50 celebrities with a history of protest
When there are so many injustices in society, many ordinary citizens organize and mobilize to fight for change. This can take on the forms of petitions and donations, but many take direct action in the streets, marching, protesting, giving speeches, and spreading the word to others. In the past several decades, entertainers and other types of celebrities have contributed to a number of causes.
Because these celebrities have a platform, whether it is general public interest from being followed by the tabloids, or in more recent decades, a large social media following, whatever cause they support will instantly garner more attention. Celebrities may create organizations and other initiatives to support protesting citizens, speak at rallies and protests, or use televised platforms such as award ceremonies to promote a certain issue.
The issues that celebrities highlight cover a large range, including animal cruelty, police brutality, government surveillance, military action, environmental injustice, and civil rights relating to Black Americans or LGBTQ+ citizens. The fame that a number of celebrities have garnered is partially due to the work they have done in advocating and promoting these topics to the general public and the news at large.
Most recently, 2020 brought worldwide protests against police brutality in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, stemming from the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Several celebrities have been observed as taking part in these in-person protests. With all of these famous names also out in the streets, the role of the celebrity in these moments in time of social strife has been brought into a discussion.
With the release of Bruce Springsteen's latest album, "Letter to You," Stacker looked back the artist's storied history of activism and protest anthems, from the hardship of the Vietnam War veteran personified in "Born in the U.S.A." to his latest support of the Black Lives Matter movement. He's part of a cadre of musicians and other celebrities who have championed social causes. Through news articles, listicles, and retrospectives, Stacker has compiled a list of 50 celebrities fighting for different causes who have a history of participating in protests or have made significant news through their participation. Click on to see which causes your favorite stars may have supported.
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Actress Jane Fonda is famous for being an activist for most of her professional career, advocating for a number of issues. Fonda was arrested in 1970 for her role in a speaking tour that protested the Vietnam War, spending a night in jail. Most recently in 2019 and 2020, the 81-year-old Fonda has been arrested several times during demonstrations that protested the use of fossil fuels by oil companies.
Legendary boxing champion Muhammad Ali became an outspoken figure against the Vietnam War, refusing to join the U.S. Army. Declaring himself a conscientious objector, in part due to his religious beliefs, Ali was arrested and stripped of his titles. Even so, Ali would become a countercultural figure for civil rights and pacifism, and his conviction of draft evasion was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court.
“Avengers” star Mark Ruffalo is one of the highest-profile activists against fracking, participating in multiple protests against oil companies. While fracking is the main issue that the public relates to Ruffalo, the actor has also been seen protesting against President Donald Trump. Ruffalo eventually produced and starred in a 2019 anti-fracking film called “Dark Waters.”
As a musician, Alicia Keys has added musical flair to her activism. Keys has not only spoken at various demonstrations protesting Trump administration immigration policies, the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and police brutality, but she has also contributed a number of protest songs that tackle some of these issues.
As one of the most prolific celebrities in Hollywood, George Clooney has used his star power to bolster his humanitarian efforts. Clooney had long been vocal about finding a resolution to the War in Darfur, interfacing with world leaders and the United Nations as well as taking part in a number of documentaries spreading awareness about the conflict. In 2012, Clooney was arrested during a protest at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington D.C.
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Actress Rosario Dawson is also known for being an activist, primarily demonstrating in support of the Democratic Party. In 2004, Dawson was arrested during the Republican National Convention while protesting against George W. Bush. She had also been protesting in Washington D.C. in 2016 while attending a rally and speaking out against the role of money in politics.
Oscar-winning actor Marlon Brando was influential not only for his roles in films like “The Godfather” and “On the Waterfront,” but also for his political idealism and activism. Brando participated in the movement for civil rights in the 1960s and favored a boycott toward South Africa for its apartheid policies. In support of Indigenous people in the Americas, Brando made a scene at the 1973 Academy Awards by refusing to accept his best actor trophy and sent Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather to speak on his behalf.
