From the Great Butter Rebellion to Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of Student Advocacy Movements

Haley G. Winston, Ed.D. Assistant Director, Office of Student Involvement, University of Central Florida

May 16, 2018

Since the early days of Harvard, college students have been advocating for their needs.  The creation of collective consciousness between student peer groups has gone through several iterations.  As student affairs practitioners, it is important to know the history of student advocacy, so we can continue to build a civic ethos on our campus to help students take part in advocating for their own beliefs.

  • First Wave (1636-1840)- self-interested riots (Ellsworth & Burns, 1970)
  • Second Wave (1840-1950)- focused on charity (Morton & Saltmarsh, 1997)
  • Third Wave (1950- present)- motivated by social consciousness (Rhoads, 1998)

Self-Interested Riots

Shortly after the establishment of American’s first college (Harvard), students began advocating on their own behalf.  Peer-to-peer civic discussions motivated these students.  Early forms of student activism took the shape of riots.  These riots provided a glimpse into the lack of basic needs being met.  Many of these rebellions focused on discipline being too harsh or food being of low quality (Ellsworth & Burns, 1970).

Harvard, with its Great Butter Rebellion, was not the only college where students advocated for their voices to be heard. The University of Virginia faced many of these types of riots as well.  The 1836 Military Company Riot developed from a student concern that they were not being taught about carrying arms on campus.  The students fought the administration to form their own organization where they would teach each other military skills (Bowman & Santos, 2013).   

After this rebellion, every year the students would celebrate its success.  In 1840, a law professor, John A.G. Davis was shot and killed by a student during this revel. This event catalyzed a shift in student movements.  Students turned their focus from self-interested riots into caring about the community outside of their student cohorts.  From this point, students start looking at how their actions can affect others (Bowman & Santos, 2013).   


The creation of campus activities aided in this shift from student riots to the creation of the charity movement.  The founding of Greek-Letter Organizations, collegiate athletics, literary magazines and other student activities also facilitated the move from concentrating on urgent and basic needs.  The students were engaged with the world outside of the ivory tower and they became more personally fulfilled (Ellsworth & Burns, 1970).  

One notable example of the promotion of volunteer service during college is the story of Mary Harriman Rumsey.  As a student at Barnard College in 1901, Harriman Rumsey was inspired to get involved in volunteer work by lecture about the settlement movement.  She formed a coalition of her female friends (including the young Eleanor Roosevelt) and began to fundraise and do direct service at New York settlement houses.  This was the origin the Junior League, a volunteer training society.  This is an early example of students organizing to gain knowledge, skills, and values around social issues (Logue, 2001).  

The Charity Organization Movement of the 1880s was based on character building.  Mostly female Protestants from the middle class would visit those who were deemed in need of charity and would teach them to be frugal and prudent.  Through our modern lens, this turned the population into two factions: us and them.  It also assumed that those in need were responsible for their own poverty. Addams and Dewey reframed this paradigm to be about social justice and human dignity (Morton & Saltmarsh, 1997).    

Peer-to-peer civic discussions on college campuses facilitated the spread of knowledge about the reality of World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. These civic experiences turned this paradigm of charity into social awareness.  This generation of students used written and spoken word to express their frustrations about inequality. Students felt discontent; this led to another shift within student movements (Ellsworth & Burns, 1970). 

Social Consciousness

One well-known student movement was the Freedom Summer Project.  This endeavor was a response to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Almost 1,000 college students volunteered to go to the American South to primarily register black voters and secondarily to educate them for social change.  Freedom Summer was a time when college students were getting experiential learning about the democratic progress.  They were also being exposed to different communities and risking their lives to act (Clark, 2009).  

The 1960s is famously known for student engagement in civic practices. Likewise, the 1990s was a time fraught with students expressing their voices though community engagement, expressly though activism.  A few key examples include “the 1993 Chicano Studies movement at UCLA, the Mills College strike of 1990, the 1993-96 American Indian Protests at Michigan State University, gay liberation activities at Pennsylvania State University from 1991 to 1993, and African American protests at Rutgers University in 1995” (Rhoads, 1998, p. viii).  These movements were started by the formation of collective consciousness.  The peer-to-peer dialogues about their civic experiences resulted in students participating in the democracy.  They used the safe environment of their campuses as a place to unravel social problems (Rhoads, 1998).    

Two current movements college students are a part of are Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) movement/Dreamers and Black Lives Matter movement. These movements are focused around marginalized populations.  Historically these youths participate in traditional democracy less frequently. Universities’ missions support civic participation and diversity. Therefore, “universities must shoulder the responsibility to support student development in alignment with the institutional mission. Institutional support can manifest in two related ways.  First, student services practitioners might consider a thoughtful integration of social justice themes in curricular (e.g., service-learning courses) and cocurricular (e.g., living-learning communities) civic engagement initiatives.” (Hope, Keels, & Durkee, 2016, p. 212) 

A prerequisite to this wave of student activism was the infusion of concern about society and politics among college students.  Student Affairs Professionals can work to develop civic literacy and skill building in our college students, but we must also remember that we need to help cultivate civic action.  Peer-to-peer civic discussions are very powerful. They help students create “sophisticated insights” (Rhoads, 2016, p. 199) into how others experience in the world.  These students “serve as agents of campus change as well as broader social change” (Rhoads, 2016, p. 199).  What do you see for the future of student advocacy? 


  • Ellsworth, F. L., Burns, M. A. (1970). Student activism in American higher education. Washington D.C.: American College Personnel Association. 
  • Morton K., & Saltmarsh J., (1997). Addams, Day, and Dewey: The emergence of community service in American culture. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning4, 37-49.  
  • Rhoads, R. A. (1998). Freedom's web: student activism in an age of cultural diversity. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 
  • Rhoads, R. A. (2016). Student activism, diversity, and the struggle for a just society. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(3), 189-202. doi:10.1037/dhe0000039 
  • Bowman, R., & Santos, C. (2013). Rot, riot, and rebellion: Mr. Jefferson's struggle to save the university that changed America. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. 
  • Logue, A. C. (2001). Training volunteers. Training & Development, 55(6), 63-70.  
  • Clark, J. S. (2009). White involvement in the civil rights movement: Motivation and sacrifices. American Educational History Journal, 36(2), 377-394.  
  • Hope, E. C., Keels, M., & Durkee, M. I. (2016). Participation in black lives matter and deferred action for childhood arrivals: Modern activism among black and Latino college students. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(3), 203-215.  

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