The first amendment to the United States Constitution has facilitated several great American protest movements. Without the right to free speech, our nation would be a different place – less free, less progressive, and less democratic.
Two protest movements come to mind from the 20th and 21st centuries. Each of these has sought to challenge the status quo through mass demonstrations and public speech and protest. Democracy is fueled by such movements. The voice of the masses is heard despite the power structure they rail against.
We can say that the greatness of the United States is fully on display in these two great American protest movements because each protest speaks for a set of positive beliefs as much as it speaks out against the powers that be.
The Civil Rights Movement
Perhaps the most significant American protest movement of the 20thcentury was the civil rights movement.
The American Civil War freed dark skinned Americans from the legal bondage of slavery in the 1860s, but Jim Crow law lived on for the next one hundred years. Segregation and systematic disenfranchisement for African-Americans was entrenched in American culture in the American south and elsewhere.
Prejudice was the status quo and it was the legal systemization of that prejudice that fell under the pressure of the American Civil Rights movement, one of the most significant and officially successful public protest movements of the century.
Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. were just two people in thousands who peacefully demanded their rights through public protest, civil disobedience, and non-violent resistance to injustice. They were joined, of course, by more militant factions, but it is the peaceful enactment of the first amendment that made this protest ultimately successful and which made it the greatest American protest movement of the century.
In its significance, the American Civil Rights movement belongs in the category of the Indian protests against British occupation from earlier in the 20thcentury and the South African movement against apartheid at the end of the century.
What did each of these major protest movements have in common? They each achieved legislation that expressed the moral equality the citizens of these nations and equal representation under the law.
The Protest Against the war in Vietnam
No American protest from the last century was as successful (legislatively) as the civil rights movement, but the protest against the war in Vietnam qualifies as a great American protest movement nonetheless. This protest movement defined a generation.
There was widespread dissent about the validity and necessity of the war in Vietnam . A generation of Americans had just seen a great moral victory take place as Lyndon Johnson enacted civil rights legislation that would begin to bring legal equality to all Americans. Invigorated by the civil rights protest movement and enraged by the actions of the United States government, the youth of America joined to protest what was seen as an unjust war.
The protest was not exactly a success, but it served to identify and empower a mass of individuals who believed that when a cause was clear and just it must be fought for and spoken for. The protest against the war in Vietnam was a great American protest movement because it was focused on the principles of justice and humanity, consistently, insistently and thoroughly.