1969 in Public Media: The Student Movement

This year marks the 50th anniversary of 1969, an important and turbulent year in history. Here to highlight the role of public media in covering these events, we welcome back Christopher Brown, Archives Engagement Intern at the AAPB who will be publishing a series of articles about this fascinating topic. Christopher is currently pursuing a Masters in History with a focus in Archives.

Click here to read the first article of this series, introducing the events of 1969 and the fight to save public broadcasting.


The second article in our series on 1969 explores public broadcasting’s coverage of the student movement, which occurred around the country and gained momentum as the decade progressed. During this movement, the “Baby Boomer” generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) came of age and took direct action towards social change. Their protests involved a number of issues, most prominently the war in Vietnam and the draft lottery, which forced increasing numbers of young people into military service. Many of these protests were peaceful, others were not. Some ended in bloodshed as authorities attempted to quell the revolt, most famously at Kent State a year later in 1970. 

One such protest occurred in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in response to two primary issues, both involving the new science center: the displacement of African American residents due to building development and the war-related research occurring on campus, funded by the Department of Defense. Organized by the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the protest involved a march, speeches, debates, and a sit-in. The peaceful demonstration ultimately created positive changes in response to the students’ demands. A documentary entitled To Calm a Troubled Campus, produced by National Educational Television (NET) and aired in April, 1969, offered an in-depth look at the protest as well as the students, faculty, and community members involved. 

To Calm A Troubled Campus (National Educational Television, 1969)

Penn was not the only Ivy League institution experiencing a revolt against university connections to Vietnam. In 1969, Harvard students protested contracts between the school and ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps), demanding that the contracts and associated academic credits be withdrawn. The peaceful protest, involving a sit-in at University Hall, eventually turned violent as police used aggressive tactics to break up the demonstration, resulting in university and community outrage. Following these events, a panel discussion between faculty and students occurred at Harvard on April 17, 1969, televised by WGBH in Boston. The following footage occurred after the sound was temporarily cut off due to a particularly outraged student using profanity during his speech. 

Harvard: Where do we go from here? (WBGH, 1969)

On April 27, 1969, just 10 days after the Harvard panel discussion, National Educational Television (NET) aired an episode of the series Public Broadcast Laboratory entitled “University in Society: Do the Ties Bind?” Filmed at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, the episode documented the protest movement along with efforts by Stanford faculty and administration to determine the causes of unrest and to work constructively with students.  The first of two clips below shows a campus protest in action and the second involves a student expressing his views.

University in Society: Do the Ties Bind? (National Educational Television, 1969)
University in Society: Do the Ties Bind? (National Educational Television, 1969)

Finally, we examine another program from National Educational Television, part of the series NET Journal, entitled “Diary of a Student Revolution.” Aired on March 24, 1969, the episode explores conflict between members of the Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Connecticut (UCONN) and the school’s president, with cameras following both parties. Part of the protest involved on-campus recruitment efforts by the Dow Chemical Company, a producer of the napalm used in Vietnam. In this clip, a UCONN professor addresses a student rally. 

Diary of a Student Revolution (National Educational Television, 1969)

The student movement of the 1960s was an effort by young people to right the wrongs of prior generations and bring harmony to a world which felt increasingly chaotic and unfair. In many ways they succeeded and in areas where they failed or where success was incomplete, they set in motion the potential for ongoing positive change. The same can be said of the other social movements which occurred during this turbulent, important decade. 

In the next installment of our series, we examine coverage of the civil rights movement.

The program outlined above can be viewed online and in full at the AAPB – https://americanarchive.org.

To explore this topic in more depth, explore the AAPB’s exhibit on Speaking and Protesting in America during the 1960s and 70s.

The American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) is a national effort to preserve at-risk public media and provide a central web portal for access to the programming that public stations and producers have created over the past 70 years. To date, over 50,000 hours of television and radio programming contributed by more than 100 public media organizations and archives across the United States have been digitized, and the Archive aims to grow by up to 25,000 additional hours per year. The entire collection is available for research on location at WGBH and the Library, and currently more than 30,000 programs are available in the AAPB’s Online Reading Room at americanarchive.org to anyone in the United States.

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