In 1894, they came to Washington to demand a solution to unemployment. Led by Jacob Coxey, they contributed a not-so-flattering term to the American lexicon—a “Coxey’s Army” is a ragtag group—and many were arrested. But, though their immediate goals were not achieved, they accomplished something more important: starting an American tradition of bringing protest to Washington, D.C., using the people’s presence to send a message to those in power.
And, like Coxey’s Army, marchers who have been disappointed in the short term have often wielded great influence in the long term.
In 1913, they were suffrage supporters, putting together a march that played an important role in getting American women the vote. In 1932, they were the “Bonus Expeditionary Force,” a group of World War I veterans who, suffering during the Great Depression, sought an early payout on the service bonuses they were due. The way President Herbert Hoover dealt with them—or, rather, failed to do so—helped get FDR elected. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, remembered for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, defined the civil-rights era. The Million Man March in 1995 put a new spin on the idea of the Washington demonstration. And, whether a half-century ago or only a decade, protests at inaugurations of Presidents like Richard Nixon and George W. Bush have provided a model for angry voters to make their voices heard.
As the American capital once again braces for a wave of protest, with hundreds of thousands expected to march on Saturday in protest of Donald Trump’s inauguration, here’s a look back at how the tradition has evolved over the course of more than 120 years.