Speaking and Protesting in America

Protesting in 1980s and Beyond

While not as ubiquitous as in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, protesting in the 1980s and beyond has continued to shape American politics and culture. In the 1980s and 1990s, organized protests from the political right—along with counter protests from the left—transformed and polarized political discourse. These decades also saw continued protests in the struggle against racism and discrimination, whether in response to xenophobic sentiment after 9/11 or in the fight over how to represent our past. While new technology has transformed protesting by allowing everyday citizens to digitally capture and share everyday protests and marches, many of the political issues inherited from the 1980s and 1990s, and our right to freely assemble and speak on them, remain as pertinent as ever.

AAPB holds a strong collection of resources showing the protests and rallies undertaken by the Christian Right in the late 1970s and early 1980s to protest the many cultural changes of the previous two decades. While evangelical and conservative organizations had protested against these changes throughout the twentieth century, the 1980s and 1990s saw the growth of widespread political activism by evangelicals and conservatives against the secularization of society, changing sexual and cultural norms, and the legalization of abortion.9 After the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1974, conservative activists—arguing that abortions take a human life—began to demonstrate and organize on a national level against abortion access throughout 1980s and 1990s. Anti-abortion activists, protesting directly at facilities that perform abortions or conducting an annual march in Washington D.C. to protest legalized abortions, often have been met by counter-protests and continued commitment to easily available abortion access by women on the left.

Opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s and early 1980s also contributed to the rise of political activism on the right in the 1980s and 1990s. Promoted by feminists and other activists, the ERA required that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” and would make any law that discriminated against women unconstitutional. In 1972, the ERA passed both houses and went to state legislatures for ratification; three-fourths of all states needed to ratify for the amendment to become a part of the Constitution. Some conservative women, however, worried that the ERA would erode traditional gender roles if passed and began to lobby against the amendment. This organized effort against the ERA laid the groundwork for conservative movements in the following decades. One of the leaders of the anti-ERA movement was conservative lawyer Phyllis Schlafly, of the STOP ERA campaign. In this 1980 video, watch her face off against pro-ERA activist Peg Anderson on the merit of the amendment.

The AAPB also documents public face-offs between the right and left on other topics where divergent views on ethics and policy have caused demonstrations and protests: showing dissenting views and clashing debates on issues ranging from government funding of controversial artworks to gun control to environmental regulations. On this last issue, the AAPB holds footage that captures two strains of the environmental movement of the 1980s and the 1990s. While gaining in popularity and mainstream support throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the environmental movement was still fertile ground for direct-action and dramatic protests during these two decades.10 In this footage of an Earth First! protest against logging we see the more radical, direct-action arm of the movement, while in this radio coverage of a Hispanic community’s protest against trash incinerators we hear the fight for environmental justice by concerned community members.

The AAPB also holds footage of protests against racism and injustice from 1980 and beyond. Watch as devoted New Yorkers protest on behalf of Muslim immigrants held without charges in the aftermath of 9/11. See raw footage of a 2006 march for immigrant rights, where participants advocated for better immigration policies and treatment. Or check out a future president rallying for increased representation—see if you can spot a young Barack Obama speaking out against the underrepresentation of female professors of color at Harvard Law School at this rally.

In the past two decades, new technology has revolutionized the revolutionaries, social activists, and concerned citizens among us. In this panel on “Social Media and Social Change,” LGBTQ advocates discuss how they employ social media to grow their movements and further social change. Likewise, new technology in the form of smartphone cameras has given almost anyone the ability to document protests and activism, making protests increasingly present in American life.

Tour our resources:

Racism & Injustice
New Technology and Activism

Keep Exploring— More Online Exhibits:

  • 25 Years of Political Influence: The Records of the Human Rights Campaign: This exhibit from Cornell University covers the history of the influntenial LGBTQ action committee, The Human Rights Campaign, which began in 1980. It is currently the largest LGBTQ lobbying and advocacy group in the United States.

  • A Future Worth Living: This exhibit from the Museum of the City of New York gives a brief overview of the history of Earth Day and provides lesson plans.

  • American Agricultural Movement: Tractorcade!: This blogpost from the Special Colections Library at Texas Tech University provides insight on the push for agricultural reform during the late 1970s and 1980s by exploring the famous Tractorcade into D.C.

Earth First! group protests logging in 1990

Courtesy of KEET

2006 Protest against Immigration Laws.

Courtesy of KVIE

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Michelle L Janowiecki

Digital Exhibits Intern American Archive of Public Broadcasting

Additional Resources