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Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art. Ed. Charlie T. McCormick and Kim Kennedy White. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011. p1022-1025.
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Expression of objection or nonacceptance of a policy, institute, event, or situation. Protest enables an individual or group to make their feelings and opinions of an issue known publicly. Protest is often outside of the realm of political action that is accepted as legitimate.

Antiwar protesters gather outside the British Parliament in London in 2003 to voice their concern about the Iraq War.

Antiwar protesters gather outside the British Parliament in London in 2003 to voice their concern about the Iraq War. (

Protest can be either an individual or a collective effort. It can be either violent or nonviolent in nature. The targets of protest are varied but often constitute a condition or entity that people are unable to escape from or too weak to negotiate with directly. Issues of social justice and ethics are often the motivation behindPage 1023  |  Top of Articledemonstrations. Protest movements offer commentary on human existence within society and provide opportunities to voice dissent and convey reaction. Movements are diverse and many involve creative means in expressing sentiments and beliefs. Protest carries a connotation of suspicion of authority. Participants in demonstrations are often viewed as subversive and antagonistic. Interests and beliefs held in common unite individuals who rally around these shared values to organize in opposition. An act of protest can simply broadcast an opinion, or it can go as far as individuals taking direct action in an effort to fix or eliminate the problem themselves.

Protest is a common occurrence during periods of war and economic recession. The restriction of self-expression or other rights can also create an atmosphere conducive to protest movements. Such conditions cause feelings of civil unrest among the population of a society and passion or desperation may motivate them to band together and take action. Protest can develop into a major social or political upheaval if it is not addressed properly. An example of this progression is the American Revolution, which evolved from colonial protests over British taxation.

Folklore is an important form of the expressive culture of human beings that folklorists are eager to study. Organized protest movements serve as opportunities for politics and folklore to mix. Banners, buttons, flags, bumper stickers, and posters are several examples of the protest ephemera that is produced. Folklorists also focus on power relationships in societies. Clashes between those with great authority and those who are powerless are common causes and effects of protest.

Types of Protest

Protest comes in various forms including public demonstrations, written demonstrations, and other creative modes. Marches and rallies are public demonstrations that are visible and energizing. Protests at places of employment include picketing, lockdowns, strikes, and walkouts. Occupational protest has an important place in labor lore. Written demonstrations include petitions and letter-writing campaigns. Sometimes protestors circulate censored materials, known as samizdat, as a way of spreading a message. Numerous protests involve the use of civil disobedience as a strategy to communicate opinions and effect change. People may erect tents on government property, refuse to pay taxes, or boycott certain goods. More extreme means of protest include flag desecration, suicide, and hunger strikes. Protest also uses artistic vehicles to convey messages in a powerful way, whether through the performance of a protest song or the creation of literature, paintings, and films that focus on themes of dissent. There are protests within religious traditions, certain occupations, and social groups.

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A single person may conduct a quiet protest, passively refusing to accept something he or she believes is unjust. An individual can also carry out a vocal protest by himself or herself. In most cases, however, individuals come together over common feelings of objection and unite to express their emotions.

Major Protest Movements

There have been various protest movements in the history of the United States. The labor movement that followed the industrial revolution in the early nineteenth century was significant. Through the formation of unions and demonstrations such as strikes, the people of the working class were able to protect their rights and negotiate better working conditions and higher salaries. It is important to note that this labor movement set a precedent for the widespread use of civil disobedience as a protest tactic used by large groups of people. America also witnessed the abolition movement that ended slavery and the women's suffrage movement that won women the right to vote. The animal rights movement, the right to life movement, and the fair trade movement are examples of protest movements with a narrow focus.

The largest and most influential protest movement in U.S. history was the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Americans expressed their objection to and abhorrence of the Jim Crow laws that segregated blacks from whites. Important in the American civil rights movement was the use of music as protest ephemera. The “freedom songs” used in this movement were often spiritual hymns that the people modified to use as tools of political protest.

Music and Protest

Protest movements have used music as propaganda and a means of uniting those who hold strong objections to aspects of society. Folk music serves to reaffirm people's beliefs and strengthens existing attitudes in its audience. This genre of music can be used by the disenfranchised and downtrodden to achieve political ends. Folk music was popular in the 1930s and 1940s but lost its momentum as a result of McCarthyism. A revival of the genre occurred in the 1960s.

The protest songs of the 1930s and 1940s were different from those in the 1960s. The earlier songs engendered feelings of connectedness with one another in the face of adversity and support for ideologies. The songs of the revival focused more on cultivating feelings of individualism, independent thinking, and discontent with society overall. The former were composed during a severe economic depression while the latter emerged during a period of relative affluence and growth of the middle class. The adolescents of the 1960s were filled with the spirit of nonconformity and idealism.

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Protest songs include those of the civil rights movement. They are an example of both expressive culture and folk art. Protest songs are centered on the concerns and struggles of the ordinary people. Through their lyrics the artists purport to express social and political ideas.

The folk protest movement encompassed a group of individuals who believed that folksingers should act as spokesmen for the common people by expressing their feelings and opinions to the general public. Among its prominent leaders was Alan Lomax, a folklorist. Another important figure was Moses Asch, who owned Folkway Records and had committed himself to recording and preserving the expressions of minorities. Pete Seeger, a well-known folksinger, cofounded the periodical Broadside alongside Agnes Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, who were spouses and former members of the Almanac Singers. Sing Out! magazine was the key medium for the movement. Its editor, Irwin Silber, was passionate about advocating for the common people and using folk music to give them a voice. The leaders of the movement criticized the vagueness they felt permeated the folk music of the 1960s. Famous folk musicians who wrote and performed protest songs included Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Joan Baez.

Jaclyn Ozzimo


Brown, Stuart M. 1961. Civil Disobedience. Journal of Philosophy 58: 669-681.

Denisoff, R. Serge. 1970. Protest Songs: Those on the Top Forty and Those of the Streets. American Quarterly 22: 807-823.

Denselow, Robin. 1990. When the Music's Over: The Story of Political Pop. London and Boston: Faber & Faber.

Dunlap, James. 2006. Through the Eyes of Tom Joad: Patterns of American Idealism, Bob Dylan, and the Folk Protest Movement. Popular Music and Society 29: 549-572.

Greenway, John. 1970. American Folksongs of Protest. New York: Octagon Books.

Rodnitzky, Jerome L. 1976. Minstrels of the Dawn: The Folk-Protest Singer as a Cultural Hero. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
Ozzimo, Jaclyn. "Protest." Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art, edited by Charlie T. McCormick and Kim Kennedy White, 2nd ed., vol. 3, ABC-CLIO, 2011, pp. 1022-1025. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 25 June 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1764100247

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