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Student Activism in the 1930s
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The American Student Movement of the 1930s

Poster, Declaration of the Rights of American Youth, American Youth Congress
The modern American Student movement began in the 1930s, when the National Student League joined with the Student League for Industrial Democracy to form the American Student Union (ASU). During its peak years, from spring 1936 to spring 1939, the movement mobilized at least 500,000 college students (about half the American student body) in annual one-hour strikes against war. The movement also organized students on behalf of an extensive reform agenda, which included federal aid to education, government job programs for youth, abolition of the compulsory Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), academic freedom, racial equality, and collective bargaining rights.

Having originated the idea of federal student aid in the Hoover years, the student movement during the mid-1930s used its national federation and lobby, the American Youth Congress (founded in 1934), to champion job programs for low-income students and unemployed youth. By the end of the decade, in the words of Joseph Lash, the group's executive director, the American Student Union had become "a sort of a student brain of the New Deal." (Lash)

The lessons of World War I and the rise of fascism compelled American students to consider international issues, as well. The ASU was an important voice in the American Peace movement of the 1930s, yet supported the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. Internal struggles over international affairs finally destroyed the American Student Union, as Communists within the ASU's leadership forced the organization to officially support the Soviet Union's non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. This position isolated the non-Communists in the ASU leadership, destroyed the group's alliance with liberals within the New Deal, and alienated the great numbers of American college students who had looked to the ASU for leadership.

For a detailed introduction to this subject, read Professor Robert Cohen's essay Student Movements, 1930s, originally published in the Encyclopedia of the American Left and reprinted here with permission of the editors. Professor Cohen's online essay Activist Impulses: Campus Radicalism in the 1930s examines these student activists, their motivations, backgrounds, and the movement culture they created. Cohen's essay uses interviews and autobiographical essays from the activists themselves. Many of those autobiographical essays, written by high school and college activists who attended Summer organizing workshops, are now in the Joseph Lash Papers at the FDR Library. We have reproduced twenty-one essays from the 1935 Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID) Summer Leadership Institute (SLID Essays) and another nineteen essays written by student activists during the American Student Union's 1938 and 1939 Summer training institutes (ASU Essays). Together with a collection of ASU memoirs gathered at a 50th anniversary reunion of the American Student Union (ASU Memoirs), these documents provide an intimate look at student organizers in the 1930s. These autobiographical essays and memoirs, as well as other articles and a collection of related graphics, photographs and cartoons, are located in the Document Collection.

The student movement of the 1930s was an important precursor to the student movements of the 1960s and beyond; but the student activists of that decade went on to make other contributions. ASU members fought and died on the battlefields of Spain and in World War II. Members of the American Student Union continued to work for progressive change as writers, professors, labor leaders, and journalists. Student activists Victor and Walter Reuther brought their organizing skills to the United Autoworkers Union. Molly Yard, former ASU National Treasurer, became a founding member and president of the National Organization of Women. ASU member Rembert Stokes went on to become President of the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. American Student Union alumni Moe Foner is currently director of the Bread & Roses project of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Workers. We wish to salute these and the other student activists of the 1930s for their positive work for social change.

Project Director
Robert Cohen

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