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1960s Antiwar Protesters
02.27.04
Politics and Economy:
A History of Dissent
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The First Amendment reads "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances."

Of course, our right to protest is not unrestricted. The Supreme Court has handed down decisions that limit certain expressions, creating a very complicated area of constitutional law. Conduct (picketing, demonstrating, etc.) can be restricted to a greater degree than plain speech. Some reasons that government might restrict protest include: public safety, maintaining the public peace, prevention of violence, prevention of a threat of violence, and protection of property.

In a public forum, governments may restrict expression with "time, place, and manner regulations." However, restrictions cannot be based on the content of the speech, and must show that the regulation serves a significant government interest and leaves ample alternatives for expression. The regulation cannot be "substantially broader than necessary to achieve the government's interest."

Activists have developed many different means of expressing dissent over the years. Read below about some of the most powerful examples of protest in America.

Labor Movement
The Labor Movement

In the history of the labor movement in America, protests have usually taken the form of strikes. One of the most famous was the so-called "Bread and Roses Strike" by textile workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. Although there is no documentation of the term "bread and roses" being used during the strike, legend links a James Oppenheim poem by that title to banners used during the strike. Whether or not such a link exists, the strike was important as a marker of an early victory in the history of the American labor movement. Thousands of immigrant men and women fought against poverty wages and managed to improve working conditions, not only for the workers of Lawrence, but for mill workers up and down the east coast.

One of the most influential protests artists in American history is also tied to the early twentieth century. Joe Hill joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) movement in 1910, and began writing songs to unite a fractured working class, divided by language and cultural differences. His songs were a strong force that spread through homes, union halls, street meetings and jails. When Hill "set the passion of idealism and rebellion to music," he succeeded in "laying a foundation for generations of future activists who would seek to express political, social and/or economic vision for change in song." Learn more about Joe Hill and protest songs.

Civil Rights protester
Civil Rights Battle

One of the most unique tools of the civil rights movement was the silent protest. In 1917 in New York City, a silent parade was staged in protest of the East St. Louis, Illinois massacre and recent lychings in the south. Protesters dressed in their finest clothes, and to the sound of nothing but muffled drums, carried picket signs as they proceeded along the parade route. As reported in the NEW YORK AGE in 1917:

"They marched without uttering one word or making a single gesticulation and protested in respectful silence against the reign of mob law, segregation, "Jim Crowism" and many other indignities to which the race is unnecessarily subjected in the United States."
Read more about the NAACP-organized silent parade from The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

In 1960, "Jim Crow" laws throughout the South continued to segregate people by race in public places, including a lunch counter at a F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. On a February afternoon, four African American students sat down there to order lunch. When asked to leave, they stayed where they were, beginning one of the first sustained sit-ins, which then "ignited a youth-led movement to challenge injustice and racial inequality throughout the South." Their passive protest brought increased awareness to the injustice of Jim Crow laws, and the eventual desegregation of the Woolworth lunch counter. For more on "Sitting for Justice," visit the Web site of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Suffrage Parade
Suffrage and Women's Liberation

In the winter of 1917, Alice Paul led the National Women's Party to picket the White House in hopes that President Woodrow Wilson would support a Constitutional amendment giving all women the suffrage, the right to vote. During the months they spent picketing, the protesters were subjected first to verbal and physical assault from spectators, and later police arrest on charges such as obstruction of traffic. Eventually, Alice Paul herself was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 7 months in prison, during which she embarked on a hunger strike. She was released after being jailed for 5 weeks, and finally in 1920, women's right to vote became the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

The battle for equal rights for women has continued over the years. In 1968, the feminist group New York Radical Women targeted the Miss America Pageant for protest. This was one of the first events to bring attention to the emerging Women's Liberation Movement, as four hundred protesters gathered on the Atlantic City boardwalk outside the convention center where the pageant was being held. Protesters threw items such as dish detergent, false eyelashes, wigs, high heels, bras and girdles into the "Freedom Trash Can" but although rumors of the items being burned circulated, the so-called "bra burners" set nothing on fire. As reported on the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Web site, "the law-abiding protesters had not been able to get a fire permit."

Protesting War in Iraq
Peace Protests

Around the time the Vietnam war draft was announced, people around the country from college campuses, middle-class suburbs, labor unions, and government institutions began to organize protests against the war, the first prominent rally happening in 1965. Over the next few years, anti-war rallies, speeches, demonstrations, and concerts continued all over the country, remaining powerful for the duration of the conflict. As described in THE OXFORD COMPANION TO AMERICAN MILITARY HISTORY, diverse tactics were used:

"...legal demonstrations, grassroots organizing, congressional lobbying, electoral challenges, civil disobedience, draft resistance, self-immolations, political violence."

In 2003, anti-war activists across the country marched against the U.S.-led war on Iraq. As was reported at the time by the CHARLESTON POST AND COURIER:

"Since the outbreak of war, peace demonstrations have spread to dozens of American cities large and small in one of the widest outpourings of anti-government protesting in many years. Antiwar activists have blocked traffic, sat in at federal buildings, prayed at somber candlelight vigils, and laid down on sidewalks to symbolize the war deal.... Nearly all protests have been peaceful, though scuffling with police broke out on a few occasions."

In February of 2003 in New York City, antiwar demonstrators were prohibited to march past the United Nations complex or anywhere else in Manhattan by a federal judge ruling. The judge said the organizers would have to settle for a stationary rally five blocks north of the complex, saying that free-speech rights were adequately addressed in this counteroffer.

Protesting the FTAA
The Globalization Debate

In recent years, protests against globalization have attracted a lot of media attention. Events in Seattle, Quebec City, and Miami, for example, have brought worldwide attention to the fight against globalization and free trade agreements.

At World Trade Organization talks in Seattle in December 1999, more than 100,000 protesters marched on the conference. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but there was a core group of anarchists seeking confrontation with police.

At the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April of 2001, riot police braced for violence, and reportedly fired rubber bullets and tear gas, and turned water cannons on demonstrators who took over streets, started fires, broke shop windows and tore down a concrete barrier.

Most recently, last November in Miami at the FTAA summit, unarmed demonstrators, local residents, and journalists were said to be assualted with tear gas, pepper spray, beanbag projectiles, electric-shock tasers, and other police weapons. NOW's "Criminalizing Dissent?" examines what happened in Miami from the perspective of protesters and police.


Sources: The Bill of Rights Institute; CNN; AMERICAN EXPERIENCE; Chicago Historical Lab; JOE HILL: SONGS OF HOPE; FindLaw; The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; BoondocksNet.com; Smithsonian Institute.

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