movement evolved from the anti-nuclear movement. France was particularly involved in environmental concerns. In 1968, the French Federation of Nature Protection Societies and the French branch of Friends of the Earth were formed and the French scientific community organized Survivre et Vivre (Survive and Live). The Club of Rome was formed in 1968. The Nordic countries were at the forefront of environmentalism. In Sweden, students protested against hydroelectric plans. In Denmark and the Netherlands, environmental action groups protested about pollution and other environmental issues. The Northern Ireland civil rights movement began to start, but resulted in the conflict now known as The Troubles.
In January, police used clubs on 400 anti-war protestors outside of a dinner for U.S. Secretary of State Rusk. In February, students from Harvard, Radcliffe, and Boston University held a four-day hunger strike to protest the war. 10,000 West Berlin students held a sit-in against American involvement in Vietnam. People in Canada protested the war by mailing 5,000 copies of the paperback, Manual for Draft Age Immigrants to Canada to the United States. On March 6, 500 New York University (NYU) students demonstrated against Dow Chemical because the company was the principal manufacturer of napalm, used by the U.S. military in Vietnam. On March 17, an anti-war demonstration in Grosvenor Square, London, ended with 86 people injured and 200 demonstrators arrested. Japanese students protested the presence of the American military in Japan because of the Vietnam War. In March, British students turned violent in their anti-war protests (opposing the Vietnam War), physically attacking the British defense secretary, the secretary of state for education and the Home Secretary. In August, the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was disrupted by five days of street demonstrations by thousands of anti-war protesters. Chicago's mayor escalated the riots with excessive police presence and by ordering up the National Guard and the army to suppress the protests. In September, the women's liberation movement gained international recognition when it demonstrated at the annual Miss America beauty pageant. The week-long protest and its disruption of the pageant gained the movement much needed attention in the press.
In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement had turned away from the south and toward the cities in the north with the issues of open housing and the Black Consciousness Movement. The Black movement unified and gained international recognition with the emergence of the Black Power and Black Panthers organizations and their support of violence as a means of protest. The Orangeburg massacre on February 8, 1968, a civil rights protest in Orangeburg, South Carolina, turned deadly with the death of three college students. In March, students in North Carolina organized a sit-in at a local lunch counter that spread to 15 cities. In March, students from all five public high schools in East L.A. walked out of their classes protesting against unequal conditions in Los Angeles Unified School District high schools. Over the next several days, they inspired similar walkouts at fifteen other schools. On April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed, sparking violent protests in more than 115 American cities, notably Louisville, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. On April 23, students at Columbia University protested the school's allegedly racist policies, three school officials were taken hostage for 24 hours. This was just one of a number of Columbia University protests of 1968. The August 1968 Democratic National Convention became the venue for huge demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the political system in the U.S. It culminated in a televised "police riot," where Chicago police waded into crowds in front of the convention center and beat protesters. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics during a televised medal ceremony, track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith each raised a black-gloved hand in the black power salute.
On January 30, 300 student protesters from the University of Warsaw and the National Theater School were beaten with clubs by state arranged anti-protestors. On March 8, the 1968 Polish political crisis began with students from the University of Warsaw who marched for student rights and were beaten with clubs. The next day over two thousand students marched in protest of the police involvement on campus and were clubbed and arrested again. By March 11, the general public had joined the protest in violent confrontations with students and police in the streets. The government fought a propaganda campaign against the protestors, labeling them Zionists. The twenty days of protest ended when the state closed all of the universities and arrested more than a thousand students. Most Polish Jews left the country to avoid persecution by the government.
In November 1968, mass student movement erupted in Pakistan against military dictatorship of Ayub Khan (President of Pakistan). The movement was later joined by workers, lawyers, white-collar employees, prostitutes, and other social layers. Unprecedented class solidarity was displayed and the prejudices of religion, sex, ethnicity, race, nationality, clan or tribe evaporated in the red heat of revolutionary struggle. In 1968 at the height of the movement against him, young protesters in Karachi and Lahore began describing him as a dog (Ayub Khan Kutta!). Troops opened fire, killing dozens and injuring hundreds of students and workers. In March 1969, Ayub khan resigned and handed power to Army chief Yahya Khan.
The German student movements were largely a reaction against the perceived authoritarianism and hypocrisy of the German government and other Western governments, particularly in relation to the poor living conditions of students. Students in 108 German universities protested to get recognition of East Germany, the removal of government officials with Nazi pasts and for the rights of students. In February, protests by professors at the German University of Bonn demanded the resignation of the university's president because of his involvement in the building of concentration camps during the war.
On May 3rd activists protested the participation of two apartheid nations, Rhodesia and South Africa's, in the international tennis competition held in Båstad, Sweden. The protest was among the most violent between Swedish police and demonstrators during the 1960s, resulting in a dialogue between the Swedish Government and organizers to curb the escalation of violence. The match was later played in secrecy, with Sweden winning 4-1.
At Stockholm University leftist students occupied their Student Union Building at Holländargatan from May 24–27 to send a political message to the government. Inspired by the protests in France earlier that month, the Stockholm protests were calmer than those in Paris. In reaction to the protests, right-wing students organized Borgerliga Studenter, or "Bourgeois Students", whose leaders included future prime ministers Carl Bildt and Fredrik Reinfeldt. The Student Union building would later be absorbed by the Stockholm School of Economics.
