Protest in America
Why is protest essential in a democracy?
The First Amendment guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression (free speech and free press), assembly and the right to petition. It forbids Congress from both promoting one religion over others and also restricting an individual's religious practices. It guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely. It also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government.
Defining Rights in the American Colonies
The rights of private citizens were very important to those who had just fought the British and won independence for the American colonies. Their experience with the British king and Parliament had made them wary of creating a new government that was determined to protect the rights of the individual against authority. When the original version of the proposed Constitution for the United States was drafted, opponents challenged its silence on individual protections.
In response, the Bill of Rights was added as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. The very first one prohibited the federal government from restricting the right of the individual to protest government policy or to express personal opinions. It reads:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Whether one favors or opposes an issue, the federal government does not have the authority to silence free expression. This is the bedrock on which the right of protest rests. Originally, the First Amendment applied only to the federal government, not the states, but later amendments and court cases have generally stretched it to apply to the states as well.
The right of expression is essential in a democracy. Without it, a government could adopt any policy and prevent the public from objecting or even discussing it in public. Anyone has the right to try to get others to align with his/her viewpoint and to create a majority that can change the law.
Protests and Democracy
Protest movements have been part of American history from the very beginning. Many important reforms in American life have originated as protests against established practices. The abolition of slavery and restricts on the sale of alcohol (temperance) stirred national debate and resulted in major changes. Freedom of the press to investigate and to publish information — and opinions — is essential to this process.
In recent times, with revolutionary expansions in communications and access to media, students have found their voice in shaping policy. Petitions and rallies in schools draw attention to issues important to students. Colleges were the scene of intense protest in the 1960s against the draft and the Vietnam War. In light of recent school shootings, student groups have organized to press for more restrictive gun laws. In 1965, five Des Moines students, including John and Mary Beth Tinker and Chris Eckhardt, wore black armbands to school to protest America's involvement in the Vietnam War. School officials sent them home and did not allow them to return wearing the protest symbols. They claimed that the armbands were disruptive. A lawsuit challenging the decision went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled in favor of the students.
In 1969, the Court ruled in favor of the students and affirmed the right of students to protest. The arm bands were protected by the First Amendment right of free speech. In a 7-2 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, the Court ruled that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
Why do people protest?
- Memo from Lee White to President Lyndon B. Johnson to Prepare for a Meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., March 4, 1965 (Document)
- Excerpts from Tinker v. Des Moines U.S. Supreme Court Majority Opinion, 1968 (Document)
- "New Indian" (American Indian Movement), 1977 (Video)
How have protests sought to protect individuals rights to “just” working conditions?
- Demonstration of Protest and Mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Victims, April 5, 1911 (Image)
- Farmers Strike in Sioux City, Iowa, 1932 (Image)
- Letter from A. Philip Randolph to New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, June 5, 1941 (Document)
- Flyer Distributed to Striking Sanitation Workers in Memphis, Tennessee, 1968 (Document)
- News Release from Muscatine Community Effort Organization about H. J. Heinz Company Boycott, 1969 (Document)
- Letter from Harvey Milk to President Jimmy Carter about Briggs Initiative, June 28, 1978 (Document)
How have those in power responded to protests?
- Iowa National Guard Members on Duty during the "Iowa Cow Wars," September 25, 1931 (Image)
- Correspondence between President Harry S. Truman and NAACP Acting Secretary Roy Wilkins, October 10-November 8, 1949 (Document)
- "D.M. Schools Ban Wearing of Viet Truce Armbands" Newspaper Article, December 15, 1965 (Document)
- Memo Sent to President Richard Nixon's Administration "Regarding Major Issues with the Wounded Knee Occupation," May 9, 1973 (Document)
- "The Great Depression: Strike Turns Violent" from Iowa Public Television, 1979 (Video)
- Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs Letter of Concerns about Dakota Access Pipeline, April 28, 2016 (Document)
How has involvement in protests swayed public opinion?
