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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Mr. President, Can You Hear Us?

A History of Protest in Lafayette Square

  • Matthew Costello Chief Education Officer, The Marlyne Sexton Chair in White House History, Director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History

In the center of Washington, D.C, there is a seven-acre public park enclosed by H Street NW (north), Madison Place (east), Pennsylvania Avenue (south), and Jackson Place (west). Sometimes referred to as Lafayette Park or Lafayette Square (as a neighborhood), the area was named after the famous French hero, the Marquis de Lafayette. The park features a statue of Lafayette along with three other European military leaders who fought in the American Revolution—the Comte de Rochambeau, General Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and Baron Fredrich Wilhelm von Steuben.1 In the middle of the park sits an 1853 equestrian statue of President Andrew Jackson, another veteran of the Revolutionary War. But the most iconic symbol on the square is not any of these statues; it is the White House, located just across Pennsylvania Avenue on the south side of the square.

Since 1917, activists and organizations have used this space to exercise their First Amendment rights, increase their visibility, and raise awareness of their respective causes. While the act of picketing had earlier roots in nineteenth-century labor movements, the suffragists were the first to use the tactic consistently in Lafayette Square. The decision to bring the issue of women’s suffrage directly to the doorstep of President Woodrow Wilson while pursuing national and state-level strategies eventually paved the way for the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The success of the suffragists inspired future generations of Americans to picket and protest a variety of political, social, economic, and cultural issues for more than a century. This article will touch on some of these known and lesser-known movements, as well as how other individuals and groups have used Lafayette Square to promote their cause or implore action from the neighborhood’s most powerful occupant.

This ca. 1917 photograph shows a group of suffragists picketing the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue while a crowd gathers to watch.

Library of Congress

On January 10, 1917, twelve “Silent Sentinels” arrived outside the White House gates to picket President Wilson for his refusal to support women’s suffrage. They were divided between the east and west entrances on Pennsylvania Avenue, ensuring that the president would see them whenever he left or returned to the Executive Mansion. The picketers protested from ten until half past five, with occasional breaks and rotations on the line. On the second day of picketing, President Wilson “passed the sentinels only once, as he returned from his morning game of golf. He smiled as his automobile swept into the grounds,” wrote one Washington Post reporter. At around noon, the president sent out a messenger to invite the women into the White House for warmth and refreshments. The protestors rejected his offer, using “hot bricks wrapped in newspapers” to keep their extremities from freezing. As these demonstrations began to attract more press attention, the National Woman’s Party (NWP) kept members informed through its weekly publication, The Suffragist. They also used the periodical to ridicule the president. Nina Allender, official cartoonist of the NWP, often depicted Wilson nervously peeking out his window at the picketers. The February 7, 1917 cover showed the president hiding inside the White House, refusing to play with a small girl named “suffrage.”2

The picketing strategy continued even as the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. As the country mobilized for war, tensions and conflict emerged between different groups of Americans. Many government officials and citizens interpreted wartime protests as public acts of disloyalty; as such, both authorities and crowds directed their anger toward any dissidents. As the “Silent Sentinels” picketed the White House during the summer of 1917, White House policemen began arresting the suffragists on charges of unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct, and disrupting traffic. Suffragists were fined but generally refused to pay out of protest. As their actions became more disruptive, authorities levied harsher sentences, sending the picketers to Occoquan Workhouse and Penitentiary in Lorton, Virginia. Masses appeared to watch the women demonstrate, though these spectators were not always peaceful themselves. Some incited violence and vandalism in Lafayette Square; in one instance a group pelted the NWP headquarters with “eggs, tomatoes, missiles of various sorts.” On August 14, “a mob of five thousand people” stood outside the National Woman’s Party headquarters, blocking traffic and destroying property while policemen gingerly watched the bedlam. This riot had been sparked by the “Kaiser Wilson” suffrage banner on the picket line, comparing the American leader with the German autocrat.3

As this neighborhood melee unfolded, President Wilson slowly softened his stance on women’s suffrage. He pardoned sixteen “militant suffragists” in late July, but the arrests continued throughout the summer. Perhaps it was the president’s daughter, Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre, who persuaded her father to soften his stance—though the more likely explanation was that Wilson realized this anti-suffrage position would cost the Democratic Party seats in Congress. That fall, the president expressed tacit support for the suffrage campaign in New York, but ultimately the reports of the suffragists’ mistreatment in Occoquan forced him to fully reconsider his position. One Washington Post story described how Alice Paul, recently sentenced to six months in a workhouse for picketing, was subjected to physical and mental examinations by five physicians against her will. When Paul started a hunger strike out of protest at the District workhouse she was “forcibly fed twice…through a tube.” Several days after the printing of Paul’s experience, during the “Night of Terror” on November 14, the thirty-three suffragists imprisoned at Occoquan were “brutally handled by the guards and subjected to indignities” for refusing to work or eat. In obtaining a writ of habeas corpus for the women, NWP counsels Dudley Field Malone and Matthew O’Brien argued that the women “were being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment,” citing Lucy Burns’ diary and their injuries as proof. The reports of abuse appalled President Wilson, prompting him to begrudgingly join the suffrage crusade upon the release of the Occoquan prisoners in late November.4

A group of suffragists picket outside the White House. The demonstrators often burned President Woodrow Wilson's speeches whenever the president discussed freedom or democracy--the fires also provided some warmth during the winter months.

