Monday, February 07, 2011

From Paris to Mexico City: Revolutions on Campus, 1968

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story. Below, I describe the student revolts beyond Prague and Columbia University in New York.

Student protest spread from Columbia University across the world. At times, the global revolution dreamed of by many leftists seemed to be unfolding, with college campuses often serving as the battleground.

In Paris, students began their revolt for relatively pedestrian reasons. Students protested at first against severe overcrowding at university campuses. Protests began on March 22 when students, artists and left-leaning political activists took control of an administration building at the University of Nanterre. Students issued a statement about class oppression in French society and complained about the curriculum at French institutions of higher learning, which they characterized as more concerned with the needs of industrial capitalism than with the search for truth. Others vaguely called for a society in which work was more emotionally and intellectually meaningful.

Protests swept the country. French authorities shut down the University of Nanterre by May 2. Pickets soon occupied parts of the University of the Sorbonne, provoking another violent police response. Unlike in the United States, class conflict did not divide college students from the working class. Hundreds of thousands of college and then high school students joined the protests, soon to be joined by approximately ten million workers (two-thirds of the Paris workforce) who spontaneously went on strike in solidarity. A general strike, largely by workers in state-owned industries, on May 13 brought one million protestors into the streets of the French capital.

Other demonstrators, more broadly, called for the overthrow of capitalism across the West. Protestors set the stock exchange building on fire. French society ground to a halt and no leader emerged among the strikers to compile a coherent list of demands. For a time it appeared that the French government might fall. French President Charles De Gaulle dissolved the government and called new parliamentary elections on June 23. By this time, public support for the strikers had faded and, without a concrete set of goals to aim for, the enthusiasm of the strikers faded as well. De Gaulle’s conservative party won a huge majority in the election.

In Mexico, students chafed against the corrupt, autocratic domination by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which by 1968 had ruled the country for almost a half century. The International Olympic Committee had selected Mexico City to host the 1968 summer games and the government, in spite of the widespread poverty in Mexico, spent lavishly to prepare athletic venues for the games and for a “cultural” Olympics that would include book fairs, art exhibits, concerts, plays and academic lectures. Already, wide discontent had spread against the reactionary government of President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, and now many Mexican citizens questioned the government’s lavish spending for the Olympics.

Events began to spin out of control in July when a fight broke out in Mexico Cit between students of a college preparatory school and less well-off students attending a vocational school. The mayor sent out a paramilitary riot police force, the granderos, much despised by the local population. The granderos suppressed the fight, but the event unleashed general anger at the Mexican government. A full-scale riot broke out when large numbers of students came out on the streets to celebrate the July 26 anniversary of the communist revolution in Cuba. On August 27, a half million people staged an anti-government rally, the largest such demonstration in Mexican history.

By mid-September, the capital had been decorated with Olympic flags, but the government nervously watched as students occupied the National University. Eager to end the uprising before the arrival of the international press, President Diaz Ordaz dispatched 10,000 combat ready troops to take back the campus. Student leaders scheduled another mass demonstration at the Plaza de Tres Culturas on October 2 in the District of Tlateloco.

A relatively small crowd of about five thousand that included women and children and uninvolved but curious bystanders gathered to hear a series of speeches. At 6:30 that evening government troops arrived in tanks. Granderos swung billy clubs and fired tear gas. It has never been clear who fired the first shot, but the government troops fired machine guns into the crowd even as helicopters dropped flares from above. Up to 400 died in the violence, though the government admitted no more than 43 deaths. Area hospitals and clinics overflowed with the injured, and 2,000 overfilled the jails of Mexico City.

In a year in which it seemed a worldwide revolution might break out at any moment, it is no surprise that a rebellious spirit touched even the ostensibly apolitical Olympic Games. Two African American track stars, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, respectively the gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter dash, bowed their heads and gave a “black power” salute as the “Star Spangled Banner” played during the medal ceremony. Speaking later to reporters, Smith added, “It is very discouraging to be in a team with white athletes. On the track you are Tommie Smith, the fastest man in the world, but once you are in the dressing rooms you are nothing more than a dirty Negro."

The United States Olympic Committee immediately kicked both athletes off the team and sent them home early. Both received death threats and the American press described their gesture as a “Nazi-like salute” and called them “black-skinned storm troopers.” Other news accounts inaccurately reported the athletes belonged to the radical Black Panther Party. To Americans, radicals seemed to have taken the initiative not just in the United States, but also among both allies and enemies. No aspect of life, even sports, seemed free of political turmoil.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

No comments: