The Power of Student Activism

Activism led by Wash. U students has been alive and growing over the most recent years. However, it is important to realize that student activism has been a very important (and often glossed over) history of Washington University.


Students and community members march in downtown St. Louis against the war in Vietnam, 1965.

Students of a Democratic Society was founded at Wash. U. in 1965 and laid a foundation for activism today. In 1966, SDS organized and ran a “free university” where Marxist social theory was discussed. The first act of civil disobedience occurred in 1968, when SDS interrupted an interview between a Dow Chemical recruiter on the grounds that the interview was “morally detestable.”


1968 Protest against DOW Chemical on WUSTL campus

Civil disobedience and direct action then became a much more prominent form of protest on campus.

After the police beating of a black student, the Association of Black Collegians organized a protest and sit-in. Students presented the Black Manifesto of 1968 to the administration, demanding a list of changes that would make campus a safer place for black students.


1968 Strategy meeting


Black students confronting administration about racism on campus

A year later, students rallied and marched to the Chancellor’s office before attacking and burning down the ROTC building on campus in protest of the Vietnam War. Later that decade, students burned an American flag in order to demonstrate U.S. imperialism in Iran.


1968 Students take over Brookings Hall

In most recent years Wash. U students have demonstrated and started a sit-in against Peabody Coal being on our board of trustees, raising awareness of not only the environmental and health damages Peabody has caused but also the dislocation of communities of color due to mining. Last year, Students in Solidarity organized around the Black Lives Matter movement and presented the administration with a list of demands similar to the Black Manifesto, aiming to improve the lives of students of color on campus and improve the relationship between the university and the rest of the St. Louis community.

Interested in researching and exploring more? The following collections are available for use by contacting Special Collections

Black Manifesto Collection:

Papers of Dan Bolef, former WU professor and activist:

Students for a Democratic Society at WU records:

Students against Peabody records:

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.