Protest at the People's House

A brief history of how the public claimed space outside the white house for demonstration

President's House in Washington, from the General Government and State Capitol Buildings series (N14) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes Brands (1889) by The Gast Lithograph & Engraving Company|Allen & GinterThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Is the White House a public building or a private residence? Americans have struggled with the answers to these questions since it's cornerstone was laid in 1792. The country has striven to strike a balance between public ownership of the symbolic space and the safety of those who work and live there.

Front View of the President's House, in the City of Washington (1807) by Unknown ArtistThe White House

In the 19th century the American people had been accustomed to almost unlimited access to the White House. Tourists wandered in and out and presidents often came out of their offices to greet visitors. In the 20th century the White House remained a popular destination, but its relationship with the people would be redefined. The next century would see the people finding new ways to take ownership of the ‘People’s House’, and would exemplify the struggle between the people and the government to define the limits of the rights of the people to the space around the White House.

College day in the picket line (1917)National Women’s History Museum

The first White House protest

Women were the first to protest in front of the White House. Suffragists whom President Woodrow Wilson had declined to receive after several unsuccessful meetings conceived of a new way to be heard, and took their case directly to the symbolic heart of the government: the White House.

"Silent sentinel" Alison Turnbull Hopkins at the White House on New Jersey Day/Library of Congress (1917-01-30) by Photograph published in The Suffragist, 5, no. 56 (Feb. 7, 1917): 4.National Women’s History Museum

In June 1917 a group of suffragists set up a silent picket outside the White House gates with the purpose of “making it impossible for the President to enter or leave the White House without encountering a sentinel bearing some device pleading the suffrage cause.”

Pickets arrested at White House for woman suffrage demonstration, 1917 LOC (1917) by Library of CongressNational Women’s History Museum

At first, law enforcement stood in the crowd watching the women, but did not interfere. Soon, however, the women the newspapers referred to as “the picketing nuisance” were chased from their post by policemen and those who refused to move were arrested on the grounds that the women were violating “section 5 of the police regulations which forbids ‘blocking traffic, unlawful assemblage, etc.’”

Women Demand the Vote by League of Women VotersSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

When they appealed their convictions, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the women’s gathering in front of the White House “was not unlawful unless [the] gathering was for an unlawful purpose,’” establishing a precedent for the legitimacy and legality of future demonstrations.

Welcome Home (1917/1918) by Cigars UnitedSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

The protests by suffragists were minor compared to the veritable invasion of Washington by what was known as the “Bonus Army” in the spring of 1932. Veterans of World War I who had not received promised financial bonuses took their case directly to Washington and the White House. Only this time, instead of a few hundred protestors, there were 15,000.

Welcome Home (1917/1918) by Cigars UnitedSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

The veterans’ occupation ended after several months without the men receiving their bonus when President Hoover authorized the eviction of the veterans by military force. This would be far from the last time that the people and the government would clash during the people’s attempts to claim the space in front of the White House as a public forum for their concerns.

By Francis MillerLIFE Photo Collection

Protests grow

After a period of relative calm in front of the White House during World War II and its aftermath, the years of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement brought a sharp increase in the number of White House protests. 

May DaySmithsonian's National Museum of American History

From its very beginnings in the 1950s until its official end in 1975, the Vietnam War provoked intense public reactions of both protest and support. The peak of the protesting arguably occurred with the Mayday Protest during the first week of May in 1971, when groups of protestors worked in tandem to stop all traffic in the city of Washington, DC, in an attempt to bring the work of the government to a halt.

We Shall OvercomeSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

The Civil Rights Movement produced many demonstrations at and near the White House. One of the largest events was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, which centered on the National Mall and its surrounds, including the White House.

Anti-Vietnam war protest and demonstration in front of the White House (1968) by Library of CongressNational Women’s History Museum

It is limited

The 1960 and 70s antiwar and civil rights demonstrations became so numerous that the government began acting to limit them, turning the use of White House space into a proxy battleground for the people’s rights to free speech and to petition their government, in person if necessary.

By Hank WalkerLIFE Photo Collection

The first direct legislative attempt to contain public White House demonstrations came in 1954. Brady Gentry, a Congressman from Texas, sponsored a bill to prohibit any and all picketing in front of the White House. He was upset that some of his first sights upon entering Washington, DC in January 1953 were crowds of protesters petitioning the president at the Executive Mansion for clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

A Tribute to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1978)Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

The House voted to pass the bill, but it was stopped in a Senate subcommittee by Senator Wayne Morse, who declared that such a bill would “infringe rights of free speech and petition.” Morse articulated the argument of the people in a concise statement: “’The right to walk in an orderly fashion in front of the White House is a pretty important part of the right of petition…It advertises that the President is our servant, not our master, and that we have the right to petition him.’”

