From school shootings to the ongoing fight for equality, activists have always been an important part of American history. Their actions impacted culture and displayed the power that citizens have to make a difference.
Reformer activists try to change society from within by using methods such as lobbying, referenda and rallies. Rebels, on the other hand, work outside of the system and challenge violations of shared values.
The Civil Rights Movement
During the middle of the 20th century, Black activists launched a nation-wide struggle to end discrimination and segregation. They sought equal rights for African Americans and other ethnic minorities and employed a variety of tactics such as boycotts, protest marches, sit-ins, freedom rides and lobbying to push for legislative action. Despite violence and intimidation, the movement succeeded in pushing for many civil rights laws and achieving some social reforms.
The most significant of these was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in employment and public accommodations and made it illegal for businesses to exclude minority customers. The success of the civil rights movement encouraged other groups who were repressed and denied equal opportunities to push for change. Groups such as gay and lesbians, women, Native Americans and people with disabilities drew inspiration from the African American movement and borrowed some of its strategies.
One of the most renowned and influential activists during this time was Martin Luther King Jr., who gave the famous speech, I Have a Dream, at the March on Washington in 1963. His leadership helped to bring the civil rights movement to its zenith and set in motion social changes that would shape America for decades.
By the early part of the 21st century, the social movement of Black Lives Matter had sprung up in response to a number of events, including police shootings of unarmed African Americans and the government’s reluctance to act on climate change. The movement was based on activism techniques that had been used in the past but gained new momentum thanks to advances in technology, the power of social media and a unique political climate.
Grassroots movements in the USA are more active than ever, with more Americans volunteering for issue campaigns or for candidates and donating to progressive causes. The current activism wave reflects the rise of anti-establishment sentiment and a distrust of big business and political institutions. Many of the movement’s ideas – such as universal health care, tuition-free college and requiring corporations to put workers and union members on their boards – would have been considered radical just a few years ago.
The Women’s Suffrage Movement
Many Americans have been taught to see the 19th Amendment as the end of a long women’s suffrage movement. But the exhibit at the National Archives offers a more encompassing perspective, revealing how women’s activism extended far beyond the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 to the passage of the amendment in 1920.
Suffrage activists learned from previous movements and developed a range of tactics to achieve their goals, including organizing boycotts, holding rallies, and engaging in civil disobedience. Their tactics demonstrated that nonviolent resistance, when combined with moral protest and sympathetic media coverage, could weaken the edifice of oppression.
For example, suffrage organizers realized that to build support for their cause, they needed to change the outlook of the people they were trying to affect. As a result, they tried to break down a culture that considered oppression natural and inevitable. In order to do this, they focused on making people aware of the injustices they endured and helped them develop cultures of resistance.
They also discovered that over-reliance on charismatic leaders made their movements vulnerable to attack. As such, they shifted to decentralized command structures. This lesson inspired activists of later social movements, from Occupy to BLM, to eschew centralized leadership and instead focus on the importance of collective action.
The exhibit also highlights the role of alliances in mobilization, showing how suffragists joined with reform and labor organizations to broaden their appeal. They dropped elitist, nativist rhetoric and emphasized arguments that linked political rights to economic justice for all classes of women. They formed coalitions with groups like the National Woman’s Party and other social-reform groups that could help gain support for their cause in Congress.
Ultimately, the women’s suffrage movement was successful in winning the vote for women by emphasizing their demand as both a fundamental right and a strategy for strengthening democracy. Today, women continue to use this argument to advocate for their own interests and promote gender equality in the workplace and society at large.
The exhibition at the National Archives demonstrates how the lessons of past social movements can inspire new ones, even in contemporary times. By focusing on the importance of collective action and building alliances, the exhibit shows how the civil rights movement’s strategies can be used by other marginalized groups to push for their own political and social justice.
The Occupy Movement
The Occupy Movement (OWS) raised an important set of issues around equity and democracy in a way that resonated with millions of Americans. However, OWS made a crucial mistake that ultimately undermined the movement’s impact. By rejecting institutional engagement in favor of a pure vision of direct democracy, OWS misread the nature of power and authority in modern society. It thereby missed the opportunity to develop an engaged democratic political movement capable of changing the course of American history.
OWS began in September 2011 with a week-long sit-in in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park—a space owned by Goldman Sachs. The movement framed its protests as a conflict between the ultra-wealthy 1% and the rest of America, which OWS argued had been left behind by financial institutions that prioritize greed over the interests of working people. The protesters’ chants became the catchphrase “We Are the 99%.”
Rather than turning to the state for assistance, as earlier protest movements had done—Anti-war groups staffed draft advice centers to counsel young men who faced conscription during the Vietnam War, Black Panthers opened schools and health clinics, and feminist groups ran birth control clinics—Occupiers instead set out to create their own institutions. In the process, they reverted to the insular ideological politics that characterized the movement’s beginnings and kept it from becoming a powerful force for social change.
In spite of its limitations, OWS played an important role in putting economic inequality front and center of contemporary political discourse. Some credit the movement with inspiring the recent “Fight for $15” campaign to raise the minimum wage and creating a climate that helped fuel the rise of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary.
Moreover, OWS was critical in bringing to light the many ways in which the American public has long been disenfranchised by institutional racism—the legacy of centuries of discriminatory laws and policies. This was demonstrated by the rage that erupted after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man shot to death by police officers responding to a reported burglary at a convenience store in Ferguson, Missouri.
The Black Lives Matter Movement
The Black Lives Matter movement sprung out of a series of high-profile deaths of unarmed African-American youth by law enforcement officers. Its activists are seeking a sweeping change in policing practices across the country, as well as broader social and economic changes that address persistent racism in America. The movement has expanded into a global network and has inspired similar movements in other countries.
Activists from diverse backgrounds have joined in protesting racial injustice, using non-violent tactics, such as organized demonstrations, boycotts and sit-ins. They have urged government officials to take steps to correct discriminatory policies, and have worked together to support their cause. They have also formed organizations to support and organize their efforts, including the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was founded by Ella Baker in 1957. She recognized that students were the best-positioned group to engage in civil disobedience because of their idealism and discretionary time. The organization would later inspire the Little Rock Nine to integrate a school in 1957 and students at Greensboro Woolworth’s to stage sit-ins in the 1960s.
The name “Black Lives Matter” originated as a Facebook post by activist Alicia Garza after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Garza’s friend and co-founder of BLM, Patrisse Cullors, repurposed the phrase as the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and promoted it to generate public protests after Zimmerman’s verdict. The hashtag became widely used, and it is now an international movement with local chapters in cities around the country.
Despite its broad appeal, BLM has not achieved all of its policy-based goals. For example, the movement has aimed to defund police forces and instead use those funds to help marginalized communities. But the demand has met with resistance from many governments, citing the need for armed security and the protection of property.
Support for the movement has fluctuated, according to polls. It soared during the summer protests in response to the George Floyd killing, but has since fallen slightly, although it remains higher than at any other point in history. White Americans have tended to support the movement less than their black counterparts.