Library of Congress

Less than a week after their release, the president forcefully advocated for women’s suffrage in his sixth annual address to Congress, arguing that women had earned the right to vote by performing traditional duties while bearing the burden of new wartime responsibilities. “The least tribute we can pay them is to make them the equals of men in political rights as they have proved themselves their equals in every field of practical work they have entered, whether for themselves or for their country,” articulated Wilson. “These great days of completed achievement would be sadly marred were we to omit that act of justice.” Wilson’s policy reversal, however, did little to satisfy suffragists. They continued to picket the Executive Mansion and hold public burnings of any speech where Wilson mentioned the words ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom.’ After the Senate failed to pass the amendment in October 1918, suffrage supporters ramped up public protests and demonstrations. Their persistent pressure on the president and the incoming Congress produced political results later that spring. On May 21, 1919, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment passed 304-89 in the House of Representatives; on June 4, it cleared the Senate by a vote of 56-25. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, and eight days later the results were certified by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby.5

While some of their tactics were considered radical for the time, suffragists persevered by demonstrating their willingness to fight for equality in public spaces. Their visible struggles—with members of Congress, angry crowds, policemen and guards, anti-suffragists, and President Wilson himself—gave momentum to the movement, drawing more supporters to their cause. The harassment, wrongful arrests, and gross mistreatment of suffragists also gave them a moral high ground, one that President Wilson eventually felt compelled to join.6 The Lafayette Square tactics of the suffragists became the model for twentieth and twenty-first century protests in the nation’s capital.

An unknown woman holds up a sign mocking President Warren G. Harding for pardoning a dog but failing to grant amnesty to those who spoke out against U.S. involvement in World War I.

Library of Congress

After World War I, Pennsylvania Avenue attracted demonstrators who called for the release of those imprisoned through the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act. While most of the wartime measures were later repealed and some sentences commuted, many of the offenders remained incarcerated with no legal recourse. In one memorable photograph, an unidentified woman holds a banner with President Warren G. Harding’s picture attached to it: “This is the President who pleaded to set the law aside for a dog. Long after the law has been repealed he still keeps our fathers in prison for expressing their opinions in time of war.” According to a newspaper account, President Harding interceded to save a dog’s life in the summer of 1922. Jacob Silverman, a Russian immigrant living in Orville, Pennsylvania, was considered by state law an alien resident and therefore not legally permitted to own a dog. “If it came within my executive authority I would gladly grant a pardon to the convicted animal,” Harding wrote to Pennsylvania Governor William Sproul. The canine was indeed spared, but protesters and relatives of imprisoned pacifists, socialists, and labor union members used the episode to criticize the president for not extending the same clemency to their family, friends, and colleagues.7

Members of the American Federation of Hosiery Workers stand outside the West Wing after the January 1938 protest against President Franklin Roosevelt's proposed boycott of Japanese silk.

Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress

The White House became a backdrop for all sorts of causes, no matter how seemingly small the issue or minute the grievance. Ten protestors from Passaic, New Jersey—four adults and six children—picketed the White House in 1925 to protest President Calvin Coolidge’s refusal to intervene in the textile industry’s wage disputes with its workers. One child held up a sign that read, “That 10% wage cut took our milk away!” On January 28, 1938, some 300 hosiery workers from Philadelphia descended upon Washington to dispute President Franklin Roosevelt’s proposed boycott of Japanese silk in retaliation for its invasion of China. The American Federation of Hosiery Workers marched along Constitution Avenue, turned north on 15th NW, then onto Pennsylvania Avenue, and finally once more along East Executive Avenue outside the White House. A delegation visited the West Wing to present Roosevelt with their petition, urging him to reconsider his stance because it would threaten the livelihood of American workers and industry.8

While World War II tightened security measures around the White House, the square reopened after the war and in July 1946 drew over 100 African Americans to protest the murders and lynching of George and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcolm (who was also reportedly pregnant) in Monroe, Georgia. President Harry Truman supported anti-lynching legislation, but with little support from his own party he decided to establish the President’s Committee on Civil Rights by executive order in December 1946. This group submitted a report to the president the following year, and he called upon Congress to enact the recommendations. When Congress failed to do so, President Truman issued Executive Orders 9980 and 9981 on July 26, 1948. Nearly two years to the day since the appalling mob murders of the Dorseys and Malcolms, these orders began the desegregation of the federal government and the United States Armed Forces.9

Protestors rally outside the White House on March 12, 1965, urging President Lyndon Johnson to support voting rights for all Americans and protect civil rights demonstrators who were recently attacked by police in Selma, Alabama.

