What is the History of Mass Protests in the United States?
Mass protests have long been part of American culture, even before there was the United States. When the United States formed, it was recognized that the First Amendment protects citizens' rights to protest. In many cases, these mass movements based on organized and sometimes not so organized protests have led to major social and political change. This is not always the case, but these movements have been both a positive and sometimes destructive part of US history.
Early Mass Protests
The largest US history protests have occurred since 2016; however, early in US history, mass protests were vital to social and political change. Class discontent has often been the main reason for mass movements and protests. Culpeper's Rebellion was one of the first large-scale, at least based on the population's movements, movements in Carolina Colony in 1677. John Culpeper led this in a protest movement and armed rebellion against the British authorities over taxes in the Navigation Act. At the time, the British had begun to create a series of duties on cotton and other exports from their American colonies, such as tobacco exports. The movement was ultimately suppressed, but for a time, the rebellion and protests worked in getting the British to exempt taxes, demonstrating some effectiveness of mass mobilization and a mix of violence. John Culpeper even successfully defended himself while he was on trial in Britain. This also helped him become a prominent citizen in North Carolina.
Ultimately, his descendants continued to even be influential in North Carolina politics long after establishing the United States. The Knowles Riot of 1747 was a major disturbance in Boston that occurred after Admiral Charles Knowles attempted to impress poor Bostonians into naval service, leading to protests and armed rioting (Figure 1). This represented one of the largest class-based protests and riots. It was mostly working-class and poor affected by civil rights in the 18th century, which is what rights individuals have in refusing military service. While this was put down, it did lead to more cautious approaches by the British in recruiting colonists for their armed forces.
The theme of taxes continued to be a strong one in North America and ultimately sparked the Revolutionary War. The Stamp Act in 1765 proved very unpopular in the US Colonies, which raised taxes and required printed paper to be produced in Britain. A series of increased protests occurred in the Colonies after this tax was imposed. Among different acts, the Townshend Acts, which led to a series of new taxes, created tensions that ultimately led to the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and the subsequent American Revolution sparked by mass movements in reaction to this and other events. The main disputes centered on whether Parliament had the right to tax in the Colonies rather than local representatives.
The Sons of Liberty, an initially secret organization led by Samuel Adams, opposed taxation without local representation as to their main rallying call and helped lead a series of movements that led to coordinated anti-tax protests and disturbances, including the Boston Tea Party. It is arguable that the events leading to the American Revolution, led by the Sons of Liberty and other related groups, could be considered the first coordinate acts of disobedience and protests across what became the United States.
The main difference between protests in the 18th century and those in the early 19th century was many protests were more likely to be less violent as the First Amendment came into effect. After establishing the United States, protests often shifted to different issues that reflected the politics of the time, including taxes, questions of state rights, and voting rights. However, violence was still common. Shays' rebellion in 1786 led to an armed rebellion that was caused by the issue of tax collection and debt. The race became perhaps the most consistent and long-term issue in the United States' history that led to protests and riots. Other protests often turned violent, such as the Hard Scrabble and Snow Town riots in 1824 and 1831, when most working-class whites destroyed African Americans' homes.
The first riot in 1824 was sparked by an African American man refusing to get off a sidewalk when approaching white men who came near him. In 1836 and 1839, the Cherokee natives tried to protest their forced removal from the southeastern United States to Oklahoma. Many natives simply refused to go with their possessions as they were moved but ultimately, federal troops removed the natives. Their long march and death along the way became known as the Trail of Tears.
While the Trail of Tears and protests during the forced removal of Native Americans failed to lead to any political change, one of the most successful peaceful protests that created political and social change was the Women's Suffrage Movement 1840s to 1920. The main achievement was the establishment of the 19th Amendment in the Constitution. However, the early years of the movements sprang from the anti-slavery movement, including the eventual acceptance of women to join the American Anti-Slavery Society, which occurred for the first time in 1839.
Women became active in peaceful national protests against slavery. One of the first political parties to form that advocated an end to slavery and suffrage for all was the Liberty Party, which formed in the 1840s but ultimately failed. However, its prominent members went on to help found the Republican Party in the 1850s and put Abraham Lincoln as President. The American Anti-Slavery Society also became a key blueprint for protests movements by establishing key speakers, such as Frederick Douglass, and publications (The Liberty Bell) that helped such organization not only organize protests but also establish movements that lasted for decades through active enrollments of members. The organization used publications and speakers to establish networks across the United States that helped increase following anti-slavery supporters.
