Protests in the 1960s can be divided into two main categories; those provoked by racial tensions, such as the ghetto riots in the United States, and those arising from the revolutionary ideals and fears of the ‘New Left’, such as the student riots in Paris and the worldwide protests against the Vietnam War and general US ‘imperialism’.
The riots in the black ghettoes of US cities in the 1960s were directly descended from the peaceful protest movements of the 1950s when protesters fought against segregation and for equal rights.
By the early 1960s, the most popular form of protest was the sit-in. Despite the passing of the Civil Rights Bill by the US Senate in 1960, many blacks were still unhappy at the slow rate of change and the condition in which they had to live.
The growth of the suburbs in the 1950s had meant that well-off whites had moved out of inner cities, leaving them to become ghettoes inhabited primarily by poor blacks.
Dissatisfaction erupted in violence in the summer of 1964 when New York blacks rioted in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. By the end of the 60s, more than 300 US cities – notably Chicago and Detroit – had experienced racially motivated black group violence.
1967 was the most violent year with 71 major riots taking place while the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 sparked off a series of riots affecting 100 cities.
While the ghetto riots and Black Power movement were predominantly US phenomenon, the rise of the ‘New Left’ was international.
The general term ‘New Left’ can be used to describe various disparate groups of the 1960s which tended to be united by their rejection of traditional party politics and their belief in direct action.
They were also very anti-American, believing that the United States (particularly in Vietnam) was operating a kind of imperialism. Protests against US involvement in Vietnam took place all over the world, with protesters in the US burning their draft cards in public and staging demonstrations outside the Pentagon.
The anti-American feeling was strong in Japan, where many people resented the presence of US bases. Japanese students tended to be very militant and reacted violently to the US presence and to their own country’s authoritarianism.
And it was students who were behind the most notable protests of the decade – which took place in Paris over May and June 1968 and were echoed in Britain and Germany.
The Paris ‘student-worker revolution’ started when police violently broke up student demonstrations at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
With the help of many ordinary Parisians, students took over the city’s Latin Quarter, erecting barricades against the police, and sympathetic workers occupied factories.
Despite the strength of feelings surrounding the Paris revolt – intensified by police violence – it succeeded only in showing up the weaknesses of the Gaullist regime, leading to the resignation of President de Gaulle himself in 1969.
Nevertheless, it represented the high point of ‘New Left’ action in the 1960s; never since then have workers and students united so willingly.
Protest in the 60s was not always violent. The second half of the decade saw the emergence of the hippies, people more concerned with peace and love, some of whom expressed their dislike for society by ‘dropping out’ altogether and living in self-sufficient communes.