Whether fighting for equality, an end to war, religious freedom, economic opportunity or political ideology, students throughout history have recognized that there’s power in numbers. Most protests have been peaceful; however, in many cases students put their lives on the line for their voices to be heard.

Here are nine historic student protests of the 20th century.

1. White Rose Society of Nazi Germany

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Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, Hans Scholl and Sophie Scholl of the White Rose Society.

In 1942, during the height of Nazi rule, students from the University of Munich formed a non-violent resistance group called the White Rose. Led by Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, Alex Schmorell, Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and their philosophy professor Kurt Huber, the group launched an anti-Nazi leaflet campaign to inform Germans of Nazi atrocities and encourage them to passively resist the regime.

The White Rose wrote six leaflets and made copies using a hand-cranked duplicating machine. The copies were mailed to other students and professors and discreetly distributed at the University of Munich and other universities throughout Germany.

The luck of the White Rose Society ran out on February 18, 1943 when Sophie and Hans were taken into custody by the Gestapo. Eventually, all five White Rose leaders were tried and executed. But they died knowing their courageous actions had put at least a dent in the Nazi propaganda machine.

2. The Greensboro Sit-ins of 1960

Greensboro Sit-In
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On February 1, 1960, four Black college students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University politely took their seats at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. They asked for service, which they knew would be denied to non-white customers. But instead of getting up and leaving, they stayed.

The “Greensboro Four,” as they became known, were Ezell Blair Jr. (18), David Richmond (18), Franklin McCain (19) and Joseph McNeil (17). They coordinated with Ralph Johns, a local white businessman, to carefully stage their nonviolent protest, inspired by the work of Mohandas Gandhi and by similar lunch counter sit-ins held in Oklahoma City in 1958.

The Greensboro Police arrived, but couldn’t arrest the young men, because they weren’t making a disturbance. Instead, the Greensboro Four sat quietly at the counter until Woolworth’s closed, then returned the next day, this time with even more protesters. By February 5, more than 300 students clogged the Greensboro Woolworth’s and media coverage spread the anti-segregation protests across the country.

The success of the Greensboro sit-ins galvanized the Civil Rights movement and directly led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April 1960 in order to organize the sit-ins. Woolworth’s de-segregated its lunch counter later that summer.

3. The Tlatelolco Massacre

Just 10 days before the opening ceremony of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the Mexican government violently cracked down on a peaceful student gathering, killing untold hundreds of unarmed young people and arresting scores more. The traumatic event, which effectively silenced protest during the Olympic games, is known as the “Tlatelolco Massacre.”

The summer of 1968 was a flash point of student protests the world over. In Mexico, the anti-government movement started when riot police used excessive force—including a bazooka—to quell a brawl at a Mexico City high school associated with the National University. College students took to the streets calling for an end to widespread police and military killings and government cover-ups.

On October 2, thousands of students gathered in the Three Cultures Square outside of the Tlatelolco housing complex in Mexico City. They came to organize their efforts and plan future protests. As the meeting ended, shots rang out. According to eyewitnesses, Mexican troops policing the event opened fire on the crowd, mowing down students as they fled. Other protesters were beaten and dragged away. 

The Mexican government originally claimed that only four students had been killed in Tlatelolco, but ensuing investigations have identified the remains of at least 44. Survivors insist that 300 or more protestors died in the massacre, which the Mexican government finally acknowledged as a “state crime” in 2018. 

4. Kent State

By 1970, Americans were deeply divided over the Vietnam War. Antiwar protests were common and intensified as the number of casualties increased and U.S. troops invaded Cambodia.

On May 1, students at Kent State University in Ohio began a protest against the war. They attacked police officers with bottles and rocks, broke windows and looted stores. A state of emergency was declared, and the Ohio National Guard was dispatched to keep peace. When they arrived the night of May 2, the university’s ROTC building was on fire. As angry protestors made it hard for firefighters to extinguish the flames, the National Guard used tear gas to clear the area.

At an antiwar rally the next day, protestors and the National Guard clashed again. When the guards sprayed tear gas into the crowd, some protestors defended themselves with rocks and whatever else they could find. Some of the guards then opened fire, killing four people and wounding nine. Kent State University and colleges across the country closed in fear of more violence.

5. Soweto Uprising

Soweto Uprising
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High school students in Soweto, South Africa, protesting for better education, 1976.

On June 16, 1976, thousands of high school students in Soweto, South Africa, protested peacefully against apartheid and the Bantu Education Act, which severely limited educational opportunities to black students and decreased education quality.

