Protests through Public Space

Khanh (Miki) Doan

Throughout the twentieth century, Richmonders turned public spaces into an expression of their political views and concerns. Capitol Square, the symbol of the Virginia government and legislation, witnessed many protests taking place on Bank Street, ranging from marches to walk-a-thons. African Americans and whites used the space for similar purposes of dramatizing to the government problems and inequalities from which members of the community suffered. In return, the government took an advantage of the convenient location of  the Capitol Square to communicate with its citizens.

By marching through Bank Street to the Capitol Square, people established the power of unification and subtly rebelled against the government. Despite its narrowness, Bank Street, on which the Capitol Square stretched from one end to another end, was an ideal space for different groups to  protest. In the middle of the twentieth century, Richmond was a center of national attention, famous for the legal struggle over civil rights for blacks.[1] Pictures and articles about the marches on the Capitol further affected the public image of the state government; therefore, officials strived to reduce the number of protest that threatened the development of the state. Drawing on this weakness, people managed to gather on Bank Street to make the government aware of their rights as citizens with equal opportunities, as students with adequate access to education, workers hoping for better wages and a safe work environment, and minorities in a white male-dominated society.

Black and white photograph of a gathering at the Virginia State Capitol during the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; image taken from above, shows the steps leading to the Capitol portico; a group of Catholic school girls stands on the steps to the right; a band and choir stands on the steps to the left; a man stands in the middle of the steps in front of two microphones; various men and women stand on the portico; a large crowd of nicely-dressed (hats and coats) people stand in front of the steps listening to the speaker.

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was reaching its height when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Following his death, the black community nationwide launched riots which terrified the white community. On April 8, 1968, nearly 3000 people gathered at the State Capitol for Tributes to King when the Mayor, Morrill Martin Crowe, spoke to the ground, in hopes of ending the violence and vandalism. Crowe told the crowd that “let freedom ring through nonviolence, through black and white together that we shall overcome.”[2] The picture captured at the Virginia State Capitol following the assassination of King illustrates the distinctive use of space from the perspective of African Americans and that of white Americans. While some African Americans lost belief in nonviolent resistance and started riots, the others expressed their lost and sorrow through marching towards the capitol. Wearing nice clothes, these folks presented themselves in a way that kept King’s legacy, of cooperating with white men, alive. On the other hand, the government dedicated the sacred space of the Capitol in honor of King to express their condolence and suggest a peaceful solution for this outbreak.

Black and white photograph of African American college students marching along Bank Street past the Virginia State Capitol; the students wear coats and hats and carry posters; two uniformed police officers stand at attention at the top of steps to the Capitol grounds and observe.

Marching was one of the effective nonviolent protests for students to voice their opinion against the school’s administration. When the Virginia State School of Agriculture merged with the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, students at Virginia State College feared that the institution’s status would be reduced into a community college. They also demanded that  the school’s president and the dean of the college resign because both had lost the confidence of a majority of faculty members and failed to lead the school.[3] On December 18, 1969, 2200 students took a 25 mile-bus drive from Petersburg to the Capitol to march, sing, and chant in support of the predominantly Negro institution. Choosing the Capitol as a place to protest, the students put pressure on their school administration by relying on the state power. These young minds decided to demonstrate calmly, through Bank Street without creating any chaos, and it reflects on their use of public space to achieve their cause. The Times Dispatch reported that the demonstration caused only momentary traffic delays.[4] Due to a conflict in scheduling, Linwood Holton, the newly elected governor, could not arrange an appointment with the students but he permitted the march for that day.  Both the officials and the students managed to use the Capitol to find a compromise that worked for each party.

Black and white photograph of people gathered outside (Capitol Square) for an Equal Rights Amendment rally; at right, Virginia State Senator L. Douglas Wilder stands at microphone and speaks to group; Channel 12 newsperson uses video recorder to tape the rally; sign in foreground reads "Give My Life / Something Extra // Equality."

Richmonders also shaped Bank Street for a good cause. In 1972, the Equal Right Amendment (ERA) was passed in Congress but failed to gain ratification; Virginia did not ratify this until February 2011.[5]  Therefore, the 70’s mark an era in which women organized protests around Richmond to endorse the amendment. On August 26, 1977, about 45 people walked briskly from the Capitol for a 12-mile hike in order to raise money, which would be used to support efforts to win the passage of ERA in the state legislature.[6]  The sponsor of the walk-a thon, the National Organization for Women (NOW) estimated that the rally would generate about $1000.[7] By choosing the Capitol as their destination, the marchers not only fundraised for ERA, but also brought the issue of the inequality to the public’s attention and indirectly to the governmental agencies. For example, Mrs. J. Marshall Coleman, wife of the Republican nominee for attorney general, came to Capitol Square before the walk-a-thon to support the ERA.[8] Such endorsement from a wife of a political figure suggests that the movement was transforming.

Black and white photograph of striking mine workers (United Mine Workers of America) waiting on the sidewalk along 9th Street outside the Virginia State Capitol; the miners were told by Capitol Police that they could not assemble on the Capitol Square grounds without a permit; image shows a long row of miners, dressed in camouflage clothing, resting against the wrought iron fence of the capitol.

Union movements took a more aggressive use of Bank Street than most other protests. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the oil prices escalated and fueled the recession. As a result, the number of workers joining the union declined due to the rise of unemployment and their fear of losing their jobs. Richard Louis Trumka, President of the United Mine Workers, believed that in this type of economy, it would be rewarding to “carry the union movement to the state capital, which he called a stronghold of anti-union sentiment.”[9] With the rise of capitalism, cooperation tried to maximize profit by cutting down cost, such as lower wage rate, reduced medical benefits or rigid work rules. The union thus played a critical role of representing and protecting the workers’ benefits. These mine workers knew that once the firm succeeded in ousting the union, the employer would try to pressure workers to accept their current working condition. Rusty Franklin, a United Mine Worker member, organized the demonstration and diverted at Capitol Police Officer’s attention so strikers could set up a tent on the grass. Doug Kelbaugh argues that “this spatial politics allows marginalized groups to create “spaces of representation” through which they can represent themselves to the wider public and insert themselves in the discourses of the bourgeois public sphere.”[10] Therefore, the resistance to dominant public space, which in this case was the grass at the Capitol, required these workers to use a more assertive method in order to claim the space to rally for their benefits.

A focus on spatial practices of different groups helps to describe the relationship between a common space and people who used it to express their perspectives. With its most recognized symbol-the Capitol Square-Bank Street became a critical location for protests in the city of Richmond. Regardless of how the protests ended, all these groups have succeeded in turning the public space into a tool that serves their purpose.


[1] Marie Tyler-McGraw, At the Falls: Richmond, Virginia and Its People. Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 185.

[2] Scribner Balboni, 3000 Hear Tributes at Capitol, Richmond Times Dispatch, April 8, 1968.

[3] Huge Moore, 2200 VSC Students Protest, Richmond Times Dispatch, December 18, 1969.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Equal Right Amendment. Last modified April 17, 2011, http://www.equalrightsamendment.org

[6] Estelle Jackson, $1000 is Raised for ERA, Richmond Times Dispatch, August 28, 1977

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Bill McKelway, 22Union Chiefs Arrested in Sit-in, Richmond Times Dispatch, August 24, 1989.

[10] Doug Kelbaugh, Repairing the American Metropolis: Common Place Revisited (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 6.

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