Active in a number of social causes, actress Eartha Kitt advocated for and supported underprivileged children in Los Angeles. Kitt also protested against the Vietnam War, and as with many politically active celebrities at the time, she was under surveillance by the CIA. Her most public and vocal criticism of the war came during a White House luncheon that President Lyndon Johnson attended.
After an accident that left him paralyzed, former “Superman” Christopher Reeve spent the rest of his life and career advocating for stem cell research and the treatment of neurological disorders. Having his spinal cord damaged after a horse-riding accident, Reeve made the need for medical support for disabled people his primary focus, creating the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation to fund research and improve the quality of life for patients.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono
The couple, consisting of former Beatle John Lennon and musician Yoko Ono, primarily focused on promoting peace and anti-war with their works of art, with “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance” being some of the more famous songs from the duo. The leftist politics and prolific nature of the couple led to the Nixon administration attempting to deport Lennon from the United States.
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Actor Woody Harrelson has made many of his sociopolitical views known to the public, including his support for marijuana legalization and environmental protection. His most prolific participation in a protest was in 1996, where Harrelson and several other protesters scaled the Golden Gate Bridge to hang up a sign criticizing Maxxam Inc. CEO Charles Hurwitz.
After coming out as gay at the Human Rights Campaign’s Time to Thrive conference in 2014, actress Ellen Page became a public advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. In an anti-Donald Trump protest after the president’s inauguration, a video of Page debating a homophobic preacher went viral online.
Being one of the most famous actors in film today benefited Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental activism. For the bulk of his career, DiCaprio has been active in efforts for preservation and combating climate change. The actor has spoken to national leaders, donated millions of dollars to environmental causes, attended marches, and spoke out about climate change in his acceptance speech for best actor at the Academy Awards.
In support of the Black Lives Matter movement, musical artist Janelle Monae wrote and performed a protest song called “Hell You Talmbout,” which invoked the names of several Black Americans who were victims of police violence and racially motivated crimes. Monae has also marched in Black Lives Matter protests, including one in Philadelphia. With protests calling for justice against police violence, Monae has continued to be a prominent voice.
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Actor James Cromwell, who became a vegan while shooting the film “Babe,” has been an activist since the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. In more recent decades, Cromwell’s activism has focused on animal rights and animal cruelty, often acting as a spokesperson for PETA. One of the few times Cromwell has been arrested at a protest was in 2019, during a demonstration protesting a dog laboratory.
“Divergent” and “The Fault in Our Stars” actress Shailene Woodley is an avid activist for environmental issues and is active in a number of progressive organizations. While protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Woodley was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing. She has since spoken out about her experience being arrested, advocating for the rights of Indigenous people, and encouraging citizens to remain politically active.
Rapper and actor Yasiin Bey, also known as Mos Def, has been outspoken about police brutality and violence against Black Americans. In 2006, Mos Def held an impromptu concert with a protest song called “Katrina Clap,” which criticized the Bush administration’s response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, outside of the MTV Video Music Awards. Despite having a permit, Mos Def was arrested for the performance.
French actress Adèle Haenel, who most recently starred in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” identifies as a feminist and is known for being a prominent figure of the #MeToo movement in France. Having had her own experiences with abuse and harassment in the film industry, Haenel unsurprisingly protested the win of Roman Polanski for an award at the César Awards, walking out of the ceremony with several others.
Being the daughter of Honduran parents, actress America Ferrera has spent most of her career encouraging and mobilizing Latinx Americans to be politically active. Ferrera has spoken at Democratic national conventions multiple times, spoken at the Women’s March in 2017, and is a prominent voice of the Keep Families Together movement against family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border.
When winning multiple awards for his lead role in the film “Joker,” Joaquin Phoenix used the awards stage to promote diversity in the film industry and awareness of animal cruelty. His speech at the most recent Oscars ceremony specifically condemned the dairy industry for its treatment of cows. Also this year, Phoenix was arrested while protesting the current climate crisis with Jane Fonda.
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Model Emily Ratajkowski has used her platform to advocate for feminism, sexual expression, and body image. Through her Instagram profile, Ratajkowski protested an Alabama state law that banned abortion with a nude photo. Upon the nomination and eventual confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Ratajkowski and others were arrested at a protest that took place in Washington D.C.
