When we talk about periods of major civil unrest in America (leaving aside the Revolution and the Civil War, of course), usually only the civil rights movement comes to mind. While it was undoubtedly a pivotal event in many ways, we forget that it was only one of the many various revolts and uprisings that have made up this country’s history.
There have been a number of such uprisings over the nation’s history, but today we’re going to focus on the most consequential ones. While not all of these American uprisings achieved their intended goals, they definitely ended up permanently changing the country in one way or another.
7. The May Day Uprising, 1886
If you compare the modern workweek to, say, the infamously horrible working conditions in the early industrial era, you’d probably wonder what you did to have so many luxuries. Unless you live in a dictatorship, even the worst country for work hours only requires its employees to work for, at most, a 10-hour shift, along with a standard two-day weekend.
While most people believe that it was just a natural product of changing times, it really wasn’t. We’d still be working 14-hour, 7-day shifts if it wasn’t for the May Day Uprising of 1886.
Perhaps one of the most violent labor movements in the country, the uprising was a result of flatlining wages and worsening conditions in the late 19th century. It started on May 1 (hence ‘May Day’), and saw huge organized strikes and employee walk-outs in major American cities, calling for better working conditions and a standard 8-hour workday. The situation turned violent in many places, too, though its focal point was Chicago, where a bomb blast ended up killing at least seven policemen and four protesters, and injuring around 200 others. Known as the ‘Haymarket Affair’, it led to the arrest and execution of eight anarchists.
While the strikes were put down, the event was a watershed moment in the history of labor rights. It led to even more general strikes and protests around the country, and eventually forced many states and corporations to give in to the demands. May Day is still celebrated as International Workers’ Day around the world, and is directly responsible for many labor protections like minimum wage, weekends, safety standards and the 8-hour workday, among others.
6. The New York City Draft Riots, 1863
The New York City Draft Riots may have been just one of the smaller insurrections within the larger American Civil War – a major rebellion in its own right – though it was by far one of the deadliest. While the causes may have been too many to count, the catalyst was the new draft laws enacted by the federal Congress to support the war effort.
This turned out to be the breaking point for Irish dockworkers in the city – especially in Manhattan – as they feared freed slaves coming into the city and taking away their jobs. The violence started on the night of July 13, 1863, when around 1,200 to 1,500 of them went on a rampage against Black businesses and property in and around Manhattan. It was one of the most racially-charged periods in New York’s history, and saw the deaths of hundreds – if not thousands – of Black citizens over four days of fierce violence.
The riots were also a turning point for the racial make-up of New York City, and their effects are still visible. By some estimates, over 20% of the area’s Black population had to either leave or relocate directly due to the riots.
5. The Dakota Uprising, 1862
The Dakota Uprising may have been only one of the many rebellions by Native American tribes throughout America’s history, though it was by far one of the most serious. While it does find a mention in our history books, they don’t tell us how close it got to succeeding.
Triggered by tough economic conditions, increased taxation and a particularly hard summer of 1862 in Minnesota, thousands of Dakota troops armed themselves and started attacking local agencies and government offices across the state. While they’re often portrayed as an unorganized band of Indian rebels, they were actually quite adept at fighting and organized. President Lincoln had to dispatch a separate unit to quell the rebellion, which – by some accounts – killed over 500 settlers and 150 Dakota Indians.
4. Los Angeles Riots, 1992
Despite America’s racially-divisive history, Los Angeles has always been a cosmopolitan, racially-diverse city, though that hasn’t always been the case with its police force. There have been many cases of police violence against the sizable minority population of the city in its long history, and almost all of them have been met with protests by the local community. That’s pretty much how the riots of 1992 started, too, except that this time, things turned out to be way more violent than usual.
It all began after the acquittal of four police officers charged with brutally beating up a Black motorist named Rodney King, an event that was captured on camera and broadcast on news channels across the country. The footage was really what turned the protests into a riot, as it directly contradicted the official statements of the officers involved. By the end of it all, 63 people were killed, more than 2,300 injured and many millions of dollars of property destroyed, making it one of the worst cases of civil unrest in America’s history.
3. The German Coast Uprising, 1811
If we were to ask you about the biggest slave revolt in American history, there’s a good chance that most people would go ‘what slave revolt?’ While the institution of slavery and its role in the country’s economic history has been widely discussed, we somehow miss the revolts, making it seem like the white abolitionists were the only opposition to slavery in the country. They weren’t, as there are many instances of slaves organizing and trying to free themselves during the country’s long history, though almost all of them ended in failure.
But the biggest of them – the German Coast Uprising of 1811 – came surprisingly close to succeeding, though we hardly talk about it anymore. It was started by a Haitian slave named Charles Deslondes, who organized a small band of slaves in the primarily-German region of the Mississippi coast (hence the name) and marched on New Orleans. They were soon joined by other revolutionaries on the way, as their numbers swelled from a small, aimless band to a well-armed force of close to 500 men.
As expected, the revolt triggered an equally strong response from the government as well as independent local militias funded by the slaveholders. By the end of it, dozens of escaped slaves were killed as retribution, with their decapitated heads placed on pikes along the Mississippi river to serve as a stern example for the others.
2. Stonewall Riots, 1969
The history of LGBTQ rights in America has never really been smooth, though the ’60s were an especially bad time to be open about it. Being openly gay was illegal in almost every state at the time, and there was a growing wave of hate crimes and police raids against anyone who wasn’t 100% heterosexual
Among all this, bars like the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York served as a safe haven for the community. Operated by the mafia, the inn wasn’t a particularly large establishment, though still served as an important center for LGBTQ culture in the city.
It was also the site of one of the most important violent protests in American history, triggered by a police raid in 1969. While it wasn’t the first raid of its kind, it was different in the way that when it was over, everyone standing around didn’t just go back home – as the police probably expected – but instead started throwing beer bottles and debris at them. They were eventually joined by other local residents, turning it into a full-blown riot. The situation got so bad that at one point, the cops had to barricade themselves inside the bar and call for reinforcements, as there were around 400 people rioting outside.
Even if they were scattered soon enough, the Stonewall Riots would eventually be remembered as one of the turning points in the history of LGBTQ rights in the country. It triggered a wave of protests and policy changes in major cities across America, and also served as the catalyst for all future LGBTQ movements. Pride month – an annual, global event that happens in June – is actually meant to commemorate the Stonewall Riots.
1. The Civil Rights Movement
The civil rights movement for racial equality that peaked in the ’60s was unlike most of the rebellions on this list, as it was mostly a peaceful and non-violent affair – at least in the beginning – without any intention of challenging federal authority. Regardless, it remains one of the most consequential protest movements in our history, and for good reason.
In a way, the movement was sort of always going on, but it was only in the late ’50s and early ’60s that the Black community really organized itself with clear demands and capable leaders. There were many huge protests and demonstrations across the country almost throughout the decade. Moreover, the movement overlapped with other protests happening around the same time, like the anti-Vietnam War and Second Wave Feminism protests, further strengthening its numbers.
The movement reached its peak in 1968 after the asssination of Martin Luther King, Jr., leading to violence and rioting in over 100 cities. It remains an immensely important event for race relations in America and abroad, and its impact on our politics is still quite visible. In a way, this year’s George Floyd protests could be viewed as a renewed form of the same movement.