These Are the Past Social Movements That Actually Make America Great
Protest is (still) patriotic.
Illustration by Aaron Barksdale.
Not so fond of the good ol' US-of-A at the moment? You're not alone. Watching the government gleefully snatch away health care from millions, force an unconstitutional and openly xenophobic travel ban on would-be immigrants, and pull out of a historic (and non-binding!) climate agreement can definitely put a damper on your level of patriotism.
But just because this administration has sent you into the streets protesting more times than you can count doesn't mean you can't celebrate your country's birthday with pride.
If your celebration even includes some of that protesting it would be fitting given that Independence Day commemorates our country's dissent from the British. Since then, we've seen some pretty badass American activists remind us why protest is indeed patriotic. Here are some of the most iconic social movements of the past half-century that have changed America for the better.
The Selma to Montgomery Marches (1965)
Three 50-mile marches from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol of Montgomery in 1965 were held in protest of African-Americans being denied their constitutional right to vote. Civil rights activists John Lewis (now a member of Congress) and Hosia Williams led the first, 600-person march that came to be known as Bloody Sunday after the police opened fire on activists, injuring many—including Lewis.
Two days later, on March 9, Martin Luther King Jr. led a march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This march inspired solidarity marches across the United States. The US Justice Department filed a suit against the state of Alabama to protect the protesters' right to safely and peacefully protest. They won.
After President Lyndon Johnson authorized state and federal National Guard forces, 3,200 people marched—with the troops' protection—to Montgomery, where roughly 25,000 people met them. The passage of the Voting Rights Act followed that summer. The movement to combat institutional racism in the United States continues today with Black Lives Matter activists against police brutality.
Anti-Vietnam War Protests (1964–1973)
College campuses were home to the beginnings of the anti-Vietnam protests, fueled by young people directly affected by the draft and already involved in the Civil Rights Movement and/or the second wave of feminism. Students for a Democratic Society also utilized campuses for "teach-ins" to organize opposition efforts. By the fall of 1967, over 15,000 Americans had been killed in the war, over 100,000 injured, and roughly 40,000 young American men being drafted each month, disapproval of the war had increased to over 50 percent.
On October 21, 1967, 100,000 Americans protested the war at the Lincoln Memorial, with some marching to the Pentagon. Significant to these anti-war protests was the CNN effect—Vietnam was the United States' first televised war, allowing Americans sightlines of a war fought in their name from their living rooms. By the early 1970s, Vietnam veterans back at home were organizing in protest of the war, televised throwing away medals they had won during the war in Washington, D.C. While U.S. involvement in the war wouldn't end until 1973, President Nixon was forced to pull American troops from the war two years before it ended.
The Stonewall Rebellion (1969)
Revered as a watershed moment in LGBTQ history and the kickstart of the modern gay rights movement, June 28, 1969 marked the police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. Fed up with the systematic targeting of the LGBTQ population and their refuges, the queer-friendly nightclubs in New York—most of which had been closed down by that point—patrons fought back. The protests continued in the streets for six days thereafter, made up of members of the LGBTQ community and allies. Regarded as the first major national demonstration for equal rights for the LGBTQ community, activists in the city formed the Gay Liberation Front following the rebellion.
Occupy Wall Street (2011)
Born out of the 2008 financial crisis for which the federal government (cough, cough taxpayers) were forced to bail out big banks, activists declared themselves the "99 percent" outside the New York Stock Exchange in September 2011.
Protesters cited frustration with growing income inequality, corporate greed and irresponsibility, as well as the massive influence of money in US politics. The movement spawned the emergence of similar themes in places such as Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign. But perhaps more importantly, it served as a rebirth of public protest in the US during the twenty-first century.
The Women's March (2017)
On January 21, the day after Donald Trump's inauguration, hundreds of thousands of marchers gathered in Washington, D.C. to attend the Women's March. Its organizers reported 672 sister marches around the United States and the world, and nearly 5 million participants, who were inspired to join due to the U.S. president's insulting treatment of women, minorities, and immigrants.
As the largest and most peaceful organized protest in U.S. history, it follows the first and second waves of feminism, which spanned over a century—with victories such as the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, and Congress's passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972.
Though part of the third wave of feminism, the Women's March organizers have strived to be decisively intersectional in influencing the movement's continued activism since January, channeling the wisdom of Audre Lorde: "I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own."