- Children's Crusade for Amnesty, 1922 (Image)
- Youth March of Integrated Schools in Washington, D.C., October 25, 1958 (Image)
- Protest Plans Submitted into Evidence during Landmark Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court Case, December 1965 (Document)
- "Stories from Selma: Rev. Gwendolyn C. Webb," March 2015 (Audio)
|Protest in America Teaching Guide|
|Printable Image and Document Guide|
Memo from Lee White to President Lyndon B. Johnson to Prepare for a Meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., March 4, 1965
Excerpts from Tinker v. Des Moines U.S. Supreme Court Majority Opinion, 1968
"New Indian" (American Indian Movement), 1977
- Video resource
Demonstration of Protest and Mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Victims, April 5, 1911
Farmers Strike in Sioux City, Iowa, 1932
Letter from A. Philip Randolph to New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, June 5, 1941
Flyer Distributed to Striking Sanitation Workers in Memphis, Tennessee, 1968
News Release from Muscatine Community Effort Organization about H. J. Heinz Company Boycott, 1969
Letter from Harvey Milk to President Jimmy Carter about Briggs Initiative, June 28, 1978
Iowa National Guard Members on Duty during the "Iowa Cow Wars," September 25, 1931
Correspondence between President Harry S. Truman and NAACP Acting Secretary Roy Wilkins, October 10-November 8, 1949
"D.M. Schools Ban Wearing of Viet Truce Armbands" Newspaper Article, December 15, 1965
Memo Sent to President Richard Nixon's Administration "Regarding Major Issues with the Wounded Knee Occupation," May 9, 1973
"The Great Depression: Strike Turns Violent" from Iowa Public Television, 1979
- Video resource
Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs Letter of Concerns about Dakota Access Pipeline, April 28, 2016
Children's Crusade for Amnesty, 1922
Youth March of Integrated Schools in Washington, D.C., October 25, 1958
Protest Plans Submitted into Evidence during Landmark Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court Case, December 1965
"Stories from Selma: Rev. Gwendolyn C. Webb," March 2015
- "Migration is Beautiful"
This website is a digital humanities project drawn from the holdings of the Mujeres Latinas collections preserved in the Iowa Women's Archives in the University of Iowa Libraries. It highlights the journeys the Latinx community made to Iowa and situates the contributions of Latinx communities within a broader understanding of Iowa's history of migration and civil rights activism.
- ACLU - Know Your Rights
The website is the for American Civil Liberties Union. Its content focuses on a "Know Your Rights" section for students, including one's rights in regard to protest.
- "Key Moments In The Dakota Access Pipeline Fight" from National Public Radio
The article from National Public Radio is a timeline of activities regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. Outlined in the article are such moments as its initial proposal to major protests being held in opposition.
- "Activist Agriculture" Online Exhibit
The online exhibit from Iowa State University has a number of resources and a concise timeline focusing on agriculture and activism in Iowa. Some of the topics on the website include: the Cow Wars, LULAC and Farmers' Holiday.
- "Record of Rights" Online Exhibit
This digital resource from the National Archives is an interactive and expansive collection of records highlighting pursuing the American pursuit to rights through various eras in the country's history.
- Teaching for Change: Building Social Justice Starting in the Classroom
Teaching for Change provides teachers and parents with the tools to create schools where students learn to read, write and change the world. By drawing direct connections to real world issues, Teaching for Change encourages teachers and students to question and re-think the world inside and outside their classrooms, build a more equitable, multicultural society and become active global citizens.
- Zinn Education Project
The Zinn Education Project promotes and supports the teaching of people's history in classrooms across the country. The website provides free lessons, as well as primary and secondary sources.
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (9th-12th Grade)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are high school-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for students 9th through 12th grade.
No. Standard Description SS.Gov.9-12.13. Evaluate the powers and responsibilities of local, state, tribal, national, and international civic and political institutions, how they interact and the role of government in maintaining order. (21st century skills) SS.Gov.9-12.19. Evaluate the effectiveness of political action in changing government and policy, such as voting, debate, contacting officials, campaign contributions, protest, civil disobedience, and any alternative methods to participation. (21st century skills) SS.Gov.9-12.22. Identify and evaluate the contributions of Iowans who have played a role in promoting civic and democratic principles. (21st century skills) SS.Gov.9-12.24. Analyze how people use and challenge public policies through formal and informal means with attention to important judicial processes and landmark court cases. (21st century skills) SS.Gov.9-12.26. Analyze the historical, contemporary, and emerging patterns of political action and activism including voter demographics, party trends over time, polling data, campaign strategies and trends, and alternative means of participating. (21st century skills) SS.Gov.9-12.28. Identify local and state issues in Iowa and evaluate formal or informal courses of action used to affect policy. SS.Geo.9-12.20. Assess the impact of economic activities and political decisions on urban, suburban, and rural regions. SS.US.9-12.13. Analyze how diverse ideologies impacted political and social institutions during eras such as Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, and Civil Rights movement. SS.US.9-12.15. Assess the impact of individuals and reform movements on changes to civil rights and liberties. (21st century skills) SS.US.9-12.21. Analyze change, continuity and context across eras and places of study from civil war to modern America. SS.US.9-12.23. Analyze the relationship between historical sources and the secondary interpretations made from them. SS.US.9-12.25. Analyze how regional, racial, ethnic and gender perspectives influenced American history and culture. SS.US.9-12.27. Evaluate Iowans or groups of Iowans who have influenced U.S. History.