Mayday 1971

When Washington experienced an intense series of protests and the largest mass arrest in the history of the country

Mayday Book CoverDC Public Library

Mayday 1971

Fifty years ago the U.S. war in Vietnam had been raging for six years. More than 50,000 American soldiers had died in Southeast Asia. In April and May of 1971, anti-war protesters descended on the capital for an extraordinary run of demonstrations, to pressure Congress and President Nixon to bring the troops home.The finale came in early May. The protesters slogan was,“If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” Protesters blocked the city’s streets and bridges. The Nixon administration arrested more than 12,000 people over three days. It remains America’s largest mass arrest. Photographs from the People’s Archive of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library are used here and in the book, "MAYDAY 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest," by Lawrence Roberts.

First to Arrive in DC (1971) by Washington Star NewspapersDC Public Library

First Arrivals

More than a thousand members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War are first to show up for the 1971 protests. They camp on the National Mall, and the Nixon administration tries to evict them.

Supreme CourtDC Public Library

First Arrested

About one hundred vets stage a sit-in at the Supreme Court steps, to protest the federal court order banning them from their campsite. Their arrests win them public sympathy.

John KerryDC Public Library

Bearing Witness

John Kerry, 27, an ex-Navy lieutenant, represents the vets at a Senate hearing. The war’s a terrible mistake, he says: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Medal TossDC Public Library

Returning Medals

Defiant, angry and sorrowful, the Vietnam vets end their foray into Washington by hurling their combat ribbons and medals onto the steps of the Capitol.

Protesters on PennDC Public Library

The Big March

The Saturday after the vets’ medal toss, dozens of anti-war groups march on Pennsylvania Avenue. At more than 400,000 people, it’s the largest protest in Washington to that point.

Hosea WilliamsDC Public Library

Demanding Social Justice

Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference leads a rally outside the Justice Department. The civil rights group coordinates with the Mayday anti-war leaders.

Mayday camp in the West Potomac Park. (1971) by Washington Star NewspapersDC Public Library

Mayday Camp

To the dismay of the Nixon administration, more than 40,000 people from all over the country gather at West Potomac Park to prepare for the traffic blockade.

Pyramid of MenDC Public Library

Riverfront Festival

The Mayday camp in West Potomac Park takes on the air of a 1960s-style festival including a 24-hour rock show that opens with the Beach Boys.

Police Raid Mayday Camp (1971) by Washington Star NewspapersDC Public Library

Busted at Dawn

Nixon officials, worried about the growing crowd, secretly revoke the group’s camping permit. At dawn on Sunday, they dispatch riot police on a surprise raid to clear the park.

Burning at Potomac ParkDC Public Library

Breaking Camp

Leaders persuade most of the thousands of campers to leave peacefully, rather than risk jail and miss the Monday blockade. Some angry protesters burn makeshift lean-tos on the way out.

Protesters Stop TrafficDC Public Library

Mayday Blockade

Sunday’s raid doesn’t prevent Mayday. At Monday’s rush hour, thousands of protesters mount their blockade. Their slogan: “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.”

Military at MonumentDC Public Library

Militarized City

Despite reluctance at the Pentagon, Nixon officials summon 10,000 active-duty military to help police and National Guard. Chinook helicopters unload troops on the Mall.

Troops on Key BridgeDC Public Library

Fixed Bayonets

Soldiers and Marines are deployed throughout the federal city to guard bridges and buildings. The Pentagon puts seven military bases along the East Coast on “raised readiness.”

Police Chief WilsonDC Public Library

Following Orders

Jerry V. Wilson, the chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, is ordered by President Nixon to use any means necessary to keep the city open and foil the protests.

Dragging AwayDC Public Library

Police Dragnet

Riot squads sweep through the city. Besides arresting people who block traffic, they go after thousands who are breaking no laws but have long hair or hippie-like clothes.

Military Jeeps in GeorgetownDC Public Library

Occupying Force

Jeeps cruise through Georgetown in a show of force. Troops aren’t making arrests, but their presence escalates tensions between demonstrators and police, and emboldens the riot squad.

Protesters held at RFKDC Public Library

Detention Camp

After rounding up thousands of protesters, and bystanders who happen to look the part, jail cells overflow. Police turn a dusty football practice field near RFK Stadium into an outdoor prison.

Fauntroy and MathiasDC Public Library

Coming to Help

Concerned about conditions at the camp, Walter Fauntroy, D.C.’s first non-voting representative to Congress, confers with Senator Charles Mathias, R-MD (left) and Bob Rogers (right) of the City Council staff.

Arrested ColisuemDC Public Library

In the Coliseum

Prisoners are bused to the Washington Coliseum, where they spend hours or days under guard without formal charges against them. D.C. residents donate blankets and food.

Protests Continue (1971) by Washington StarDC Public Library

Protests Resume

The White House believes Monday’s mass arrests broke the will of the Mayday demonstrators. But the next day, police take another 2,000 people into custody outside the Justice Department.

MitchellDC Public Library

Attorney General

Attorney General John Mitchell (far right) stands on his office balcony next to his deputy, Richard Kleindienst, watching with approval as 2,000 demonstrators are arrested outside Justice.

Protesters on the east frontDC Public Library

Capitol Sit-In

On the third day, the Mayday protests move to the U.S. Capitol. Some 1,200 people are rounded up and jailed, despite having been invited to the rally by members of Congress.

Barbara BowmanDC Public Library

Seeking Justice

Criminal defense lawyer Barbara Bowman, head of the D.C. Public Defender Service, takes on the crushing task of freeing thousands of people improperly arrested during three days of Mayday protests.

Nixon Washington WisonDC Public Library

Cover Up

Criticism mounts over the arrests. The White House conceals its role, saying local officials made all decisions. Nixon holds a photo op to congratulate Chief Jerry V. Wilson, Mayor Walter Washington and others.

War CriminalDC Public Library

Mayday’s Legacy

In three days, police snare more than 12,000 people, loading prisoners onto buses like this one. Nixon’s overreaction to the protest helped sow the seeds of his administration’s demise.

Credits: Story

All photos from the Washington Star Photograph Collection in the People's Archive, except for:
Breaking Camp - ©Washington Post/Matthew Lewis
Seeking Justice (Barbara Bowman) - ©Washington Post/Bob Burchette

Special thanks to Washington Area Spark for research assistance
and to the staff of the People's Archive.

Exhibit produced by Monica Miller.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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