SDS protesting ROTC at UW, March 6,1969. Copyright (c) Steve Ludwig. Click the thumbnails to go to a gallery of photographs of SDS and campus protest.
The Black Student Union at UW, founded in 1968, led a series of strikes, sit-ins, and protests and radically changed what had been a largely all-white campus. Click to go to a special section on the BSU with films, photos, interviews, and reports. (Image courtesy of Museum of History and Industry, Seattle.)
In 1971, Asian American students at Seattle Central Community College formed the Oriental Student Union, inspired by the Black Students' Unions, and kick-started an Asian American student movement in Seattle. Click for histories, videos, and photos.
Organizing the 1968 UW boycott of non-union grapes, led by the United Farm Workers, galvanized the new Chicana/o movement on campus. Click to read more.
Police and student demonstrators facing off in an antiwar march down the I-5 freeway during the May 1970 student strike. Click to see documents from the strike. (Image courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry)
Campus unrest is one of the most-remembered aspects of the Vietnam War era. While college students were not the only ones to protest, student activism played a key role in bringing antiwar ideas to the broader public. The University of Washington has a rich history of antiwar, civil rights, and radical activism. Explore this history by clicking on the images in the sidebar to link to hundreds of photographs and documents from student activism on campus, or scroll down to read an overview of student protest at UW during the Vietnam War era.
Throughout the 1950s, small anti-McCarthy and anti-nuclear protests were organized on enough campuses to revitalize the student left after the repressive years of the Cold War. Students at the UW protested trials of allegedly “communist” professors in 1948 and organized small anti-nuclear pickets in the early 1960s. But the real transformation of the campus left came with the national emergence of the civil rights movement and their vibrant student organizations, which proved by example the effectiveness of social protest and paved the way for the antiwar movement. By 1967, campuses across the country had developed a vocal left that inspired more and more students as the Vietnam War escalated and the civil rights movement turned toward ideas of black power. UW hosted a number of radical, anti-racist, and antiwar student groups who often worked together in larger campaigns, such as the 1968 Black Student Union sit-in, anti-ROTC and antiwar protests, and the May 1970 student strike.
Many of the protest movements on campus did not see antiwar work as separate from other civil rights or social justice concerns, and different campaigns brought together all sections of the campus left. The 1968 campus boycott of non-union grapes, inspired by the United Farm Workers, helped galvanize the Chicano/a movement on campus but also involved members of Students for a Democratic Society and, at Fort Lewis, antiwar GIs. When the Black Students' Union led a strike for black studies on campus, the majority of the campus left picketed, struck, and protested alongside them. While there were tensions and political divisions with the campus and broad left, it is also important to see how fluid, overlapping, and inclusive many of the actions were. The Vietnam War served, as had the early civil rights movement, to sparked further struggles around race, identity, and gender.
The best-known national student organization was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), formed in 1960 by students looking for an alternative to stifling Cold War politics. Early SDS took its inspiration from the civil rights movement organizing in the South, and many of its activists were involved with voter registration and other civil rights campaigns. Buoyed by the civil rights movement, SDS’s all-purpose progressivism helped them spread on campuses around the country, and by 1966, they had begun to focus nationally on antiwar efforts.
An SDS chapter at the University of Washington was formed around 1963, and other chapters existed at Western Washington University in Bellingham; Central Washington University in Ellensburg; and Washington State University in the Pullman. By early 1968, the UW chapter was quite strong, and focused its activities on antiwar, labor, and civil rights issues, as well as publishing a newsletter, SDS News. By the late 1960s, SDS and other radical and antiwar groups on campus were able to win support from a much wider section of campus: SDS ran a slate of candidates for the 1968 student government elections on an explicitly radical basis, and received 25% of the total vote. Along with Draft Resistance-Seattle, SDS initiated a number of campaigns to organize radical and antiwar groups at area high schools and focused anti-draft work around students whose draft deferments would soon change after graduation. [Link to SDS News] [Link to a page on Draft Resistance-Seattle]
Where SDS was a multi-issue group, the Vietnam Day Committee (later the Student Mobilization Committee) on campus was a larger explicitly antiwar group, involving members of the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth wing of the American Socialist Workers’ Party. The Vietnam Day Committee organized many of the antiwar actions on campus in 1968-1969, including the formation of a student-soldier antiwar group, the GI-Civilian Alliance for Peace (GI-CAP). With their active-duty buddies, students in GI-CAP put out an underground newspaper for soldiers, Counterpoint, held citywide antiwar conferences and marches, and even staged an “invasion” of Fort Lewis by boat to “liberate soldiers” from the military. GI-CAP was one of the first organizations in the country to form links between civilians and antiwar soldiers, and inspired similar organizing elsewhere in the country. [Link to Counterpoint]
GI-CAP’s work was followed by more concerted efforts at Fort Lewis among GIs, and at the UW, radicals and antiwar activists gained a wider hearing, in concert with waves of antiwar and black power radicalism across the country. African American students organized the Black Students’ Union and led a 1968 strike for ethnic studies on campus, which was actively supported by the rest of the campus left. In March of 1969, over 9,000 students marched to protest the ROTC’s presence on campus and their advocacy for a war that many did not agree with. That fall, African American football players led a protest of racist practices by their coach, and organized a small players’ strike in December.
Even as the left gained momentum, though, SDS nationally split into several warring factions, and sections of the campus left turned away from building broad movements and demonstrations and toward confrontational guerilla actions designed to “spark” resistance, while others turned to labor organizing or began to build women’s liberation groups. Yet even as SDS broke apart, campus radicalism and antiwar sentiment were still supported by a majority of students, as the May 1970 student strike showed.
The May 1970 student strike at the University of Washington was part of a national week of student strikes, organized in reaction to the expansion of the Vietnam War in Cambodia, the killings of student protesters at Kent State University, and “to reconstitute the University as a center for organizing against the war in Southeast Asia.” Student activists called for a strike on May 4, after the events at Kent State, and the next day’s mass rally on campus mushroomed into a march on the freeway to downtown Seattle. Several thousand students voted to strike on May 10, and the strike lasted roughly until May 18. While never completely occupying the entire campus, the strike gained mass support from the student body. The student strike, from roughly May 10-18, was part of a larger month of explosive protests, campus occupations, and marches in Seattle, and though short, students began to re-think the role of the university in society and set up their own “New University” classes. [Link to documents from the 1970 strike]
Despite the support for antiwar and radical ideas, as the war continued, it became unclear how campus radicals would be able to change more than the rules in their universities and actually transform society. This question faced the broad left, and it was answered in different ways: black power advocates turned their efforts to community control and revitalization in neighborhoods like the Central District, and the women’s movement emerged as a vital force in its own right.
Copyright © 2008 Jessie Kindig
 George Arthur, correspondence with the Christian Science Monitor, January 1968, in SDS Chapter Records, Special Collections, University of Washington Library (Accession 1080-2).
 Much of the information for this section comes from author’s interviews with former student activists.
 See Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 285-287; and documents from the student strike from the collection of Steve Ludwig, available on this website.