1968 – The year that changed the world

1968 was a year of rebellion and freedom that still shapes the world 50 years later. Protests erupted across the world, not just famously in Paris, but also Prague, Mexico, Jamaica and Rio de Janeiro. And the targets of resistance were war, racism, patriarchy, conservative social mores and state bureaucracies (whether capitalist or socialist).

The tactics ranged widely from the time-worn marches to occupations to community social programmes of the Black Panther Party to the mockery and mischief of the Yippies and the Situationists. The sense of possibility and liberation and the threat it posed to an established order was captured in graffiti on Paris streets: 'The revolution is unbelievable because it's real.'

While 1968 was particularly explosive, it built and learnt from key struggles earlier in the decade, particularly the black civil rights movement in the US, the struggle for Algerian independence, growing opposition to the Vietnam war and student protests in Europe from the mid-1960s.

The protests in 1968 unfolded in a spectacular international wave, learning from each other, adopting common positions (such as opposing the Vietnam war) and creatively communicating their message in the early days of television news. Student protests against censorship and Soviet interference in Warsaw and Prague in the spring fed into the spectacular protests in May in Paris when students together with 10 million workers almost threatened to overturn the De Gaulle government. They in turn fed into massive protests in Mexico, Brazil and Jamaica. An international movement of civil society was in a sense born in 1968.

The immediate response to the protests was repression and violence. The Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet Russia, the Tlatelolco Plaza students in Mexico were massacred by police, Martin Luther King was assassinated. And in the years following, military dictatorships rose throughout Latin America as well as in parts of Asia and Africa.

However the impacts of 1968 were to be long-lasting. It was the turning point for the movement against the Vietnam War that led to the US defeat in 1975. It saw the emergence of the Black Power movement, captured by the famous salute by John Carlos and Tommie Smith and also the American Indian Movement whose actions continue to inspire indigenous movements today, and it was a turning point for feminist and gay rights movements whose issues moved to the forefront of social movements of the time.

“Why does 1968 remain so symbolic?…My emphasis would be on consciousness,” says Tom Hayden, a prominent US activist leader. “It was entirely possible that the American people would have accepted the Vietnam war with all its casualties and all its taxes, just as they supported the Korean war. So, you have to conclude that it was a shift in consciousness that helped bring about its end. That's what happened when people marched for Civil Rights and against the war, that's what happened in 1968 when people united in activism: the consciousness of America shifted.' More accurately, one could say the consciousness of the world shifted.


Mexico protests. Photo source: Wikipedia

Demonstration in Helsinki against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Photo source: Wikipedia

Strikers in Southern France with a sign reading "Factory Occupied by the Workers." Behind them is a list of demands. Photo source: Wikipedia

Police action in connection with the 1968 Båstad riots. Photo source: Wikipedia

At the occupation of the Student Union Building in Stockholm, Swedish minister of education Olof Palme encourages students to embrace democratic values. Photo source: Wikipedia

Award ceremony at the '68 Summer Olympics. Photo source: Wikipedia