What Makes a Protest Effective? 3 Movements That Got Results

By: Yves Jeffcoat  | 
Thousands of people marched in Washington, D.C., Jan. 21, 2017 during the Women's March on Washington after the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president. It was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, but some said it was too unfocused to have much effect. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/Getty Images

On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech to around 3,000 people at Riverside Church in Manhattan. In it, he advocated for an end to the Vietnam War, and he encouraged conscientious objection, or refusing to serve in the military based on moral or religious beliefs. "Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions," King said, "but we must all protest."

King believed that protests have the power to catalyze change, and he held America accountable for upholding its principles of freedom of assembly, speech and the press. As Ralph Young, a history professor at Temple University, notes in his book "Dissent: The History of an American Idea," the United States was built on a foundation of resistance and transformation.


U.S. history is not a tale of quiet acceptance — insurgents, agitators and innovators played major roles in driving progress in the nation. But even when the process is difficult, the goal of protesting is simple: to raise awareness and sway policy or public opinion. "The main point is that the dissenters convince people that they have a legitimate grievance and that they force people to start considering which side they stand [on] in an issue," says Young.

Though all protests are not made equal, tactics like boycotts, marches and strikes can all be effective. Here are three protests that moved the needle in their favor.


1. The Delano Grape Strike

Grape pickers carry American flags and National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) banners as they march along a road from Delano to Sacramento, California, to protest their low wages and poor working conditions.
Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis/Getty Images

Movements can take a long time to gain traction, so patience and tenacity are much-needed virtues for activists and organizers. This was clear in the Delano grape strike, which started in September 1965 and ended in 1970. The Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) and the Mexican National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) — labor unions for farmworkers — joined forces and embarked on what would turn into a decadeslong struggle for better wages and working conditions.

In 1965, grape growers granted Filipino farmworkers in Coachella Valley, California, a wage increase to $1.40 per hour. But failed negotiations for higher wages in Delano, California, compelled the AWOC to begin a strike. Growers would sometimes hire Mexican farmworkers to break Filipino strikes, which sowed discord between the two groups and jeopardized the strikes. But this time was different. Mexican farmworkers enthusiastically supported the effort, picketing more vineyards. United by a common mission, the NFWA and AWOC merged to form the United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1966.


The strikes sent a strong message, but growers still had the leverage to resist workers' demands. So the farmworkers kicked their effort up a notch by boycotting grape companies in California. Supporters across the country, including other unions and movements, backed the UFW and boycotted stores that sold grape products. Civil rights organizations like the NAACP urged people not to buy California table grapes in solidarity with farmworkers fighting for union recognition. Inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., UFW leader Cesar Chavez drew more attention to the cause by leading a march from Delano to Sacramento and going on a hunger strike. "Protestors are trying to convince people that the withholding of rights for any one group threatens the rights of all," Young says.

The advocacy of consumers, workers, stores and politicians in the U.S. and Canada was a boon for the UFW's campaign. Thanks to this collective action, the farmworkers' boycott grew from a local effort to one that captured the hearts of allies across the country. "Almost all protests start off with a small group of people, but they grow and grow," says Young.

Growers had become the villains in media narratives, and grape sales plummeted. By 1970, most table grape growers in California had signed UFW contracts. The union would soon face more setbacks and have to plan more boycotts and walkouts, but the Delano grape strike marked a victory for the farmworkers movement and for grassroots organizing.


2. National Woman's Party Suffrage Campaigns

A crowd gathers to watch as members of the National Woman's Party (NWP), holding banners and vexilla, stage a protest in Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., Sept. 16, 1918. It was at this protest that NWP activist Jessie Benton MacKaye burned a speech by President Woodrow Wilson.
Paul Thompson/FPG/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You might have seen the black-and-white photos of first-wave feminists in long skirts and flashy hats, walking through city streets and holding signs with pithy phrases like "votes for women." But parades and lobbying weren't the only tricks that suffragists had up their (fashionable) sleeves. Suffragists shared the goal of winning women the vote, but they did not all pursue it in the same way.

Formed by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns in 1913, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage split from the moderate National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and soon became the National Woman's Party (NWP). NWP members wanted a federal suffrage amendment, and they employed a diverse set of tactics to advocate for it. Since billboards, speaking tours and petitions weren't cutting it, they decided to up the ante and turned to more aggressive means of protest.


While NAWSA supported the war effort, the NWP was critical of U.S. involvement in World War I and President Woodrow Wilson's hypocrisy regarding self-government abroad and at home. NWP suffragists picketed the White House, submitting to arrest and imprisonment on charges of obstructing traffic. In jail, they were subjected to the same mistreatment that other incarcerated people endured. They were threatened, beaten and force-fed when they went on hunger strikes. Suffragists who were released went to different cities wearing prison uniforms and telling audiences about the abuse they suffered. All the talk of their mistreatment stirred up enough support to get the remaining NWP members released from prison.

"You appeal first based on the logic of your grievance," Young says. "That, for example, you don't have the same rights as the majority. You try to convince people to see the logic of that. But you also appeal on the emotional level and the moral level. Your protest is just because there are political, social and economic reasons for why you're right, but also it's morally correct. It is the ethical thing to do."

NWP members were deemed militant, improper and unpatriotic. They burned copies of Wilson's speeches in "watchfires of freedom," and they even burned Wilson in effigy. Their tactics were risky, but the injustices they faced in response to their agitation brought credibility to their claims. Changing public sentiment driven by the NWP and many other activists' work put pressure on authorities. Long resistant to making women's suffrage a federal issue, Wilson came out in support of the suffrage amendment in 1918. Congress passed the amendment the next year, and in 1920, the 19th Amendment became law.


3. The Selma to Montgomery Marches for Civil Rights

State troopers watch as marchers cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River in Selma, Alabama, March 9, 1965. Two days before, troopers had used excessive force to drive marchers back across the bridge, killing one protester.
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On March 7, 1965, civil rights activists left Selma, Alabama, with the goal of marching 54 miles (87 kilometers) to Montgomery to protest voting rights violations. But they hadn't made it past the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma when a gang of state troopers and vigilantes brutally beat the marchers, forcing them to end their demonstration early. After many injuries, the death of a minister named James Reeb, and three march attempts, the protestors reached the state capitol in Montgomery March 25. It was a difficult and bloody struggle. But the civil rights leaders who organized the marches knew that the violence they faced could work in their favor in the long run.

In his research, politics professor Omar Wasow shows that media outlets are more sympathetic to a cause when protesters are nonviolent. And when state forces or independent actors respond to peaceful protesters with violence, media coverage multiplies and can turn wide-eyed onlookers into supporters. On the other hand, when protesters are violent or take more extreme actions, people are unable to identify with the dissenters and are less likely to support their cause. If protesters want to build bigger, more influential coalitions, their best bet is to catch flies (or, well, moderates) with honey. And when more people believe in the legitimacy of a cause, it has more power.


On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a televised address in which he urged Congress to support voting rights legislation. In the speech, he acknowledged that protest inspires change. "For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government," he said. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced in Congress a couple of days later, and it was signed into law that August.

Ultimately, there is no secret formula for a successful protest. Young says that dissent is a process of erosion. It pounds away at a basic assumption, and eventually, new values emerge. "Dissenters have to educate the public, they have to inform the misinformed, arouse the interest of the disinterested, win converts, gain adherents, and then the protest movement is on the way to fulfilling its goals," he says. "It is disheartening at times, but one has to have patience and faith."