Famous protests in US history and their impacts
On Oct. 21, 1967, 100,000 people came together at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to protest the Vietnam War. Following several speeches, roughly 50% of those gathered walked over to the Pentagon where a few hundred people then attempted to levitate the building.
The striking civic protest against the Vietnam War was noteworthy not just for its unusual call to action, but for the new and inventive ways Americans were flexing their right to peaceably assemble. And the Yippies who put on the event inspired countless creative takes on what protest could be, from the Women’s Art Movement (WAM) to the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).
The tradition of protesting in the United States is older than the country itself. This year, we've seen that historic institution full force with Black Lives Matter protests and, more generally, protests against the storied, systemic racial injustice in the United States. The May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, held under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, sparked protests across U.S. cities and around the world. The protesters have called for justice for Floyd and other Black people—from Breonna Taylor to Elijah McClain—who were killed by police, an end to police brutality, a dismantling of racist systems and symbols (including memorials to Confederate soldiers), and a greater investment in communities in need.
The protests prompted widespread dialogue about racial injustice and the political and cultural systems that support it. The four police officers involved in the killing of Floyd were charged with crimes related to the incident. The Minneapolis City Council agreed to dismantle its police force and rethink how it approaches public safety. And many politicians promised to adjust police budgets so money gets reallocated to support communities directly through improved housing, education, and mental health programs, especially in communities of color.
To understand where the Black Lives Matter demonstrations fit into this rich history, Stacker took a closer look at some of the most famous American protests. Research came from the New York Times, The Week, Time, and Business Insider; government archives; and information from unions and mission-driven organizations. The demonstrations that have made their mark on history range from the Boston Tea Party and Temperance prayer protests to demonstrations for modern-day issues, like civil rights, climate change, nuclear disarmament, reproductive health concerns, LGBTQ+ equality, and gun control.
Keep reading to learn about the important issues that motivated Americans to protest—and the impacts of those actions on our society today.
[Pictured: A portrait taken during The Day Without an Immigrant protest on May 1, 2006.]
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1688: Germantown Quaker petition against slavery
A group of Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1688 created the “first written protest against slavery in the new world,” according to the Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust. The group saw the enslavement of others as a contradiction to its religious values and its history of fleeing oppression from the British. Sadly, the petition was not formally accepted by the higher governing bodies of the Quakers, but enslavement was eventually banned within the Quaker community in 1776.
[Pictured: A photograph of the original 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery after restoration in 2007.]
1773: The Boston Tea Party
Protesters flooded Griffin’s Wharf in Boston on a dreary December evening in 1773 to demonstrate against the Tea Act, which gave the British government an effective monopoly on selling tea in the colonies. People dumped hundreds of chests of tea from the British East India Company into the water—an act of defiance against British rule without representation of the colonists who just two years later would fight in the American Revolution.
[Pictured: A Currier and Ives lithograph showing the destruction of tea in the Boston Harbor.]
1791: The Whiskey Rebellion
Enraged by a new duty on whiskey and distilled spirits implemented in 1791, farmers in Pennsylvania and Virginia used violence and acts of intimidation in attempts to stop the collection of the tax. They justified their tactics with the belief that they were fighting against taxation without representation. President George Washington and his troops headed to the area with the protests to demonstrate the government’s authority to enforce laws.
[Pictured: A painting attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer and titled "The Whisky Rebellion" depicts George Washington and troops near Fort Cumberland, Maryland.]
1848: The Seneca Falls Convention
A group of feminists on July 19, 1848, hosted the first women’s rights convention in the United States: the Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Around 300 people assembled to protest the government’s unequal treatment of women and to call for women to be granted all the rights and freedoms outlined in the Declaration of Independence. The convention gave the women’s rights movement the momentum it needed to pursue suffrage.
[Pictured: An illustration of Elizabeth Lady Stanton speaking at the Seneca Falls Convention.]
1863: New York City draft riots
Violent demonstrations erupted in Lower Manhattan from July 13-16, 1863 in response to a decision by Congress to draft men into the Civil War. The protests quickly devolved into a race riot as white protestors (comprised largely of Irish immigrants) began attacking Black people—many of whom ended up permanently moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn.
[Pictured: An illustration shows the Provost Marshal's office burning during the draft riots in New York City on Aug. 8, 1863.]
1874: The Women’s Crusade
The Women’s Crusade was a religious, anti-alcohol group. Members of the group protested the sale of alcohol through picketing, marching, and public praying outside of saloons in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, and Michigan in 1874. The group was the predecessor to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which helped pave the way for Prohibition a few decades later.
[Pictured: An 1874 illustration depicts women in Logan, Ohio, singing hymns to aid the temperance movement.]
1911: Triangle Shirtwaist fire protests
Labor rights activists mounted parades to draw attention to dangerous workplace conditions and mourn the victims of a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that killed 146 garment workers in New York City on April 5, 1911. Legislation was passed a few years later to increase workplace safety and allow people to work fewer hours.
[Pictured: Mourners picket after the Triangle fire in 1911.]
1913: Suffrage movement
An estimated 5,000-8,000 protesters gathered to march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C., ahead of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1913 to call for women’s suffrage. People in opposition to the protest assaulted many of the demonstrators, sparking public outrage that ultimately helped increase support for women’s right to vote. It was one of many protests for the women’s suffrage movement that decade. The 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was finally passed in 1920.
[Pictured: Women lead the Manhattan Delegation on a Woman Suffrage Party parade through New York City in 1915.]
1932: Bonus Army march
Around 20,000 veterans and their families assembled in Washington D.C., in June 1932 in anticipation of the passage of a bill that would allow former military members to cash in certificates for $1,000 bonuses early, in the midst of the Great Depression. The bill failed in the Senate, and shortly after, the U.S. Army used gas, bayonets, and other weapons to destroy the camp and chase out the protesters. The act of violence caused public outrage aimed largely at President Herbert Hoover.
[Pictured: Bonus Army marchers struggle with police.]
1955: The Montgomery bus boycott
After Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, the Black community in Montgomery, Alabama, banded together to boycott the city bus system in December 1955. The boycott lasted more than a year, only ending once a court order forced the Montgomery buses to integrate. The protests thrust Martin Luther King Jr. into a major leadership role of the civil rights movement.
[Pictured: Rosa Parks after being arrested on Feb. 22, 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott.]2018 All rights reserved.