In the post-Civil War era, labor strikes and protests became an increasing phenomenon as industrialization accelerated. The Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) were among the most successful organizations to conduct protests and strikes, which became common in the 1880s. While strikes and protests often led to violent incidents, such as the Haymarket affair in 1886, eventually improved labor conditions and pay by the early 1900s did lead to some success for the labor movement, including access to healthcare, such as for some railroad workers, and paid time off.
Modern Period Protests
The suffrage protests peaked in the 1910s with several large marches in the United States and globally (Figure 2). In the United States, Alice Paul led a large protest in Washington and became a key strategist in helping the 19th Amendment be ratified. She continued to protest well after her younger years, and even in the 1960s, she was active in the civil rights and women's rights movements. In fact, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women Paul's organization and campaigning.
Interestingly, as the anti-slavery protests helped to shape the suffrage movement for women in the 1800s and early 1900s, it was the suffrage movement that also shaped the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, as peaceful large marches, including in Washington, became the norm in post-World War II protests to gain increased national attention. This was the case for Martin Luther King's protests, initially in the US South, and the strategy in March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. This march led to the well-known "I Have a Dream Speech" by Dr. King and demonstrated that large gatherings, filmed by the media, and focusing on inspirational and national figures could help spark success for protest movements national mood shifted. The subsequent anti-war Vietnam protests used similar strategies of having large protests, often by young people, focused on major cities and drawing national media coverage.
Other events in the 1950s shaped the civil rights movement, which became the most prominent post-World War II protests and actions. This included Rosa Parks in 1955 being asked to give up her bus seat to a white man that helped to launch protests against segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, and elsewhere. That incident not only launched Martin Luther King into a prominent leader for civil rights but it also demonstrates that non-violent civil disobedience and boycotts could be an effective strategy of protest for many involved in the civil rights movement, helping to inspire these strategies for other movements across the world and the United States. The Montgomery Bus boycotts in 1955-1956 successfully ended bus segregation. From 1957-1964, increasing civil rights laws at the federal level improved African Americans' legal protection despite persistent racial tensions.
The anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements helped to inspire and shape other non-violent protests in the 1960s and 1970s, such as the American Indian Movement. Still, violence often persisted and accompanied more peaceful protests, including against the war in Vietnam and civil rights. More recently, similar strategies for gay, lesbian, and bisexual movements were used to gain increasing rights. One of the largest protests in United States history in Washington occurred on April 25, 1993, where over 800,000 marched in support of lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights.
In recent decades, riots often formed when racial injustice became evident. The Los Angeles riots in 1992 was a well-known example, which occurred after white police officers were acquitted in the beating of motorist Rodney King. Anti-globalization protests sometimes turned violent such as the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization meeting that led to clashes between police and protesters. The largest anti-war protests arguably occurred on February 15, 2003, in the lead up to the Iraq War, when cities across the United States and many countries organized a day of protests against the impending war. The largest marches in United States history (both over 1.5 million people) occurred in the 2017 and 2018, with the Women's marches occurring and initially sparked by President Trump's statements that were seen as anti-women and offensive.
The March of Our Lives in 2018 was another large-scale (over 1.2 million) demonstration against gun violence. However, racial-related protests and riots continued to persist, including the Ferguson Unrest in 2014 that led to protests and rioting in Ferguson, Missouri. The most recent example is the George Floyd killing, which has led to mostly peaceful protests globally with some more violent incidents. These events highlight that while many protests and movements have shifted, often because of great success, race continues to be an issue leading to peaceful and violent protest movements in the United States.
Protests and the rights to express dissatisfaction with government and official policy is so ingrained in American history that it forms the country's First Amendment. While violence has continued to plague many movements and strong reactions to events, many protests have shifted over the decades in strategy. Pamphlets and underground actions were typical in the early protests against slavery. Later, powerful speakers such as Dr. King and mass media helped to inspire large-scale protests and movements. More recently, social media has helped galvanize efforts such as the Women's March in 2017 and 2018.
- For more on early colonial protests and violent incidents related to civil disturbances, see: Gilje, Paul A. Rioting in America. Interdisciplinary Studies in History. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana Univ. Press, 1999.
- For more on early US protests and incidents, including violent actions, see Danver, Steven Laurence, ed. Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
- For more on labor, anti-slavery, and suffrage movements and protests, see: Berkin, Carol, ed. Making America: A History of the United States. 6th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2012.
- For more on protest movements in the 20th century, see: Sullivan, James. Which Side Are You On? 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019.
- For more on recent protest and riots that shaped the United States, see: Stoltman, Joan. Protests and Riots That Changed America. American History. New York: Lucent Press, 2019.