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UNC—Chapel Hill students have often worked together to advocate for issues or push for change. Early in the university's history, students collectively petitioned the administration, for example, to complain about food on campus. In 1861 a group of students wrote to the university administration to ask that classes be canceled so that they could leave to join the Confederate army; the president and board denied their petition.

One of the earliest examples of students working together to protest national issues came in the 1930s, when students joined national antiwar efforts and held rallies in Memorial Hall, some attracting hundreds of people. Student activists engaged in a statewide debate in the early 1960s in protest of North Carolina's Speaker Ban Law. Their challenge to the law eventually led to its being overturned.

Student activism was at its peak in Chapel Hill, and around the country, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The founding of the Black Student Movement at UNC—Chapel Hill in 1967 led to increased advocacy for African American students and workers, including participation in strikes by cafeteria workers in 1969. However, the issue that galvanized students more than any other was opposition to the Vietnam War. Student activists held regular vigils on Franklin Street and joined other students across the country in teach-ins and walkouts. In 1970 an estimated 11,000 UNC—Chapel Hill students (well over half of the student body) left class as part of a nationwide effort to protest the war.

Although the numbers were not as great, UNC—Chapel Hill students remained politically active beyond the 1970s. In the 1980s students pushed the university to divest from companies in South Africa in protest of that country's apartheid government, in the 1990s students were instrumental in getting the university to agree to build a free-standing black cultural center (now the Stone Center), and in the 2010s student activists led the push to rename Saunders Hall and were at the forefront of efforts to remove the Confederate Monument from campus.

Date Established: 1790

Date Range: 1790 – Present

UNC—Chapel Hill students march past Wilson Library in 1987 in support of efforts to urge the university to divest from companies that did business in South Africa. Durham Herald Co. Newspaper Photograph Collection, North Carolina Collection Photo Archives, Wilson Library.

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