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10 Greatest Protests of the 20th Century

The 20th century was a time of great change, with devastating wars, the rise of two superpowers, and the fall of one.

Demonstrations have been used throughout history to change the world, both peacefully and violently, but in the 20th century activism came into its own in an age of protest.

10. March on Washington (USA, 1963)


The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, also known as the Great March on Washington, was a historic moment in the fight for African-American civil rights. Between 200,000 and 300,000 people marched in support of civil and economic rights – 80% of them African-American themselves, the other 20% supporters of other races. It was at this march, when it reached the Lincoln memorial, that Martin Luther King Jr gave his iconic “I have a dream” speech. The next year, the Civil Rights Act was passed, followed a year later by the Voting Rights Act.

9. Salt Satyagraha (India, 1930)




The Salt Satyagraha was a non-violent protest against British rule in India. For 24 days, Mahatma Ghandi and his followers marched to Dandi, where they then made salt without paying the British tax. This sparked wide-ranging civil disobedience, brought media and international attention, and caused 80,000 Indians, including Ghandi, to be jailed. After almost a year, Ghandi was released and held negotiations with the British Viceroy, but failed to get lasting concessions at that time.

8. May 1968 (Paris, France 1968)


May 1968 will go down in history as the time that revolutionary fervor once again gripped the French people. Left-wing radicals took to the streets in mass protests, and 11 million workers took part in the largest general strike in the nation’s history, complimenting arguably the most coordinated student movement in history.

The protests saw the government being dissolved, and the president, Charles de Gaulle, fleeing to a French base in West Germany. Though the government of de Gaulle survived the crisis, the established order of France took a truly severe beating.

7. Women Strike for Peace (1961)




In 1961, Women Strike for Peace organized marches in cities across America. Some 50,000 women marched against nuclear weapons in what was the largest national women’s peace march of the century. John F Kennedy, the US President at the time, admitted that watching 1,500 women march in DC from a window in the White House helped push him into signing the nuclear test ban treaty with the USSR two years later.

6. Stonewall Riots (New York, USA, 1969)


In the 1950s and 1960s, there were few places in America that welcomed or even permitted openly gay patrons. The Stonewall Inn was one such place in New York, and was a frequent target of police raids. On June 28 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn yet again, but this time the patrons refused to co-operate.

When those who were arrested were removed and taken to police vans, witnesses saw that a crowd had begun to gather. The arrests soon sparked violence between protesters and the police, but the greater legacy was of political activism, with two gay rights groups formed within a month and, one year later, the first Gay Pride marches organized to commemorate Stonewall.

5. Alcatraz Occupation (California, USA, 1969-1971)


In November 1969, Native American activists occupied the island of Alcatraz, home to possibly the world’s most infamous prison. The prison had been closed in 1963, deemed surplus federal property, and the following year had been briefly occupied by the Red Power Native American liberation group.

The 1969 party argued that Alcatraz was land that was suitable for reclamation on the grounds of historical oppression. The cause drew considerable attention, resulting in other protesters, including non-aboriginals, sailing to the island. The occupation lasted for nineteen months until the final 15 remaining occupiers were removed by state forces. Nonetheless, the occupation is remembered well for having brought global attention to the Native American cause.

4. Vietnam War Protests (USA, global, 1960s-1975)




Forever linked with ideas of free love and flowers in girls' hair, the 1960s and 1970s were also a time of fierce political activism. The Vietnam War was the first conflict in which the public could receive up to date and impartial reportage from a war zone, as events unfolded. A network of activists already established by the Civil Rights movement picked up the cause, demonstrating against the war in Vietnam, and anti-war activism became a global cause. Self-published newspapers and music festivals like Woodstock emerged as part of the broader counter-cultural uprising. The response from the government was often heavy-handed, perhaps most terribly seen in events like the Kent State Massacre, where four students were killed by the National Guard. The war did not end until 1975, despite the activists’ marches, speeches and rallies.

3. WTO Protests (Seattle, USA, 1999)


In November 1999, the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle was cast against the backdrop of massive anti-globalization protests. Various anti-capitalist groups, labor movements and radical environmentalists made up the crowd, with at least 40,000 protesters lining the streets in total. Activities ranged from peaceful protest, to occupation, to more extreme acts of direct action such as vandalism. Police were criticized for their harsh approach to dealing with the protesters, though much of the media coverage was negative – including allegations from the New York Times that Molotov cocktails were thrown. The newspaper later retracted this claim.

2. Velvet Revolution (Europe, 1989)


How many student protests does it take to change a government? Well in the case of the Velvet Revolution it took just one to spark off the events that would completely change the fate of Czechoslovakia.

Over the course of ten days in November 1989, a student protest in Prague turned into a general strike across the nation, resulting in the ruling Communist party relinquishing power. The legacy of this movement was a gateway to a peaceful separation of the country, into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, in 1993; European Union accession for both in 2004; and, today, a relative level of prosperity.

1. Tiananmen Square Protests (Beijing, China, 1989)


On April 15, 1989, protesters gathered in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, to demonstrate against the lack of state mourning for Communist Party of China General Secretary Hu Yaobang, a man known to be tolerant of dissenting voices within the party. Along with other protesters from various political groups and of differing allegiances, the crowd reached around 100,000 strong. While uprisings against communist states across Eastern Europe were rolling back the power of authoritarian states, the Chinese authorities decided to act. The state reaction was severe, and when the army was sent in to clear the square, around 500 to 1,000 people were killed, though many more may have been quietly murdered afterward. This incident, which is today a closely guarded secret in China, brought the country to the eyes of the world. This image is a symbol of protest for all times.

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