Stokey Carmichael's End-The-War March On The White House (1967-05-18) by Francis MillerLIFE Photo Collection

In the early sixties, protestors were subject to few regulations: remain orderly and stay 500 feet away from the White House if a foreign dignitary was present, but by the mid-sixties more restrictive laws had been put into place. On August 10, 1967 regulations limiting the number of people protesting in front of the White House at any given time to one hundred were issued by the National Park Service. Any group organizing a protest was required to secure a permit for their demonstration from the National Park Service in advance. The year before, in 1966, protestors had been banned from five streets surrounding the White House and Lafayette Square-all the surrounding streets except for the most famous and most frequently used by demonstrators, Pennsylvania Avenue.

poster by Women Strike for PeaceSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

In mid-September of 1967, an antiwar demonstration put on by the group Women Strike for Peace, who had obtained a permit, became a melee when several demonstrators tried to join those already assembled, a group that police judged to have reached the one hundred person limit. When police attempted to stop the newcomers, several women were knocked to the ground.

Come home America... by Women Strike for PeaceSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

The incident spurred the Washington bureau of the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) to charge that the limits on picketing that had been put in place violated the Constitutional rights of assembly and free speech, calling them “arbitrary, unnecessary and undemocratic.” The A.C.L.U. took on the case of Joyce Doreen Williamson, who was arrested at the Women Strike for Peace demonstration specifically to “challenge the constitutionality” of the restriction of White House protests.

The Great Society... by Women Strike for PeaceSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

In April, 1969, U.S. District Court Judge William Bryant ruled that limitations on the number of demonstrators in front of the White House were unconstitutional. Bryant called the restrictions “’invalid and void as an unconstitutional infringement on the…rights to freedom of speech and to assemble peaceably and petition the Government for redress of grievances’.” The space in front of the White House was declared officially to be, according to the rights of citizens as laid out in the Constitution, shared public space between the people and their president.

Jehovah Witness Protest At The White House (1969) by Charles PhillipsLIFE Photo Collection

In 1971, in a ruling directed at ending a year-long peace vigil whose participants had camped out in front of the White House, Judge George L. Hart, Jr. declared that “’sleeping, lying down, sprawling or sitting down’ in front of the White House is not protected by law.” The ACLU challenged that the right to free speech covered a live-in protest, but the judge disagreed, declaring that the group’s demonstration was “’an insult to the American people’ and showed disrespect for President Nixon.”

women's march 2017 (2017-01-21) by Liz LemonNational Women’s History Museum

"Show me what democracy looks like/this is what democracy looks like"

Since the 1970s, the White House continues to be a prime location for protest. Regulations regarding the use of permits, the number of people at protests, and the types of protest material that can be carried near the White House all continue to change as the public and the government continue to debate what limits to those protests are appropriate in a democracy. 

Women's March on Washington by Women's MarchSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

In January 2017 Women’s March held a rally in Washington, DC that encompassed the National Mall and streets around the White House. The march, like all that take place in Washington today, required a number of permits and massive planning that included informing marchers beforehand of restrictions on bag size, poster materials, and more.

Over the last 30 years, security has tightened around the White House in response to global terrorist attacks and advanced safety and weapon technology. Most recently, a 2018 National Park Service proposal to update regulations surrounding demonstrations in front of the White House sparked fears that the rights of the public were being curtailed. Still, the people protest on.

Washington Dc (1969) by George SilkLIFE Photo Collection

A continued negotiation

Battles over the public’s access to the White House shed light on the attitude of the government and the governed towards the people’s place in government-and the people did not easily give up the right to access their government.  As the White House continues to be used both publicly and privately, the debate over White House openness and security versus the public’s right to access it is no where near concluded.

Credits: Story

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Bernstein, Carl. “Court Voids Rules on White House Protests.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, 28 April 1969, A4.
Clopton, Willard, “U.S. Puts Ban on Public Gatherings in Five Streets Around White House,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, 24 April 1966, A1.
Hoffman, Bruce and Peter Chalk. Security in the Nation’s Capital and the Closure of Pennsylvania Avenue: an Assessment. Arlington, VA: RAND, 2002.
Keene, Jennifer D. Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Lotito, Ernest A., “Picketing of White House Old But Aimless Practice.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, 27 October 1963, E2.
“’Move Along’ Pickets.” The Washington Post, 23 June 1917, 1.
National Park Service. “Proposed National Park Service First Amendment and Special Event Permit regulations would provide clarity while protecting iconic views in Washington, D.C.” August 7, 2018. Accessed November 5, 2019.
Paschal, Olivia. “The Backlash to New Rules on Protests in D.C.” The Atlantic, October 13, 2018. Accessed November 5, 2019.
“’Picket’ White House.” The Washington Post, 10 January 1917, 1.
Valentine, Paul W. “Court Must Decide Pickets’ Right to Use Parks Freely.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, 8 December 1968, A2.
White House Historical Association. “President’s Park/Citizen’s Soapbox” Accessed 2 February 2 2011.
Woodward, Bob. “White House Protest Rule Toughened,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, 9 June 1972, C1.

Credits: All media
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