As the students headed towards a soccer stadium, police tried to disperse them with tear gas and warning gunshots. When that didn’t work, they opened fire, killing two students and injuring hundreds.

The shootings triggered a massive uprising in Soweto. Security forces brought in armored tanks under orders to restore law and order. As the revolt spread across South Africa, it exposed the brutality of South Africa’s regime to the world and emboldened the anti-apartheid movement.

6. Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square Protest
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Students erecting a statue called the Goddess of Democracy in Beijing's Tianamen Square.

On April 18, 1989, after the funeral of communist leader Hu Yaobang, thousands of students marched in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, to protest the oppressive communist government. The protests continued as students called for strikes and class boycotts.

A few weeks later, on May 13, students began a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square insisting the government begin dialogue with them. Within a few days, the number of strikers had reached over one thousand. On May 19, a rally for political and economic change drew over 1.2 million demonstrators, most of them university students. The Chinese government imposed martial law on May 20 but to no avail.

Then, on June 4, Chinese police and troops opened fire on and beat the protestors. Chaos ensued as panicked demonstrators rushed to escape. Early the next morning, tanks arrived on the scene and plowed through any remaining dissenters. By 5:40 a.m., the protest was over.

No official death toll was ever released but some Western reporters estimated thousands may have been killed and up to 10,000 arrested. The brutal attack brought attention to the democratic movement in China and caused the United States to impose sanctions on the communist state for violating human rights.

7. Velvet Revolution of 1989

Velvet Revolution
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The Velvet Revolution.

As Mikhail Gorbachev transformed the Soviet Union’s government in the 1980s, communist Czechoslovakia continued to firmly control its citizens and punish government dissidents, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

On November 17, 1989 a student march marking International Students Day turned into an anti-communism rally. The peaceful marchers were attacked by riot police and 167 of them were hospitalized.

Rather than squelch the student movement, the attack further united the protestors and much of the country against the government’s tyranny. Students, actors and theaters went on strike and massive demonstrations took place in Prague and other cities. The next day, 75 percent of the nation went on a two-hour strike.

On November 28, the Communist Party relinquished power. In June, free elections were held for the first time in the new Czech Republic. The smooth, peaceful transformation earned the uprising the name, “Velvet Revolution.”

8. The Iranian Protests of 1999

The summer of 1999 marked the 20th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, in which the Shah’s unpopular monarchy was overthrown and replaced with an Islamic Republic—a democratically elected government ruled by Islamic law. Twenty years later, Iranian college students and other reformists called for greater freedoms and civil rights in a country effectively ruled by hard-line clerics.

The turning point came on July 8, 1999, when students at Tehran University gathered to protest the closing of a popular reformist newspaper called Salaam. Iranian security forces descended on the student dormitories, beating peaceful protestors with clubs. At least one student died and 1,500 were arrested.

If the Iranian government thought this would silence its critics, it backfired. The next day, an estimated 10,000 protestors—not just students, but frustrated Iranians of different political and religious backgrounds—took to the streets to denounce the university crackdown. For days, protestors chanted anti-government slogans and clashed with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and pro-government vigilantes. 

While the 1999 uprising was eventually quashed, it signaled the birth of a sustained political opposition  movement in Iran.

9. Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Protests

Umbrella Protests
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Pro-democracy protesters holding umbrellas in front of police during clashes on a street in Mong Kok on October 19, 2014 in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Revolution” began on September 22, 2014, as thousands of students—most wearing a yellow ribbon—boycotted classes in support of full democratic elections and descended on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

As the protests gained momentum, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens joined in. Over the next several weeks, marchers forced streets, banks and other businesses to close. During the demonstrations, police often used pepper spray and tear gas to control and disperse crowds. The protestors stood firm, however, and opened their umbrellas to protect them from the dangerous mists, turning the umbrella into a powerful symbol of their struggle.

The often-violent protests lasted almost three months and eventually fizzled out without the protestors’ demand for universal suffrage being met. Still, the movement inspired an unprecedented interest in democracy and political activism within Hong Kong.


Holocaust Resistance: The White Rose: A Lesson in Dissent. Jewish Virtual Library.
Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement: A Timeline of Key Events One Year On. Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’ Opens Wide. USA Today.
Kent State Shootings. Ohio History Central.
Soweto Student Uprising. Michigan State University: Overcoming Apartheid.
The White Rose. Holocaust Research Project.
Tiananmen Square Fast Facts. CNN.
Tiananmen Square Protests of 1969. New World Encyclopedia.
The June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising. SAHO.
The Velvet Revolution: A Peaceful End to Communism in Czechoslovakia. Tavaana.

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