Protests and Riots in History That Led to Systemic Changes in America

By Rosunnara RothLast Updated Jun 5, 2020 3:09:52 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Protests and riots erupted in the U.S. following the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly eight minutes. Recently, both peaceful and violent demonstrations have occurred in many American cities, where some properties have even been destroyed.

As the nation watches the chaos unfold, some people have expressed confusion about the protests or don’t believe the events can actually make a difference. However, protests have served as a traditional way for Americans to stand up to abuse, hate and inequality and to achieve change. The U.S. has an intense history of carrying out pivotal protests, with some demonstrations leading to violence or destroyed property. Here are some key protests and riots in history that led to systemic changes in America.

The Boston Tea Party

Unfortunately, the destruction of property isn’t new during a protest. In fact, one iconic rebellion saw a loss of $1,000,000 in property, yet it was called an act of heroism. On December 16, 1773, more than 100 men boarded ships and dumped 90,000 pounds (45 tons) of tea into Boston’s harbor to protest Britain’s policies of "taxation without representation."

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The Boston Tea Party highlighted the anger and frustration the colonists felt over Britain’s tyrannical control. It was one of the earliest political protests in the country, inspiring American patriots to recruit rebels across the 13 colonies and begin the American Revolution. By 1776, the colonies had declared their independence from Britain.

The 1913 Suffrage Parade

The journey to women’s suffrage was long, difficult and violent in the U.S. On March 3, 1913, the first major event to fight for women’s right to vote took place in Washington, D.C. — the 1913 Women's Suffrage Parade. Led by Jane Addams, Alice Paul, Anna Howard Shaw and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the massive parade drew thousands of women.

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Photo Courtesy: FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Unfortunately, the movement also attracted male spectators, who antagonized and attacked the women. Despite the police presence, almost 100 marchers were injured and hospitalized, which caught the attention of newspapers and led to congressional hearings. The D.C. supervisor of police was fired for failing to secure and protect the paraders.

Congress approved the 19th Amendment, allowing white women the right to vote in 1920 — seven years after the parade. It took another 45 years for women of color to freely exercise the same right to vote.

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The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco

Before the famous Stonewall Riot, there was the Compton's Cafeteria Riot of 1966, a historical event now known as the first LGBT uprising in American history. For years, the San Francisco Police Department abused and victimized transgender women and drag queens in the Tenderloin District, who were often forced to engage in sex work to survive. It was also a crime to cross-dress at the time.

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Photo Courtesy: KQED Arts/YouTube

On one fateful day in 1966, a group of trans women dining at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria had enough of the harassment and transphobia. As a cop tried to arrest one woman, she threw a cup of coffee in his face, lashing out against police brutality and injustice. Using their high heels and purses, the "screaming queens" fought back. The clash ended with flipped chairs and tables, broken restaurant windows, a damaged squad car and a burned down newsstand. Another group organized a similar protest the next day.

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In the wake of the Compton's Cafeteria Riot, there was wider support for transgender rights. Glide Memorial Methodist Church and Vanguard (a queer youth group) publicly addressed the issues raised by the transgender community and offered them help. In 1968, advocates created the National Transsexual Counseling Unit (NTCU) to provide transgender social services. Over time, the police brutality toward the community decreased, and the cross-dressing ordinance was repealed in 1974.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — one of the most famous and massive protests in American history. The protest took place in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where 250,000 demonstrators marched and called for the end of systemic racism and inequality.

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The march was almost canceled due to President John F. Kennedy’s fear of the event ending in violence, but the organizers, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, pushed for the march to go on as planned. The mass protest was entirely peaceful, with celebrities, powerful organizations and 3,000 members of the press in attendance.

The event is credited with pressuring the John F. Kennedy administration to step up and take action to promote racial justice and equality. In the aftermath of the march, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed, outlawing segregation in public spaces and discrimination in voting and employment.

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