We think of the Mall as a logical place for protests, but that was not always the case. The central areas of protest in Washington transitioned from Pennsylvania Avenue to the monumental core, and now include the entire city. Physical changes to the Mall affected these transitions, as citizens exercised their 1st Amendment rights to fight racial, economic, and gender inequality. Some protests sought to raise awareness, while others attempted to change national or international policies.
How have protests on the Mall changed over time?
In March 1913, 5,000 women participated in the Woman Suffrage Parade, asserting their claims to full citizenship by demanding their right to vote. They marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, known as "America's Main Street." Pennsylvania Avenue was the protest site, because of the Mall's landscape at the time. Before the McMillan Commission redesign, the Mall was filled with small gardens and winding paths, making it a recreational space. Wanting to change public policy in a visible place, the women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House.
In 1943 a group of 500 Rabbis chose 3 very visible and popluar locations to protest the lack of US involvement in saving Jewish victims of the Holocaust: the Capitol steps; the White House; and steps of the Lincoln Memorial. After the massive redesign efforts cleared trees and gardens from the Mall in the 1920s and 30s, wide, open spaces remained that could now accommodate large crowds. The Rabbis made use of this new space to argue for foreign policy changes from Congress, the President, and US citizens. Even with temporary war-related federal offices on the Mall, the space began to transform into a public place of protest.
In 1968, that transformation took on an additional aspect when the Poor People's Campaign built an encampment on the Mall near the Lincoln Memorial. Although a few protests had involved sleeping overnight on the Mall before this, the encampment, called Resurrection City, was the only protest to construct buildings. A shantytown made of plywood dwellings, the encampment had 2,800 integrated participants from across the country. Their goal was to show the realities of their poverty to politicians and visitors of the Mall. Established on May 21, the protest was plagued with problems and they were evicted on June 24.
In 1978, American Indian rights activists walked from Alcatraz Island in California to Washington, DC to support tribal sovereignty and protest anti-Indian legislation pending in Congress. Tribal elders and movement leaders stayed in a tipi built near the Washington Monument. The American Indian Movement's presence extended beyond the Mall. They held rallies and workshops throughout the city, reaching out to residents and government official as well as tourists and high-ranking officials who worked near or on the Mall.
By the 1990s, protesting on the Mall was an accepted way of petitioning the government and addressing the nation. Groups regularly gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, near the White House or Capitol, and on the area between the museums. Some protests return each year, while others inspired other gatherings. The Million Man March held in October 1995 to challenge racism in the United States, for example, inspired the Million Woman March (in Philadelphia 1997), Million Mom March (2000), Millions More March (2005), and the Million Muslim March (2013).