Star of “Cheers” and “The Good Place” Ted Danson has been a voice in environmental issues, particularly those that concern the planet’s oceans. Danson, in late 2019, participated in one of Fonda’s many protests demanding action on climate change and was subsequently arrested alongside Fonda.
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
Along with being legendary performers on both the stage and screen, married couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were also both prominent activists in the civil rights movement. Organizing a number of marches, the two were also friends with Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and Malcolm X, with Davis delivering eulogies for both King and Malcolm X.
During a period in which politicians such as Joseph McCarthy were leading a fight against communism in America, several individuals and figures in the film industry were targeted and blacklisted for their suspected political alignments. Classic Hollywood actor Humphrey Bogart organized the Committee for the First Amendment and protested the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Sammy Davis Jr.
The multi-talented Sammy Davis Jr. was also politically active, supporting the election campaigns of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, although he later became close with Richard Nixon—a friendship that he would go on to regret. Regardless, Davis was still active in the civil rights movement, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and criticized Nixon for his shortcomings on civil rights.
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Australian actress Cate Blanchett identifies as a feminist, and as such has spoken up about the role of women in the film industry. In regard to the environment, Blanchett is also a longtime ambassador for the Australian Conservation Foundation. She has also advocated for the rights and protection of refugees.
Since his time as a student, “Lethal Weapon” star Danny Glover has been an activist fighting for civil rights and worker unions. Politically, Glover has endorsed progressive candidates running for president of the United States. In 2010, Glover was arrested in Maryland during a protest for better working wages and conditions outside French food corporation Sodexo.
Hermione Granger herself, actress Emma Watson, was appointed as a U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador in 2014. Watson has used her worldwide fame to speak out about women’s issues and human rights, and she has declared her support for transgender people after transphobic comments from “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling.
While Martin Sheen is primarily known as the actor who played President Bartlet in “The West Wing,” he has stated that activism is “what [he does] to stay alive.” A humanitarian and social activist, Sheen has been arrested more than 65 times for protesting. Sheen primarily participates in anti-war, pro-worker, and environmental protests.
At age 18, “Heroes” star Hayden Panettiere was involved in a confrontation in Japan when she and several others attempted to prevent dolphin hunting by paddling out to the water and blocking fishermen. A warrant for her arrest was issued and she and the other participants left the country. Panettiere has since been protesting for liberal causes and animal rights.
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Being a celebrity science advocate famous for his children’s educational television show, Bill Nye has used his status to promote climate change activism. Against perceived anti-science rhetoric from conservatives, Nye participated and spoke in the 2017 March for Science and continues to advocate for science on cable news appearances.
Much of the music by Joan Baez is rooted in activism, counterculture, and protest. Baez has been politically active for several decades since the beginning of the civil rights movement and has written and performed songs for marches and protests, with her most famous track being “We Shall Overcome.”
While Steve-O may be most famous for his dangerous stunts on “Jackass,” the television personality also made headlines for a pro-environmental stunt. The daredevil climbed a 100-foot crane and held up a sign that said “SeaWorld Sucks,” while also holding an inflatable Shamu balloon and shooting fireworks; Steve-O was unsurprisingly arrested.
Actress Daryl Hannah, known to audiences for her roles in “Casino” and “Kill Bill,” has been an environmentalist for most of her life and has been arrested multiple times at protests. One such instance had her protesting the development of farmland and handcuffing herself to a tree. A more recent demonstration in 2013 had her handcuff herself to the White House gates to protest the Keystone Pipeline.
Rock and folk musician Bruce Springsteen has been one of the more prolific musical activists in recent history and has consistently spoken out for gay rights, same-sex marriage, and transgender rights. More recently, Springsteen has been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, especially in regard to the coronavirus pandemic response.
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Jamie Lee Curtis
Actress Jamie Lee Curtis has participated as an activist to several humanitarian causes and has also engaged in philanthropy. For gay marriage rights, Curtis acted in a play by Dustin Lance Black called “8” that reenacted the trial that overturned the same-sex marriage ban, appearing alongside Brad Pitt and Martin Sheen.
