Pop Culture Series: History of Protests/Marches in America

by Abbey Johnson and Lauren Fralinger, Learning & Research Services

The Women’s March on Washington was held on January 21, 2017 in the nation’s capital. Image credit: Liz Lemon, Flickr.

History was made on January 21, 2017, when the Women’s March on Washington became the largest protest in history as nearly three million Americans marched nationwide. Echoed and strengthened by sister marches around the world, the gatherers demonstrated on behalf of diverse and intersectional topics, encompassing women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, immigration, and the environment.

For those of us born in the 1980s and 1990s, mass protests like these may seem unfamiliar, however they are not a new phenomenon. The Women’s March joins other current and ongoing protests, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline, as an effort to give a voice to dissenters and make changes to laws and legislation that protesters view as harmful or dangerous. These movements continue a tradition of organized political protests threaded throughout the history of America.

Dr. Anna Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt, founders of the League of Women Voters, lead an estimated 20,000 supporters in a women’s suffrage march on New York’s Fifth Avenue in 1915. Image credit: Associated Press.

Historically, organized (and sometimes not-so-organized) protests have been a successful method for American citizens to express their discontent with the state of our government and overall political situation. The history of the United States as an independent country is rooted in protest. Even before the American Revolution began, the importance of protest was recognized by early American colonists. In protest over “taxation without representation,” colonial Americans disguised themselves and dumped crates of tea into Boston Harbor in an effort to make their displeasure known to the British Parliament. Today we know this event as the Boston Tea Party. The Boston Tea Party and similar protests eventually led to the Revolutionary War and ultimately the independence of the United States, further demonstrating the power of protest to inspire significant change.

Another early example of using protest to influence the government is the woman suffrage movement that began in the mid-1800s. After decades of organizing marches and protests, women were finally able to win the right to vote. Not only does the woman suffrage movement act as another example of the capacity of protests to make a difference in legislation with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, it also demonstrates that the roots of the Women’s March go back over a century. Although the movement has come a long way since the 1800s, some groups are still striving to achieve equality.

More recent examples would include the many protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Civil Rights Movement, women’s liberation movement, and anti-war protests related to the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. Not only did the actions taken by those involved in these protests allow people to let the government know they were dissatisfied, it also led to legislative changes reflecting the interests of the protesting groups, such as the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Women marching during a Women’s Liberation demonstration in Washington, D.C. in 1970. Image credit: Warren K. Leffler, Library of Congress.

In our current political climate, Americans are facing what is for some an unprecedented level of dissatisfaction with the choices made by our government. Many have decided to come together and express that discontent in hopes of addressing what they feel needs to be changed. This could be seen as a resurgence of the protests of the 1960s, or a continuation of the unfinished work of those past movements. Either way, Americans are coming together to protest now just as they have in the past.

To learn more about recent protest movements as well as the historical roots of political protests in the United States, please check out the following library resources.

 

Books

They Can’t Kill Us All

Towards the “Other America”

Selma’s Bloody Sunday

Riot, Unrest, and Protest on the Global Stage

Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders

 

DVDs

Six Generations of Suffragettes: The Women’s Rights Movement

King: A Filmed Record

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

A Time for Justice

The Black Power Mixtape

Selma