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My Theory of Organizing and Social Change



In the comments to my Poor People’s Campaign post yesterday, JL asked:

Is there anything that you think could have moved the movement forward? I don’t mean in terms of labor’s participation, I mean in terms of what the involved people (who would be more in number with labor’s participation) could have done. Tactics. Effecting social change through a protest in DC, however well-done, seems like it would be really difficult to me, unless it was large enough to shut down the city. DC is used to protests. Though since it was a campaign I assume it wouldn’t have just been that one ongoing protest in one city if it had sustained, and protests in DC as part of a larger mass movement are a different case.

In terms of the Poor People’s Campaign, probably not. Like King’s 1966 housing campaign in Chicago, the times had changed. White liberals were turning away from supporting both economic and racial justice and the votes just weren’t there in Congress anymore. With Johnson fully focused on Vietnam, I don’t think there’s anything real that could have changed history. I mean, if a real progressive is the head of the AFL-CIO instead of George Meany and that person really committed the labor movement, maybe. But that’s getting into really crazy counterfactuals.

But this issue brings up a larger point about why movements succeed and why they don’t. And the answer, after 15 years of being a professional historian is that I have no idea. That’s perhaps a slight overstatement, after all, social movements follow larger societal shifts. But you just never know what is going to spark something. Why did Rosa Parks refusing to change seats on a bus spark the Montgomery movement in 1955 when many other African-Americans had done the same thing around the South in previous years? Why did the Stonewall Riot in 1969 do so much to create the gay rights movement after all these years of police and societal brutality against gays? Why did the Cuyahoga River catching on fire in 1969 help define the environmental movement when the 1952 fire did nothing? Why did Occupy flare up at that place and time and why did it change the way so many Americans think about economic inequality in the 21st century?

These are all difficult questions to answer. Some have no obvious answer. All you can do with social movements is try. You never know what might transform the world. Probably your movement won’t. But it might. And when it does, the earth truly shifts. All one can do is point out the injustice of the world and try to make it better. Maybe it catches a moment in society when enough everyday Americans find your movement resonates with them and calls for change grow. It’s happened before. It’ll happen again. But I’ll never know why it happens at particular times or why movement x makes a larger difference when movement y did not.

This may be unsatisfying and is probably not an answer a political scientist would give (also anyone who measures social movements using equations cannot be trusted), but I think “I don’t know because it’s really complicated” it’s the most honest answer any historian can give.

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