One of the main stars of the new “Star Wars” trilogy, British actor John Boyega received attention for his passionate speech and participation in Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 stemming from the killing of George Floyd. Stating “I don't know if I'm going to have a career after this” while speaking to other protesters with a megaphone, Boyega’s co-stars and collaborators came out in support of his activism.
As a young bisexual musical artist, Halsey has spoken for a number of issues that affect young women and LGBTQ+ people; she has advocated for mental health and suicide prevention awareness, transgender rights, and support for sexual assault victims. During the 2020 protests for Black Lives Matter, Halsey marched alongside protesters, also coming to the aid of injured demonstrators.
Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn has caused controversy for his political views and affiliations, and his activism has arguably overshadowed his Hollywood career. A critic of George W. Bush, Penn has provided aid to Hurricane Katrina victims, supported same-sex marriage, and protested against the Iraq War. Penn has also been involved internationally, defending Hugo Chavez and marching alongside Egyptian protesters in 2011.
Actress Laura Dern has had her hands in several social causes, including gender pay disparity, Down syndrome awareness, women’s rights, the environment, and immigrants’ rights. With the latter two issues, Dern has been involved in organizations and protests for those causes in the past few years, particularly Families Belong Together.
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After a fatal shooting occurred during a screening of her film “Trainwreck,” comedian and actress Amy Schumer joined her family member Sen. Chuck Schumer in advocating for gun control reform in the United States. Alongside Emily Ratajkowski, Schumer was arrested in 2018 during a protest against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Primarily fighting for progressive and leftist causes, actress Susan Sarandon is also known for being a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. A demonstration in 1999 over the police killing of an African immigrant in New York City had Sarandon and 218 other protesters arrested. Sarandon was also arrested in 2018 for a sit-in protest against ICE and the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Though the public image and perception of Miley Cyrus has changed through the years, the singer has made her support for social causes quite clear in the past decade. Cyrus has participated in benefit concerts and contributed charity singles, but her biggest contribution is her founding of the Happy Hippie Foundation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights, homeless youths, and other vulnerable populations.
Broadway and Hollywood star Liza Minnelli is also a well-known philanthropist and has expressed her support for multiple causes, including LGBTQ+ rights. Minnelli was heavily invested in the AIDS crisis and incited Elizabeth Taylor’s own activism in raising awareness and funds for AIDS research.
Hailing from South Africa, actress Charlize Theron has been involved in movements and organizations meant to support African youth in the fight against AIDS. Theron has also marched in several pro-choice and women’s rights marches, including the 2017 Women’s March.
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In addition to her being known for the title role as “Xena: Warrior Princess,” Lucy Lawless is also a climate ambassador for Greenpeace. In 2012, Lawless and five other activists boarded an Arctic oil-drilling ship in protest and were subsequently arrested. Even still, Lawless continues to protest with the organization against climate change and oil drilling.
Actress and director Olivia Wilde has supported Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, Planned Parenthood, and Time’s Up. As a feminist, Wilde has also participated in the Women’s Marches of 2017 and 2018. In response to the Charlottesville white supremacist marches in 2017, Wilde, alongside other celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo, protested outside of Trump Tower.
“Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon has long been an advocate for public education, even being arrested in 2002 while marching outside of City Hall in New York City and demanding better funding for schools. As a Bernie Sanders-supporting progressive, Nixon attempted to enter politics by running against Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination of governor of New York, but lost by 30 points.
Superstar Madonna is recognized for her role in decades-long activism for LGBTQ+ rights and HIV/AIDS awareness. For her work and advocacy, Madonna was awarded the Advocate for Change award at the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards. In June 2020, Madonna was also seen protesting for Black Lives Matter, even with an injury that left her in crutches.
Musician Cher has contributed to numerous causes throughout the decades, including but not limited to AIDS relief, veterans care, the Flint water crisis, and COVID-19 relief. In response to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, Cher has participated in a number of anti-Trump rallies, including one right after election night that included Madonna and Mark Ruffalo.
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