1968 Student Uprisings

1968 was a turbulent year characterized by extensive global protests, political repression, and conflict between citizens and governments. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this landmark year, Wilson Library is displaying a selection of album covers, magazine advertisements, musical scores, and photographs drawn from the Southern Folklife Collection, North Carolina Collection, and UNC Music Library. Titled Sounds of ’68, this exhibit explores how music mirrored the changing times through protest, experimentation, and the merging of music genres, as well as how the music of 1968 has influenced the world of today. It is on view in the Saltarelli Gallery in Wilson Library from January 16 to April 22.

Universities were particularly affected by the global tensions of 1968, serving as centers for radical and political thought, and often as stages for organization and protest. Student protests and uprisings occurred globally, although their scope and purposes varied. The Rare Book Collection recently acquired materials on two such student uprisings: Mexico 1968, a pamphlet that addresses the government repression of the student protests in Mexico that preceded the 1968 Summer Olympics, and Action, a student newspaper covering the events of the student uprising and accompanying general strike that brought Paris to a standstill in May 1968.

Mexico 1968 front cover

The front wrapper of Mexico 1968. Translated as, “When a government abuses force, it becomes a dictatorship!”

Mexico 1968: A Study of Domination and Repression was published by the North American Council on Latin America (NACLA) in 1968, shortly after the Tlatelolco Massacre on October 2, 1968. It provides a study of the historical, economic, and political contexts surrounding the Mexican student movement of that year. Through interviews with eyewitnesses, translated articles, and an analysis of official sources, Mexico 1968 presents a narrative of the uprising and subsequent repression that differs significantly from official reports. It also examines the dynamics of the Mexican economy on an international scale, paying careful attention to the role that US intervention played in shaping the conditions that the protests grew out of. Photographs from the demonstrations and illustrations inspired by the events are scattered among the text, which is broken up into essays and articles by various writers. Illustrations in a striking red on the front and back wrappers show skeleton-like soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets, as well as a tank whose treads display the five rings of the Olympic Games.

Mexico 1968 back cover

The back wrapper of Mexico 1968. Note the Olympic rings on the tank.

Mexico 1968 traces the student movement back to a conflict between two groups of students from rival schools that was met with surprising brutality by granaderos (grenadiers/riot police). This event sparked an uprising, prompting demonstrations that grew in size as the summer went on, all of which were met by violence from police and the army. Students barricaded themselves inside the schools, leading to invasions by the granaderos and the army that violated university autonomy and left many dead, injured, or arrested.

The protests blossomed to cover a range of social, political, and economic grievances directed at Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz and the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) regime. The government’s expensive preparations for the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in contrast with the lack of resources allotted for social services was also a point of contention. Mexico 1968 provides a historical class analysis of the political and economic problems that led to the social unrest, as well as the antecedents that paves the way for the movement that began on July 22, 1968.

The demonstrations largely ended after an initially peaceful rally at the Plaza of Three Cultures. Plainclothes police opened fire into the crowd, sparking a violent response from the army that surrounded the protesters. Students and bystanders were equally targeted, and those that fled into the nearby Tlatelolco housing projects were pursued, shot at, beaten, and arrested. Though the government put the official death toll at between 20 and 28 people, Mexico 1968 depicts the event as a massacre of hundreds, including children, with hundreds more arrested, tortured, and disappeared. With most of the movement’s leadership either dead or in custody, the movement fizzled out, and, with the government-controlled media refusing to report on the situation, it became buried under the fanfare surrounding the Olympic Games.

Mexico 1968 back inside cover

The inside back wrapper of Mexico 1968. The speech bubble reads, “Today the savage students beat a heroic grenadier!”

Published the year of the demonstrations and the Tlatelolco Massacre, the book presents a perspective that significantly differs from the official explanation for the violence. The government blamed student militants for provoking the attack, explaining that the army acted only in self-defense. Mexico 1968 posits that instead, plainclothes policemen acted as agents provocateurs and provoked the massacre. In 2001, Mexican President Vicente Fox released formerly classified documents related to the massacre, which revealed that special forces called the Falcons opened fire from the surrounding buildings and provoked and coordinated the attack on government orders. Mexico 1968’s analysis of the events proved to be largely accurate.

