5 American Protests That Led to Big Changes


Will the Occupy Wall Street protest, now entering its second month and spreading across the country, lead to changes in the way America does business?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, it’s worthwhile to remember that grassroots protest movements are nothing new in this country.

American political change has never been limited to the voting booth; protests sparked the movement for American independence in the 18th century, and ever since citizens have taken to the streets to demand equal rights, economic freedom, and civil rights. Here is a look back at five major protest movements that changed American history.

1773: The Boston Tea Party

Modern Tea Partiers might be surprised to learn that the original Boston Tea Party had nothing to do with high taxes, and was in fact in direct response to tax breaks given to a corporation by a federal government. In protest of “taxation without representation,” American colonists had begun snubbing imported British tea and drinking smuggled (non-taxed) Dutch tea instead.

The politicians assumed if the British tea were cheaper, the Americans would ignore their principles in favor of their pocketbooks, and so lowered duties on tea imported by the British East India Company, which was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The colonists realized purchasing the British tea would tacitly acknowledge Parliament’s right to tax them, and refused to allow the cargo ships to dock. On the evening December 16, 1773, a group of about fifty men boarded the ships and dumped the cargo, which amounted to nearly 50 tons of tea, into Boston Harbor.

In response, Parliament  closed the port of Boston and drastically reduced the self-governing powers of the colonies, pushing the colonists even further down the path toward revolution.

1912: Bread and Roses Strike

Women and children made up more than half the labor force of the early 20th-century textile industry in Massachusetts, and many of the workers were recent immigrants as well. Poor and uneducated, the workers were forced to work long hours for low pay in miserable conditions. Women mill workers were the first to strike on January 11, 1912, in response to slashed wages; by the height of what came to be known as the “Bread and Roses” strike 25,000 workers had walked off the job.

Militia and police were called in and violent clashes ensued. Congress began an investigation after police clubbed and arrested a group of women at a railway station attempting to send their children to safer quarters in other cities. Public outrage grew; President William Taft ordered an official investigation into industrial conditions in Lawrence and other cities across the country.

Hoping to avoid further negative publicity, the American Woolen Company agreed to the strikers’ demands in March 1912. The workers won a fifteen percent pay raise, double pay for overtime, and return to work for all strikers. It was one of the greatest victories by a labor strike to date.

1917: Women’s Suffrage

Suffragist Alice Paul led the National Women’s Party in a picket on the White House in 1917, in support of a Constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. Women spent months on the picket line, subject to verbal and sometimes physical abuse from spectators as well as arrest on charges such as obstruction of traffic. Alice Paul was arrested and sentenced to seven months in prison, in protest of which she went on a hunger strike.

The very public demonstration of the suffragists’ dedication and willpower swayed both public opinion and President Woodrow Wilson, who announced his support for women’s suffrage in January 1918. In 1920, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which provided: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

1963: The March on Washington

A century after the Emancipation Proclamation, massive unemployment, persistent segregation and discrimination, and lack of educational and career opportunity plagued African Americans in the U.S.

From local acts of protest such as the Montgomery bus boycott and the Woolworth sit-ins of Greensboro N.C., a movement grew that culminated in nearly 300,000 people gathered in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963 to demand equal rights for African Americans.

The March on Washington was epic in numbers and scope. It was the occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King and other civil rights leaders also met with President John F. Kennedy at the White House to discuss the necessity of bipartisan support for civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reflect many of the demands voiced that day.

1969: Stonewall Riots

In the late 1960’s police raids on gay bars in New York City were a common occurrence. A raid on a hangout in Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn, sparked three days of riots and protests in NYC in June 1969. Protesters openly defied morality laws and mocked the police, who in response beat down and arrested dozens of activists.

Prior to Stonewall, there was no open movement for gay rights in the U.S., but what started as a small-scale local riot escalated into a widespread call to action. The first Gay Pride marches took place a year later, on the anniversary of the riot. By 1971, there were organized gay-rights groups in most major American cities. The current push for equal marriage rights and the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” might not have been possible without the impetus of the Stonewall protests.