9 Famous Acts of Protest

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A Brief History

On October 16, 1968, 2 U.S. Olympic athletes on the medal podium raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the American national anthem to protest the status of human rights in the U.S., particularly in regard to African-Americans.  What is hardly remembered is that both African-American medalists also wore no shoes and instead stood there in black socks to symbolize Black poverty in the U.S.  Both of the Americans as well as the silver medalist from Australia wore “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badges and some other symbols of protest.   An irate International Olympic Committee expelled the 2 Americans from the Olympics, but their message was certainly delivered; millions of people would see the iconic event in photographs.  Here 9 such famous acts of protest by individuals or groups are listed. (Of course, all revolutions and rebellions are also acts of protest, as are riots.) Question for students: What acts would you include?

Digging Deeper

9. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Raised Fists at the Olympics, 1968.

Often referred to as a “Black Power” salute, it involves the raising of the right hand in a black glove.  John Carlos used his left hand.  Both he and Tommie Smith later said their gesture was a “Human Rights” salute.   Smith also wore a black scarf to show “Black Pride,” and Carlos had left his track suit partly unzipped to show unity with blue collar workers and wore a beaded necklace in memory of Africans and African-Americans who had been lynched, murdered, tarred and feathered or thrown over the sides of slave ships.  Americans were split, largely along racial lines, as to whether these 200-meter dash sprinters were heroes or traitors.  Smith and Carlos both later played in the American National Football League (NFL) and had distinguished careers in other fields as well.  The Australian, Peter Norman, was regarded as a pariah by his countrymen for siding with the Americans and although he qualified for the next Olympic games, he was left off the team.

8. Thich Quang Duc, Self-Immolation, 1963.

Duc, a 66-year-old Buddhist monk, protested the South Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists by burning himself to death in public.  Photos of Duc’s dramatic act are among the most famous photos in history, and even President Kennedy said they had generated more emotion than any other news photos.  Copycat self-immolations by other Buddhists monks and nuns who eventually achieved their goal of toppling South Viet Nam’s government followed.  In the ensuing years, many brave and selfless people on very continent have resorted to this measure to protest a variety of political and social complaints.

7. 4 Dead in Ohio, Kent State University Shootings, 1970.

Although there were many protests during the Viet Nam War years,  it is the Kent State University shooting death of 4 young people by the Ohio National Guard  while students were protesting the invasion of Cambodia that symbolizes the anti-war movement.  Far from being a peaceful demonstration, not only was the ROTC building burned, but the Guardsmen had been pelted with rocks.  Though it is tragic that four students died, at least one of them had been distributing and throwing some  of the rocks.  Pictures of the dead were published worldwide, and the anti-war sentiment increased.  The shootings led to further protests on  a multitude of college campuses and general unrest in the nation.

6. Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1956.

Boycotts are a form of peaceful protest whereby protesters simply refuse to patronize a business or institution or to buy a product.  The most famous American example is the boycott in Montgomery, Alabama of segregated buses.  When African-American Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to go to the black section in the back of the bus, African-Americans and sympathetic white people refused to use the public transit system, opting instead to walk, to ride their bikes or to car pool.  This year-long boycott was one of the most successful civil rights protests of the 1950s, and it resulted in the Supreme Court declaring segregation on buses to be unconstitutional.

5. Occupy Wall Street, 2011.

Triggered by the economic collapse of 2008, the occupation of Wall Street was a peaceful protest that took the “sit ins” of the 1960s and 1970s a little further by having throngs of people camp out and not leave.  This protest was not even American in origin; it was thought up and promoted by the Canadian magazine Adbusters.  Mainly against economic inequality and unfair practices of greedy banks and financial firms, this protest spawned other similar “occupy” protests around the country.  Their motto, “We are the 99%,” indicated the protesters’ displeasure with the wealthy top 1%.  It is unclear whether any of the goals of the protests were accomplished.

4. Marches on Washington, 1894-Present.

Starting with Coxey’s Army marching in 1894 to protest unemployment, marching on Washington has become a popular American form of protesting a variety of complaints. One notable early march is the Bonus Army of 1932, in which American World War I veterans, because of the Depression, demanded an advance in the bonus money that had been promised to them.  Another early march was in 1925 when 50,000 Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members descended on Washington.  Civil rights leaders organized several marches in the 1960s and more recently, in 1995, the Million Man March to protest the negative image of black males and the disparate treatment of African-Americans.

3. Mohandas K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Civil Disobedience, 1915-1948.

Known by the honorific title “Mahatma,” Gandhi is the man most identified with peaceful protest.  He led in India in protest against various British policies, and campaigned for the independence of his country, which was finally granted.  He also fought for civil rights (freedom of religion, women’s rights, retirement of the caste system) and set himself as a symbol of tolerance.  One example of his idea of being civilly disobedient was to sit at a spinning wheel and make thread to weave his own cloth, as the British had specified that India must buy all its cloth from Great Britain even though the cotton had originally come from India.  Often jailed, he is also famous for his hunger strikes, however, it took an assassin’s bullet in 1948 to bring about his demise.

2. Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black,” 1970s.

One of country music’s biggest stars, Johnny Cash only wore black clothing when performing.  His preferred long black coat is a stark contrast to the colorful outfits generally worn by other singers.  He explained in a song why he did this; he hoped that through his clothes he could  remind people of those who were poor or hungry, of prisoners in jail, of lives ruined by war, of those addicted to drugs, of the old and infirm and of anyone who was down and out.  Although a quiet form of protest, Cash’s stature as a star meant that his message about the less fortunate was heard and seen by millions of his people across the globe.

1. “Tank Man,” Tiananmen Square Massacre, 1989.

During the protests in China that became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, somewhere between 240 (government estimate) and over 2,000 (non-government estimate) protesters were killed by the Chinese army that was equipped with tanks, armored personnel carriers and automatic weapons.  Amid the chaos and carnage, a single, anonymous man stood in the path of a tank with his hands by his sides, ready to be run over if the tank did not stop.  His act of defiance was photographed and has become one of history’s most famous, electrifying and inspiring photos.  The tank did stop, and it is believed the man did not get killed.  Time magazine named this unknown protester one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bauer, A.J. and Writers for the 99%. Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America. Haymarket Books, 2012.

Meyer, David S. The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Thompson, Heather Ann. Speaking Out: Activism and Protest in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Routledge, 2009.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.