Crowds for Change: The Largest Protests in American History

Over the past few years, millions of Americans have taken to the streets to protest a variety of causes. Some people protested in support of women’s rights. Many others protested racial injustice. And some protested public health measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. But while protests may be in the news, they are not new. Throughout American history, people have taken to the streets to force change and protest societal problems like hate, violence, and inequality. These protests often brought sweeping change. For example, the civil rights bills of the early and mid-1960s were passed in part because of protests like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the best-known person who took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963. It was at this event that he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. However, he was just one of around 250,000 people marching to end the systemic discrimination and disenfranchisement that black Americans faced. President John F. Kennedy and Vice Present Lyndon Johnson met with King and other leaders of the civil rights movement after the march. That conversation helped lead to the drafting and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Anti-Vietnam War Protest

On Nov. 15, 1969, around 600,000 people assembled in Washington, D.C., to protest the Vietnam War. This protest was the culmination of many smaller protests that began in 1967. By the time the protests began, the war had claimed thousands of lives.

Solidarity Day March

Early in President Ronald Reagan’s first term, he proposed heavy budget cuts and changes to the nation’s tax policies. During this time, the nation’s air traffic controllers went on strike, seeking better pay and improved safety conditions. Reagan ordered all 12,000 fired. That action led to a rally of 260,000 in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19, 1981.

Anti-Nuclear March

On June 12, 1982, Central Park in New York City filled with about a million people calling for nuclear disarmament. A variety of organizations seeking peace, ranging from Catholic bishops to college students to anarchists, came together to bring about change in America’s nuclear weapon policies. At the time, the U.S. was in an arms race with the U.S.S.R.

March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation

Around a million people converged on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall on April 25, 1993, to demand equal rights for the LGBTQ community. They sought legislation making discrimination against LGBTQ people illegal, protections for reproductive rights, and increased funding for AIDS research.

Million Man March

The purpose of the Million Man March on Oct. 16, 1995, in Washington, D.C., was to promote unity within the African American community. At least 400,000 people took part in the march. Speakers included Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, and Jesse Jackson.

Million Woman March

On Oct. 25, 1997, at least 500,000 people came together in the rain in Philadelphia to advocate for unity among black women and within black communities. Events at the march included speeches, musical performances, and prayers.

Iraq War Protests

On Feb. 15, 2003, crowds gathered in cities across America and around the world to demonstrate against President George W. Bush’s resolution to invade Iraq. At least a half-million people protested in the U.S. It was one of the largest worldwide protests in history.

March for Women's Lives

One of the largest protests in American history took place on April 25, 2004, when protesters gathered to advocate for women’s rights and reproductive freedom in Washington, D.C. Speakers included Madeline Albright, Patricia Ireland, Dolores Huerta, and Gloria Steinem.

People's Climate March

On Sept. 21, 2014, around 400,000 people marched in New York City to call for action on climate change. Along with the march in New York City, more than 2,700 other demonstrations were held concurrently in more than 150 countries.

Women's March

On Jan. 21, 2017, the Women’s March became the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. More than 3 million people participated in protests across the country and around the world, including around a half-million people in Washington, D.C., in support of women’s rights and reproductive freedom. Around 2 million people turned out again on Jan. 20, 2018, for a second mass protest.

March for Science

On Earth Day, April 22, 2017, around a hundred thousand people descended on Washington, D.C., and tens of thousands more gathered around the world in support of scientific research for the common good and public policy supported by objective evidence. In the U.S., the protest was sparked in part by President Donald Trump’s plan to cut billions of dollars in funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other scientific research agencies as well as gag orders placed on EPA scientists and his planned withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

March for Our Lives

In February of 2018, a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, killing 17 people. This came only six years after a gunman killed 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. In the wake of the Florida attack, students nationwide began agitating for improved gun control laws to prevent another school shooting. On March 24, 2018, more than a million people across the country gathered to insist that steps be taken to prevent yet another school shooting. The march’s mission statement was “to harness the power of young people across the country to fight for sensible gun violence prevention policies that save lives.”

Black Lives Matter Protests

George Floyd, a black man, was killed on May 25, 2020, by a white Minneapolis police officer who pinned Floyd to the ground with his knee on his neck until Floyd suffocated to death. A bystander filmed the incident, and as a result, protests spread across the country. Millions of people took to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism in what would become the largest protest movement in U.S. history. The protests began on May 26, 2020, and continued for months.

Crowd Control and Safety Concerns

Whenever crowds gather, local governments and organizations charged with keeping everyone safe must consider how to safely control the crowds. When people are crowded together, the situation can quickly turn dangerous, especially when tensions are high, and no one wants a crowd to turn into a mob where people get hurt. Crowd control measures typically include passive controls like barriers, ropes, chains, plastic fencing, and other safe tools to direct the flow of the crowd. Naturally, crowd control measures aren’t just used at protests and marches: Busy banks, street fairs, concerts, sporting events, and other places where large numbers of people gather use stanchions, barricades, and other types of barriers to safely direct the flow of human traffic. Dogs trained to smell weapons can also help to keep a crowd safe, as can having people pass through metal detectors. Of course, police officers and other public safety personnel may also be on hand to help control large crowds. Ambulances and other rescue staff are also typically close at hand to deal with any injuries or illnesses.

Additional articles and information about the author: Adam Hart