The Mexican student demonstrations of that summer were not the only student uprisings of 1968. Another that played out several months earlier was the student uprising in Paris, in which students occupied their universities in protest of the closure of their schools by administration. Action, edited by Jean Pierre Vigier between May 7, 1968 and May 2, 1969, provides a contemporary account of the events of the May 1968 student uprising in Paris from the point of view of the students who participated in the demonstrations and the strike. Action documents events occurring in France as well as internationally with a focus on the happenings in Paris. Through articles, essays, photographs, cartoons, and posters, Action provides comprehensive coverage of the uprisings that froze Paris that May.

Action newspaper showing a mrch

The front cover of the 3rd issue of Action, showing a student demonstration that occurred on May 17.

The first several issues between May 7 and June 24 cover the student demonstrations and the general strike in and around Paris in 1968 that lasted between May 2 and June 23. The conflicts began with a series of student occupations of Paris universities in the Latin Quarter of the city in protest against capitalism, consumerism, imperialism, and traditional institutions and values. The demonstrations evolved into a mass movement that sought to overthrow the prevailing socioeconomic structure of state-capitalist society and build an equal society founded on leftist thought. The occupation of the universities and associated demonstrations were met by brutality from the police and the military, leaving many students dead, injured, or arrested. Inside the occupied universities, students and faculty built small societies without hierarchies called Comités d’Action (Action Committees), in which responsibilities were shared and actions were based on the desire to change one’s circumstances.

Action newspaper showing a cartoon fists made up of a group of many people

An illustration in the 13th issue of Action that shows the artist’s interpretation of Action Committees.

A key feature of the movement and a focal point of Action, Comités d’Action were created to address specific concerns or needs, including reaching out to the workers and encouraging their participation in the movement. Comités d’Action were the result of student experimentation with direct democracy, and eventually numbered in the hundreds. Action itself was produced and published by several Comités d’Action, with the support of the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF). On May 14, the movement spread to the factories, leading to mass demonstrations of workers and the beginning of the two-week long wildcat general strike that 11 million workers participated in. Other demonstrations took place throughout Paris, calling for the overthrow of the government and the holding of new elections, leading President Charles de Gaulle to flee the country for a few hours. On May 30, de Gaulle proposed a new election to be held on June 23, and the threat of revolution faded. Afterwards, the movement lost steam – workers returned to the factories, universities were reclaimed and reopened, and the violence ended. Action continued to be published for almost another year, reporting on current events and maintaining a revolutionary fervor, but the movement itself had since ended.

Action newspapers showing a raised fist

A photograph in the 5th issue of Action showing support for striking workers. The caption translates to, “Long live the steelworkers!”

Although subsequent issues continue to focus on events in Paris and in larger France, many of the articles began to have an international element as well. Action covers many of the other demonstrations, uprisings, and conflicts of 1968, including the Prague Spring, the Vietnam War, US student protests, the German student movement, and the Mexico student uprisings of 1968. The newspaper provides a leftist, student perspective on the international unrest of the time, the writers showing their solidarity with the students and the protesters. In addition to covering current events, many essays and articles were dedicated to exploring and analyzing the history of the class struggle and communist thought.

Action newspaper showing three cartoon people with rings around their necks

Action’s coverage of the unrest surrounding the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. The full caption translates to, “The chains to lose, a world to win.” This may be a reference to a rallying cry from The Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world, you have nothing to lose but your chains!”

Mexico 1968 and Action provide contemporary perspectives on events that shaped history, and serve as key primary sources for understanding the unrest of the summer of 1968. The Sounds of ’68 Exhibition presents another perspective on the year, showing how music both reflected and shaped the attitudes of the time. Between January 16 and April 22, come visit the Saltarelli Gallery in Wilson Library to see and hear the emergence of influences that still reverberate loudly today. As we leave a year of comparable social unrest and approach the 50th anniversary of these uprisings, it is as important as ever to study the student movements and their subsequent repression that characterized 1968.


About Laura Van Leuven

Laura Van Leuven Rare Book Collection Assistant Wilson Special Collections Library University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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