What Was the Most Influential Act of Protest in History?

A big question

Graham Roumieu

Gordon S. Wood, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and author

The protests against the Stamp Act in 1765, which inevitably led to the creation of the United States a decade later.

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Harry Leslie Smith, World War II veteran, activist, and author, Harry’s Last Stand

Like in our own era, corruption and nepotism were ubiquitous in the 16th century. They stifled social and scientific progress. Were it not for Martin Luther’s 95 theses, reportedly hammered to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church, which instigated the Reformation, our modern democratic world might never have germinated.

Eric Metaxas, author, Martin Luther and Bonhoeffer

In (reportedly) nailing his 95 theses to a church door 500 years ago, Martin Luther pulled a thread that soon unraveled the very world upon which we stand.

Kit Miller, director, Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence

In the 1930s, 80,000 Muslim men and women formed an “army of peace” to protest England’s oppressive occupation of what is now Pakistan. Led by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, whose nonviolent leadership prefigured Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Nelson Mandela’s, they endured severe maltreatment prior to and during the partition of India and Pakistan.

David S. Meyer, author, The Politics of Protest

The conscientious objector Randy Kehler went to jail for nearly two years to protest against the Vietnam War. Years later, Daniel Ellsberg said that Kehler’s sacrifice persuaded him to share the Pentagon Papers.

Graham Roumieu

T. V. Reed, author, The Art of Protest

Rosa Parks’s refusal, in 1955, to move to the back of a segregated bus in Alabama.

Michael C. Quinn, president and CEO, Museum of the American Revolution

The Newburgh Conspiracy, on March 15, 1783—a protest that failed! By facing down the apparent beginnings of a coup d’état by his officers in Newburgh, New York, General George Washington ensured the U.S. military’s subordination to civilian authority.

Steve Ignorant, singer, Crass

The U.K. miners’ strike in the 1980s: Although the miners ultimately lost, they showed the British public just how far the government would go to achieve its aims, even if it meant destroying whole communities.

Reader Responses

Charles Lerable, Monterey, Calif.

On June 5, 1989, on Tiananmen Square, one man stood against the entire Chinese government to protest the oppression of more than 1 billion people. Using only his body, he managed to stop an armored tank column and, even if for a moment, a brutal crackdown on freedom and democracy.

Erin Lisser, Mount Vernon, Wash.

The Silent Sentinels’ protest outside the White House, which in 1919 helped finally grant half of America’s citizens the right to vote. Their patriotic quoting of the president and abiding by gender expectations for silence were a deafening and decorum-shattering roar that brought a centuries-old oppression to an end.

Graham Roumieu

Mark Roberts, Lisbon, N.H.

Mahatma Gandhi’s 241-mile Salt March in 1930 peacefully defied British colonial tax policy in India. Gandhi’s example of civil disobedience inspired millions worldwide.

Lucia Perri, Guthrie, Okla.

The Beatles’ refusal to play for segregated audiences in Jacksonville, Florida, in September 1964. The band’s contracts, signed by its manager, Brian Epstein, stated that it would not play to segregated audiences. Since then, we’ve come together.

Want to see your name on this page? Email bigquestion@theatlantic.com with your response to the question for our May issue: What item would you put in a time capsule to help the next century understand our current moment?