Protest is patriotic: 5 historic July Fourth demonstrations in Philly

On Independence Day, people have rallied for women’s rights, gay rights, workers’ rights and more.

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Jordan Gunselman
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Updated July 3, 2019

On July Fourth, thoughts tun toward fun celebrations like BBQs and block parties. But gatherings of another kind have also been common on this date.

Turns out Philly’s Independence Day history is chock full of protes — which is actually patriotic, as the signing of the Declaration of Independence was in direct protest of the rule of Great Britain.

Here are five of the most interesting Fourth of July protests in Philadelphia.

1844: Anti-Catholic

Things were a lot different in Philly back in the early 1840s. When people got mad about immigration, they were mad about Irish Catholic people.

These protests came to a head on May 7, 1844, per a Philly Mag report, when people burned down 30 Irish homes in Philly. The next day, two Catholic churches were destroyed (including St. Augustine’s Church at 4th and Vine).

The same violent protesters were responsible for hosting that year’s Fourth of July parade in Philly. Fights broke out at the parade and lasted for four whole days. In total, 15 people were killed and 50 more were wounded.

1876: Women’s rights

Thirty years later, famous suffragettes held a protest of their own.

In 1876, Philadelphia hosted the Centennial Celebration, commemorating America’s 100th birthday with a huge ceremony and appearances from President Ulysses Grant and VP Henry Wilson.

That same day, a small group of women stormed Independence Hall to remind Philadelphians that America’s independence from Great Britain did not necessarily bring liberty to all American citizens. On behalf of the National Woman Suffrage Association, the participants were:

They presented what they called a “Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States.” Originally, the suffragettes had asked organizers in advance if they could present it as part of the event’s regular programming. When they were denied, they decided to do it anyway.

So in between speakers, the women hopped up on stage. Anthony read the entirety of the four-page document, which filled with women’s grievances, like taxation without representation and the denial of their right to be tried by a jury of their peers.

She said, “While the nation is buoyant with patriotism, and all hearts are attuned to praise, it is with sorrow we come to strike the one discordant note, on this 100th anniversary of our country’s birth.”

1965: Gay rights

Welcome to the 1960s, when LGBTQ people were just beginning to demand their civil rights. On the Fourth of July in 1965, 39 gay rights activists gathered outside Independence Hall to do just that.

They asked legislators to protect their rights and keep them safe. The activists held picket signs that read “HOMOSEXUAL BILL OF RIGHTS” and “15 MILLION HOMOSEXUAL AMERICANS ASK FOR EQUALITY, OPPORTUNITY, DIGNITY.”

Interestingly, the protest organizers imposed a strict dress code — jackets and ties for the men and dresses for the women — in an effort to make LGBTQ people seem presentable and to encourage legislators to take them seriously.

They named the protest “Reminder Day,” because it was meant to serve as a reminder to Americans that LGBTQ people were regularly denied their right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

1976: Workers’ rights

On America’s 200th birthday, then-Mayor Frank Rizzo wanted to plan the perfect party.

So when he got wind of some protests planned for Independence Day, he may have overreacted. Just a little.

About a month before the actual event, about 3,000 workers in Philly (plus veterans and students) planned to march through the streets on the Fourth with this message: “We’ve Carried the Rich for 200 Years, Let’s Get Them Off Our Backs!” Basically, they were protesting for workers’ rights and a dismantling of the class system in the United States.

Around the same time, Rizzo started to freak out. He told everyone that radical leftist protesters were plotting to ruin the holiday, and he requested 15,000 federal troops for assistance.

Philly activists protested the Frank Rizzo statue in the summer of 2016.

Philly activists protested the Frank Rizzo statue in the summer of 2016.

Shannon Wink / Billy Penn

To Rizzo’s dismay, the federal government didn’t grant them. So the mayor continued to freak out, issuing a warning on July 3: “I hope and pray that nothing occurs, but I know this — a lot of people are coming to this town who are bent on violence.”

Well, that backfired. After Rizzo’s fear-mongering, the expected crowd of about 70,000 attendees was cut in half. Entire marching bands decided to skip the party and stay home, afraid of the violence that Rizzo promised.

2013: NSA snooping

Now for something a little more modern.

Five years ago, protesters across the country decided to sound off against the federal government’s surveillance of their internet and phone use. Philly enthusiastically joined in.

About 50 Philadelphians participated in the “Restore the Fourth” protest at Washington Square Park. It was organized on reddit after details emerged of the National Security Agency’s seizure of various telephone records.

“This is America’s day in a sense,” Philly protester Nathan Swavely told WHYY. “So making our voices heard on this day, it’s probably one of the better days to do it.”

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