The Student Paradox

Throughout the turbulent decade of the 1960s, student activists were often responsible for creating some of the most powerful images as well as the most profound political impacts of the time period. From organizing sit-ins to large scale protests against the Vietnam War, a surface level perspective of this time period would have us believe that college students were always on the politically correct side of history. However, based upon the articles in Cohen and Snyder’s Rebellion in Black and White, the collective actions taken by students in this decade paint a much more complicated story. While what can retrospectively be considered politically correct actions often did take place in the form of student-led protests and the formation of student organizations to fight for civil rights, student activism also took a paradoxical turn throughout a majority of the 1960s. As student groups fought side by side for interracial equality, “a significant gap would continue to exist between black and white student activists”; as some students in the nation attempted to achieve their goals through a peaceful means, there were other students holding protests in which a “building burned to the ground”; and finally while some liberal organizations across campuses worked to excel humanity in America, there were also conservative, student organizations devoted to “fighting gains made by African Americans and homosexuals on campus” (144, 148, 171).

This is not to say that the college students who challenge the natural image of 60s college students were the majority of this demographic by any means; however ignoring even the minority of this demographic would essentially create a historical perspective that is blurred. Because although this imagery presents a challenge to holding a clear, definitive vision of the ideology and actions of student activism throughout the 1960s, the paradox between ideology and action is essential to understanding that contrary to textbooks, not all student activists fought for the same issues. For when it came down to it, “the interplay of racial, generational, and vocational identities of student activists [led to] their tendency to build both bridges and walls” (129).

Often times, history has the unfortunate habit of categorizing and stereotyping groups of people that only on the surface appear to be similar enough one another. However more often than not, those that are grouped together contain factions in what is supposedly a unified ideology. According to the articles in Cohen and Snyder’s Rebellion in Black and White, this is also the case with student activism throughout the 1960s. As each article begins to unfold, the conflicting ideologies of opposing student activist groups quickly challenge the idea that student activists could so conveniently be placed into a single category. This not only challenges retrospective stereotypes, but also brings to light the idea that in history, and especially regarding student activism, nothing is a clean-cut category.

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