clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Here’s where the 8 biggest protests in U.S. history took place

New, 5 comments

How will this weekend’s demonstrations stack up against the marches of the past?

Washington D.C.’s National Mall during the Million Man March on October 16, 1995.
Larry Downing/Getty Images

Saturday, January 21, will be far from the first time urban centers across the United States have played host to citizens mobilizing around a cause.

From the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s to protests against the Iraq War in 2003, our country has a long history of public and vocal civil disobedience. So how will the upcoming demonstrations stack up against the marches of the past? To find out, we’ve rounded up the cities and spaces where the country’s eight biggest protests took place.

Note: Calculating how many people participate in a public protest is a notoriously difficult task. Bias is inherently involved, from organizers who might exaggerate numbers to authorities who might downplay them. The list below uses popular estimates and, when available, provides a range and sources for estimates.

1. June 12, 1982: Anti-Nuclear March in New York City’s Central Park

Central Park in New York City, photographed June 12, 1982 during a protest against nuclear energy and calling for disarmament.
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

Size: An estimated 1 million people

Known as one of the largest political protests in American history, an estimated one million people gathered in New York City’s Central Park to call for nuclear disarmament and an end to the arms race perpetuated during the Cold War. The park was shoulder-to-shoulder with people, and tens of thousands more filled the streets on the parade route from the United Nations and Dag Hammarskjold Plazas at 47th Street and First Avenue.

According to the New York Times, some protesters camped in Central Park ahead of the event, while dozens of buses parked in Queens to allow marchers to get to the park by subway. The park’s Great Lawn held a large stage where Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, and James Taylor performed.

2. October 16, 1995: Million Man March in Washington D.C.

Washington D.C.’s National Mall during the Million Man March.
Larry Downing/Getty Images

Size: An estimated 850,000 people

Organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the Million Man March gathered an estimated 850,000 people from across the United States at the National Mall in Washington D.C..

Under the backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, attendees listened to prominent speakers like Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, and the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson.

The march is a good example of the difficulty in knowing how many people attend such gatherings: The National Park Service released an estimate of 400,000, while organizers believed that 1.5 to 2 million had attended the event. Boston University released an estimate of 837,000 people with a 20 percent margin of error. After the Million Man March, the Washington D.C. Park Police stopped making official crowd size estimates.

3. April 25, 2004: The March for Women’s Lives in Washington D.C.

Protesters take part in the 'March For Women's Lives' on the Mall in Washington.
Stephen J. Boitano/Getty Images

Size: Estimates range from 500,000 to 1.15 million people

A demonstration in support of reproductive rights and women’s rights, the March for Women’s Lives traveled through downtown Washington and along Pennsylvania Avenue. Organizers claim that 1.15 million people participated in the march, which would make it the largest protest in U.S. history. The Associated Press estimated that between 500,000 and 800,000 people attended the event.

The march marked the first large-scale abortion rights demonstration in Washington since 1992, and also featured notable figures like Whoopi Goldberg, Madeleine Albright, and Gloria Steinem.

4. February 15-16, 2003: Anti-war protests in America’s biggest cities

Protesters carry an inflatable globe during an anti-war demonstration on February 15, 2003, in New York City.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Size: At least 500,000 people

Known as the biggest protest in world history, roughly 10 million to 15 million people marched on the same day in more than 600 cities to protest the war in Iraq. In the United States, an estimated 300,000-400,000 people rallied in New York City, packing the streets north of the United Nations headquarters and filling police-barricaded protest zones for more than 20 blocks.

Elsewhere, anti-war rallies were held in 150 U.S. cities, from smaller towns like Austin, Texas—where 10,000 protestors marched down Congress Avenue from the state capital building—to more than 200,000 people marching in San Francisco.

5. October 25, 1997: Million Woman March in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Approximately 300,000 African-American women pack the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the Million Woman March on October 25, 1997, in Philadelphia.
TOM MIHALEK/AFP/Getty Images

Size: Estimates range from 300,000 to 1 million people

Estimates vary wildly on how many people attended 1997’s Million Women March, but all agree that the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania were packed. Marchers began with a sunrise service at the iconic Liberty Bell, then walked along Benjamin Franklin Parkway to a speaker’s tent and podium located at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The march was organized by two Philadelphia grassroots activists—Phile Chionesu and Asia Coney—had a huge turnout despite short notice and rainy weather. It’s estimated that 125,000 women came from Chicago and New York to march in Philadelphia.

6. November 15, 1969: Anti-Vietnam protest in Washington D.C.

The U.S. Capitol looms in the background as thousands of people march along Pennsylvania Avenue during anti-Vietnam Moratorium on November 15, 1969.
Bettmann/Getty Images

Size: Estimates range from 500,000 to 600,000 people

Following a general strike on October 15, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee organized a second event for November 15, 1969. Now considered one of the largest anti-war protests in American History, 500,000 people gathered across from the White House to demand that President Richard Nixon end the war.

Protesters also organized a March Against Death immediately before the November 15 march. At this event, 40,000 people walked in single file silently down Pennsylvania Avenue, holding a sign with the name of a dead American soldier or destroyed Vietnamese town. The protesters then placed their signs in coffins laid out in front of the Capitol building.

The November protests were part of a series of protests and marches around the world in 1969. The Vietnam War continued, however, for six more years, ending with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

7. April 25, 1993: March on Washington D.C. for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation

Marchers from Missouri walk the streets of downtown Washington D.C. during the March for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.
Mark Reinstein/Getty Images

Size: Estimates range from 300,000 to 1 million people

This 1993 march in Washington D.C. brought together hundreds of thousands of Americans demanding freedom from discrimination and an end to the military’s ban on LGBT people serving openly. The march route traveled from the 52-acre Ellipse park past the White House and finished at the Mall.

Organizers said that a million people participated in the event, but the United States Park Police claimed only 300,000 protesters were there. One of the event’s most memorable events occurred when hundreds of men and women under the banner of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis of New York lay down in front of the White House. The act symbolized the number of AIDS deaths in America.

8. October 11, 1987: Second National March on Washington D.C. for Lesbian and Gay Rights

The AIDS Memorial Quilt of the Names Project Foundation on display on the National Mall in 1987.
Names Project Foundation

Size: Estimates range from 200,000 to 750,000 people

Sometimes referred to as “The Great March” thanks to its size and historical importance, this 1987 march organized hundreds of thousands of people to demand more federal money for AIDS research and for an end to discrimination.

Protesters marched past the White House and held a rally near the Capital. The event was part of six days worth of activities—included a mass wedding and a protest in front of the Supreme Court—and also included the first public display of Cleve Jones’ Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. The quilt covered a space larger than a football field and included 1,920 panels. After its display in 1987, the quilt was displayed in its entirety in Washington D.C. in 1988, 1989, 1992, and 1996.