Library of Congress

As time wore on, activists and organizations continued to gravitate to the White House to voice their opposition to the president’s policies and project their message on a national stage. The turbulent protests of the 1960s and 1970s highlighted the major issues of civil rights, women’s rights, LBGTQ+ rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, and American interventionism. Lafayette Square’s proximity made it nearly impossible for presidents to ignore the crowds of demonstrators, who carried signs with them and chanted in unison. In addition to these larger causes, there were also a plethora of protests against specific policies and actions taken by every president, as well as demonstrations against perceived inaction. Picketers called on John F. Kennedy to ban nuclear testing, cease the arms race with the Soviet Union, and aspire for world peace.10 Demonstrators pushed Lyndon Johnson to pass meaningful civil rights legislation; they also castigated his escalation of the war in Vietnam, which relied disproportionally on the conscription of young men from working-class neighborhoods and communities of color.11 On May 9, 1970, students rallied at universities across the country and citizens came in droves to protest Richard Nixon’s military campaign against Cambodia and the killing of four anti-war protestors by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. D.C. and federal officials denied the use of Lafayette Square for the protest but permitted the massive demonstration to take place at the Ellipse, as some 100,000 people were expected to attend. Security was tightened around the White House, and D.C. transit buses were parked bumper-to-bumper along 17th Street, H Street, and 15th Street NW early that morning. While the demonstration was mostly peaceful, one group of protestors tried to overturn one of the buses along H Street NW, prompting police to disperse them with tear gas.12

Anti-war demonstrators march outside the White House on January 19, 1968. Their signs read, "No More...Stop the War!" and "Eartha Kitt Speaks for the Women of America." Kitt, a well-known African American actress, singer, and activist, caused a media sensation when she attended a luncheon at the White House and vocally challenged the president's policies in Vietnam.

Library of Congress

The space has also been used to protest visiting heads of state who represent countries with records of human rights abuses, corruption, scandal, and disenfranchisement. In September 1977, some 2,000 demonstrators representing a coalition of nearly thirty human rights organizations protested the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty. They argued that their gathering was not about the treaty itself but President Jimmy Carter working with representatives who collaborated with “military dictators in Latin America” to repress free speech and the press, imprison their opponents, and kill dissidents.13 During the State Visit of President Jiang Zemin of China in October 1997, some 1,000 demonstrators—liberal and conservative—gathered in Lafayette Square. Some protested against the Chinese government’s rampant efforts to silence political dissenters; others called for China to recognize a free and independent Tibet; others protested the mistreatment and maligning of different ethnic and religious groups within China.14

This photograph was taken near the intersection of Vermont and H Street NW (looking south to Lafayette Square). D.C. Transit buses were parked along H Street to create a perimeter around Lafayette Park. The measure was taken to keep anti-war protestors away from the White House. On May 9, 1970, some 100,000 protestors marched throughout Washington to rally against President Richard Nixon's decision to expand the Vietnam war into neighboring Cambodia.

Peter Schmick, D.C. Public Library, Washington Star Collection

Many individuals have quite literally occupied the space and set up semi-permanent protest dwellings. Some ninety African Americans from Mississippi set up tents in April 1966 in the middle of the park, camping out in front of the White House to protest their rejection of aid from the Office of Economic Opportunity.15 Six members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence refused to leave Lafayette Square in 1981. They had constructed a makeshift village and named it “Reaganville” in response to the president’s economic policies and spending reductions for social programs. But perhaps the most memorable of White House picketers were William Thomas and Concepción Picciotto, two life-long peace advocates who occupied Lafayette Square for nearly thirty years. Beginning during the Ronald Reagan administration, Thomas and Picciotto continuously protested outside the White House for decades as a peace vigil. Thomas passed away in 2009; Picciotto followed in 2016, but their physical presence across Pennsylvania Avenue and consistent demonstration for peace likely mark the longest continuous public protest in American history.16

This photograph was taken on June 20, 2010. Concepción Picciotto stands in front of her encampment as tourists look on and take pictures.

AgnosticPreachersKid/Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made to this photograph.

At the time of this article’s publication, the country was experiencing both the COVID-19 pandemic and an outpouring of demonstrations across the country in response to the death of George Floyd, police brutality, and systemic racism. Citizens were drawn to Lafayette Square to advocate change and denounce the senseless killings of unarmed African-American men and women. These recent events are just the latest in a long and storied history of protest outside the White House. This type of organizing began with suffragists, and has grown dramatically since. By using a public space to contest a national symbol, the suffragists challenged the very ideals that the White House represented—freedom, democracy, and equality. Their success has inspired citizens ever since, and Lafayette Square today remains a powerful platform for social, political, economic, and cultural protest in the nation’s capital.