In Numbers Too Big to Ignore: Our Legacy of Peaceful Protest

Demonstration against G8 Summit in Le Havre

“I am WOMAN hear me Roar, in numbers too big to ignore”

Helen Reddy

As we inch our way closer to the Women’s March on Washington, I thought it would be fitting to look at how your bodies and voices will make a difference.  Peaceful protest is, not only, our right as Americans but, it is how our voices are heard, understood, respected and how change is made.

Protected by the First Amendment and upheld over time as a cornerstone of our free society, the rights to assemble, protest, and petition continue to attract those who see injustice and upset those who do not understand.


Although there have been many amazing world protests such as Tienanmen Square, Gandhi’s Salt March and the Berlin Wall Protests, this post will look at some of America’s peaceful protests and their message.

Our history includes the civil rights movement, the student movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and the environmental movement, among others. Each, to varying degrees, changed government policy and, perhaps more importantly, changed how almost every American lives today.peace

Supporters of these causes did not use traditional methods of political activity. Instead of voting for a political candidate and then hoping that the elected official would make good policies, these protesters believed in a more direct democracy. They took direct action—public marches, picketing, sit-ins, rallies, petition drives, and teach-ins—to win converts to their causes and change public policies at the local, state, and federal levels. They contributed their time, energy, and passion with the hope of making a better, more just society for all.


btpThis country’s first protest began with the The Boston Tea Party . On a cold evening of December 1773, protesters gathered in Boston Harbor to reject the latest shipment of tea from the East India Company. They were speaking out against the Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to sell its tea at reduced cost, thus giving the British government-controlled company an effective monopoly. As the story goes, the colonists stormed the ships as they pulled into the harbor and chucked some 46 tons of tea overboard.  That night, their voices were heard, and helped spur a movement that would see the states gain their independence from England.


Henry David Thoreau, the Harvard-educated 19th-century philosopher and poet, remains a major symbol of peaceful resistance because of his 1849 work, “Civil Disobedience,” in which he questions why people would obey a government whose laws they believe to be unjust. On account of his opposition to slavery, Thoreau refused to pay taxes, an act that briefly landed him in jail in 1846.


As one of the four mounted heralds of the Suffrage Parade on March 3, 1913, lawyer, Inez Milholland led a procession of more than 5,000 marchers down Washington D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue. The National American Woman Suffrage Association raised more than $14,000 to fund the event that became one of the most important moments in the struggle to grant women the right to vote — a right that was finally achieved seven years later.


Peaceful protests like the 1913 Suffrage Parade shared the voices courageous women speaking out for the right to equal political participation. This protest can remind us peaceful acts have the power to change the system.

sitincarThe United Auto Workers, formed in 1935, had a lot to fight for. During the Depression, General Motors executives started shifting work loads to plants with non-union members, crippling the UAW. So in December 1936, workers held a sit-in at the Fisher Body Plant in Flint, Michigan. Within two weeks, about 135,000 men were striking in 35 cities across the nation. This created the strength behind the movement that solidified one of North America’s largest unions.

rosaEven though African Americans constituted some 70% of total bus ridership in Montgomery, Ala., Rosa Parks still had trouble keeping her seat on Dec. 1, 1955. It was against the law for her to refuse to give up her seat to a white man, and her subsequent arrest incited the Montgomery Bus Boycott. One year later, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision that made segregated seating unconstitutional. Parks was known thereafter as the “mother of the civil-rights movement.”

studentsIn 1960 a small group of young people formed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). By 1968 some 100,000 young people around the nation had joined this organization. Activist faith led many student activists to reject government and school administration policies. Students sat-in to protest restrictions on students’ rights to free speech and held rallies against the in loco parentis rules that allowed school officials to act like parents in setting curfews and dorm rules. They demanded that faculty and administrators stop all research and activities that contributed to the Vietnam War.

cesar-chavez-6Cesar Chavez advocated for peaceful boycotts, protest, and a grueling yet nonviolent 25-day hunger strike which led to legislative changes to end exploitative abuse of America’s farm workers in the late 1960s. He led a five-year strike in Delano, Calif., bringing together over 2,000 farmers to demand minimum wage primarily for underpaid overworked Filipino farmworkers. This caused more than 17 millian Americans to boycott California grapes, which helped secure unions, better wages and security for farmworkers.


More than 200,000 people gathered in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 to demand equal rights for African Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and roused a nation to action.


From an anti-war demonstration in front of the Pentagon on October 21, 1967, organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, came images that encapsulate a decade of flower power. Not even the National Guard was a match for mellow hippies looking to push change with nothing more deadly than a few petals.


vietnamemarchThough antiwar demonstrations have been sprinkled throughout U.S. history, perhaps none were more vehement than the outcries against America’s involvement in Vietnam. In the frigid fall of 1969, more than 500,000 people marched on Washington to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. It remains the largest political rally in the nation’s history. The protests successfully proved that the antiwar movement comprised more than just politicized youth. The November rallies were part of a string of demonstrations that took place around the world in 1969, with groups from San Francisco and Boston to London petitioning for peace.

