102 Years Ago, a Young Carlos P. Romulo Led the First Student Protest in UP

IMAGE Wikimedia Commons / University of the Philippines

Activism in 2020 gets a bad rap. There’s no doubt about it. Nowadays, the word “activist” has been misconstrued to mean “terrorist,” a scary turn of events for democracy. Instead of getting into the debate of activist versus terrorism, let’s take a step back and revisit the roots of student activism in the Philippines, with none other than the Carlos P. Romulo as our guide.

It was 1917, and Romulo, then just a passionate 19-year-old Iskolar ng Bayan, teamed up with fellow student Jose Romero to lead the University of the Philippines’ first student protest.

The cause? In defense of the university’s first Filipino president Ignacio Villamor against an unwarranted press attack by Manuel Xeres Burgos, a writer on the editorial team of the Manila Times. 

Romulo and Romero rallied the students together and demonstrated their ire at the publication with a march from the UP campus in Quezon City all the way to the Manila Times office next to the Santa Cruz Bridge, which is now the MacArthur Bridge.

Had Romulo lived in this century, he might have been red-tagged and harassed for his activism. But back in the day, he was just a kid with a passion for justice and honor.

So what happened to Romulo? At barely five feet, the man with a giant personality went on to become one of the country’s greatest statesmen and public servants.

A diplomat, soldier, journalist, and teacher, Romulo went on to earn his doctorate just five years after the first UP protest. He went on to serve the likes of General MacArthur and eight of the Philippines’ 16 presidents.


He made his mark in the Philippines and also the world when he took up the role of president of the United Nations General Assembly. He was the first person of Asian descent to ever hold the position, and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for all his service.

A voice for human rights, human dignity, and human freedom, Romulo’s legacy can be summed up best by his exchange with a Soviet diplomat who made the wrong decision of picking on Romulo at the United Nations:

"You are just a little man from a little country," said the Soviet.

"It is the duty of the little Davids of this world to fling the pebbles of truth in the eyes of the blustering Goliaths and force them to behave!" said the indomitable Romulo.

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Anri Ichimura
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