Mexican university students mobilized to protest Mexican government authoritarianism and sought broad political and cultural changes in Mexico. The entire summer leading up to the opening of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics had a series of escalating conflicts between Mexican students with a broad base of non-student supporters and the police. Mexican president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz saw the massive and largely peaceful demonstrations as a threat to Mexico's image on the world stage and to his government's ability to maintain order. On October 2, after a summer of protests against the Mexican government and the occupation of the central campus of the National Autonomous University (UNAM) by the army, a student demonstration in Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City ended with police, paratroopers and paramilitary units firing on students, killing and wounding an undetermined number of people.  The suppression of the Mexican mobilization ended with the October 2 massacre and the Olympic games opened without further demonstrations, but the Olympics themselves were a focus of other political issues. The admittance of the South African team brought the issue of Apartheid to the 1968 Summer Olympics. After more than 40 teams threatened to boycott, the committee reconsidered and again banned the South African team. The Olympics were targeted as a high profile venue to bring the Black Movement into public view. At a televised medal ceremony, black U.S. track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith each raised one black-gloved hand in the black power salute, and the U.S. Olympic Committee sent them home immediately, albeit only after the International Olympic Community threatened to send the entire track team home if the USOC didn't.
In what became known as Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia's first secretary Alexander Dubček began a period of reform, which gave way to outright civil protest, only ending when the USSR invaded the country in August. In August the 25, anti-war protesters gathered in Red Square only to be dispersed. It was titled the 1968 Red Square demonstration.
Workers were joined by students at the University of Madrid to protest the involvement of police in demonstrations against dictator Francisco Franco's regime, demanding democracy, trade unions and worker rights, and education reform. In April, Spanish students protested against the actions of the Franco regime in sanctioning a mass for Adolf Hitler. At the beginning of spring the University of Madrid was closed for thirty-eight days due to student demonstrations. Students protesting against the military dictatorship were killed in Brazil.
On March 1, a clash known as battle of Valle Giulia took place between students and police in the faculty of architecture in the Sapienza University of Rome. In March, Italian students closed the University of Rome for 12 days during an anti-war protest.
The French May protests started with student protests over university reform and escalated into a month-long protest. The trade unions joined the protest resulting in a general strike.
A series of art school occupations quickly spread throughout the UK during May and July 1968. The occupation at Hornsey College of Art (now Middlesex University) remains an emblematic event in the modern history of British universities.
On 24 August 1968, the Northern Ireland civil rights movement held its first civil rights march, from Coalisland to Dungannon. Many more marches were held over the following year. Loyalists (especially members of the UPV) attacked some of the marches and held counter-demonstrations in a bid to get the marches banned. Because of the lack of police reaction to the attacks, nationalists saw the RUC, almost wholly Protestant, as backing the loyalists and allowing the attacks to occur. On 5 October 1968, a civil rights march in Derry was banned by the Northern Ireland government. When marchers defied the ban, RUC officers surrounded the marchers and beat them indiscriminately and without provocation. More than 100 people were injured, including a number of nationalist politicians. The incident was filmed by television news crews and shown around the world. It caused outrage among Catholics and nationalists, sparking two days of rioting in Derry between nationalists and the RUC. A few days later, a student civil rights group – People's Democracy – was formed in Belfast. In late November, O'Neill promised the civil rights movement some concessions, but these were seen as too little by nationalists and too much by loyalists.
On March 28, the Military Police of Brazil killed high school student Edson Luís de Lima Souto at a protest for cheaper meals at a restaurant for low-income students. The aftermath of his death generated one of the first major protests against the Military dictatorship in Brazil and incited a national wave of anti-dictatorship student demonstrations throughout the year.
On April 20, Enoch Powell made an anti-immigration speech that sparked demonstrations throughout Britain. His Rivers of Blood speech helped define immigration as a political issue and helped legitimize anti-immigration sentiment. On May 24–27, students in Stockholm institute the occupation of the Student Union Building. In October, the Rodney Riots in Kingston, Jamaica, were inspired when the Jamaican government of Hugh Shearer banned Guyanese university lecturer Dr. Walter Rodney from returning to his teaching position at the University of the West Indies. Rodney, a historian of Africa, had been active in the Black power movement, and had been sharply critical of the middle class in many Caribbean countries. Rodney was an avowed socialist who worked with the poor of Jamaica in an attempt to raise their political and cultural consciousness.
- 1968 Democratic National Convention protest activity
- 1968 Miami riot
- Counterculture of the 1960s
- Axel Springer AG
- Catonsville Nine
- Civil Rights Act of 1968
- Feminism in France
- Glenville Shootout
- Movement of 22 March
- Situationist International
- Stonewall riots (which occurred the next year)
- American Power and the New Mandarins, book by Noam Chomsky
- Summer of love
- Hot Autumn (which occurred the next year in Italy)
- Long Hot Summer of 1967
- List of incidents of civil unrest in the United States
- Cordobazo (which occurred the next year in Argentina)
- Revolutions of 1848