In 1969, a police raid on New York City’s Stonewall Inn did not start the discussion on gay rights, but they certainly became the catalyst for a national movement. When the Mafia-owned bar that offered a safe place for gay men and lesbians to drink and dance was shut down as part of a citywide crackdown on homosexual life, Greenwich Village erupted into several days of unrest. Violent police beat-downs and open mocking of the authorities by the protesters escalated the neighborhood protest into a full-scale rally for acceptance and equality. Prior to the Stonewall riots, the gay-rights movement had been mostly underground; only two years later, there were organized groups in every major city in America.


Stonewall’s legacy lives on today. After the New York state senate voted in favor of same-sex marriage on June 24, 2011, revelers from around the city congregated in front of the bar to celebrate.

earthday In 1970 some 20 million Americans gathered for what organizers called Earth Day to protest abuse of the environment. Students and teachers at over 1500 colleges and universities and at over 10,000 schools held teach-ins on the environment. Hundreds of thousands of other Americans staged protests and rallies around the nation.  .  In response to growing citizen protests, Congress passed the National Environmental Act in 1970. The act created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate environmental health hazards and the use of natural resources.

After the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, African Americans began to stand up for their rights without fear, forming a cultural movement to promote the newfound pride they took in their race. The Black Power movement was a subgroup of the larger strides toward black equality, one that has both been praised for its activism and criticized for its isolationism. Undeniably powerful, the phrase and movement behind it helped get African Americans elected to office and admitted to colleges.


slutwalk-torontoSince the 1970s, events under the Take Back the Night umbrella have protested violence against women in the form of marches and rallies around the world, often in direct response to specific murders of women. The movement set a precedent for future actions concerned with female safety and sexuality, like SlutWalk, a march that began in 2011 to oppose a statement by a Toronto Police Constable that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

iraqMillions of people in cities around the world gathered for anti-war protests in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, which went ahead despite their efforts in March of 2003.  People around the world rose up. In almost 800 cities across the globe, protesters filled the streets of capital cities and tiny villages. And across the globe, the call came in scores of languages, “the world says no to war!” The cry “Not in Our Name” echoed from millions of voices. The Guinness Book of World Records said between 12 and 14 million people came out that day, the largest protest in the history of the world.

Occupy Wall Street Protestors March Down New York's Fifth AvenueOn September 2011, 3,000 people assembled at Battery Park with the intention of occupying Wall Street to protest greed and corruption in the government and financial system. During the first week of the occupation, some 300 people camped out, crafted a motto (“We Are the 99%”) and organized small-scale marches to protest a system that they say bailed out the banks and left everyone else to fend for themselves. It was a message that resonated. Within a month, the Occupy movement gained momentum, spreading to cities across the U.S. and around the world.

Peaceful protests continue today and are visible throughout our country.  It is the American way and will continue to create social awareness and change throughout our beautiful country.

All of these, and other, protest movements captured public attention and raised questions that were important to the nation.  Activists asked difficult questions that many Americans would rather have ignored. In answering these questions, Americans changed dramatically. Equal opportunity and equal rights became the law of the land for American citizens regardless of their race, ethnicity, or gender.

This is our legacy….now it is our turn.

For those too young to know and those of us who don’t remember, here are the lyrics to:

I AM WOMAN by Helen Reddy:      (beautiful video by Sofie Othilia Ngo)

I am woman, hear me roar

In numbers too big to ignore

And I know too much to go back an’ pretend

‘Cause I’ve heard it all before

And I’ve been down there on the floor

No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes I am wise

But it’s wisdom born of pain

Yes, I’ve paid the price

But look how much I gained

If I have to, I can do anything

I am strong (strong)

I am invincible (invincible)

I am woman

You can bend but never break me

‘Cause it only serves to make me

More determined to achieve my final goal

And I come back even stronger

Not a novice any longer

‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul

Oh yes I am wise

But it’s wisdom born of pain

Yes, I’ve paid the price

But look how much I gained

If I have to, I can do anything

I am strong (strong)

I am invincible (invincible)

I am woman

I am woman watch me grow

See me standing toe to toe

As I spread my lovin’ arms across the land

But I’m still an embryo

With a long long way to go

Until I make my brother understand

Oh yes I am wise

But it’s wisdom born of pain

Yes, I’ve paid the price

But look how much I gained

If I have to I can face anything

I am strong (strong)

I am invincible (invincible)

I am woman

Thank you.


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