Human Rights Column: A Progressive Movement in the United States: Is it Possible?

July 1, 2018
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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Matthew Ahmann at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Photo Rowland Scherman. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Matthew Ahmann at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Photo Rowland Scherman. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain.

Since the inauguration of Donald Trump as President, a number of action-based movements in the United States have emerged Can these largely single-issue movements coalesce into a more unified progressive and democratic movement? There are important lessons from the past that can help progressives today build a successful movement for social change.

Since the inauguration of Donald Trump as President, a number of action-based movements in the United States have emerged in opposition to both Trump’s policies and the behavior and attitudes he represents. Each outrageous “Trumpian” tweet intended to energize his rightwing base enflames the anti-Trump majority and crowds at anti-Trump protests and marches continue to grow. All of the protests reflect a commitment to human rights and social change.

The Women’s movement inspired a counter-inauguration march in Washington DC that drew far more participants than Trump’s actual inauguration. Since then the Women’s movement has expanded with intensified opposition to sexual harassment through #MeToo campaigns. Pro-immigrant, pro-DACA, activists organize protests and “sanctuary” safe havens to protect undocumented immigrants targeted by the Trump Administration. Black Lives Matter picked up steam as activists protested against statues and public places that commemorate racists and fictionalized history that absolves the Confederacy and segregationists of responsibility for the Civil War and post-war terrorism against Black people. Unfortunately, the protests were also fueled by continued police violence against young Black men. After the gun massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida killed seventeen students and staff members, students from the school launched a massive anti-gun violence, pro-gun control campaign that continues to sweep through the country with the slogan “Enough is Enough.”

Yet questions for progressives remain. Can these largely single-issue movements coalesce into a more unified progressive and democratic movement? Will they demand more fundamental political change in the United States, perhaps take-over the Democratic Party? Or will they be coopted by the party’s mildly reformist technocratic wing? And will they be strong enough to counter powerful ethno-nationalists (perhaps crypto-fascists) financed by super-wealthy rightwing capitalists—a Republican Party coalition that currently controls all three branches of the federal government as well as most state governments in the United States and is committed to systematically suppressing voting by African Americans, immigrants, and college students?


Will the new movements be coopted by the Democratic Party’s reformist technocratic wing?


There were a number of positive signs for progressives at the rallies held on March 24 against gun violence and for gun control. The movement galvanized young people, as well as parents and teachers, across the social and economic spectrum. At the Washington rally, speakers included suburban survivors of mass school shootings as well as survivors of inner-city gun violence. Student leaders and adult supporters recognized the importance of ongoing political organizing. In fact, the students are flying around the country speaking with local groups and stressing voter registration and voting into office pro-gun control candidates in the 2018 mid-term elections. At the same time, mainstream Democrats are looking to recruit conservative “Blue-dog” candidates to run in primaries and elections in swing districts, hoping to take control of the House of Representatives and put a brake on the Trump agenda. But they are promising little substantive change.

Student lie-in at the White House to protest gun laws. Feb. 19, 2018. Photo Lorie Shaull. CC-BY-S.A. 2.0.

Student lie-in at the White House to protest gun laws. Feb. 19, 2018. Photo Lorie Shaull. CC-BY-S.A. 2.0.

As a historian, I write about American social movements, including the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement, the labor movement between the wars, the African American Civil Rights movement, and anti-Vietnam protests. There are important lessons from the past that can help progressives today build a successful movement for social change:

1. After long periods of marginalization and infighting, social movements can rapidly move from the political margins to the center. This happened with abolitionists who were politically isolated in the 1830s, 1840s, and for much of the 1850s, but whose anti-slavery position came to the center of national attention when a panicked South attempted to secede from the Union.

2. Successful social movements have to move beyond mass protest to establish organizations and institutions that carry on struggles for change and sustain activists during lulls between the storms. Looking at the African American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, we see a time gap between the campaign to desegregate the Montgomery, Alabama buses that first brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to national prominence and the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama actions that precipitated the March on Washington and led to federal civil rights legislation. During that period, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SNCC, the Urban League, and CORE kept up constant pressure for legislative and social change. If a progressive movement is going to succeed today, it will have to build similar organizations.


To be successful, social movements have to move beyond mass protest


3. Young people frequently play an important role in social movements. At Birmingham, Alabama the Children’s Crusade drew national attention to the Civil Rights campaign. High school and college students were the shock troops—and often the leaders—of the anti-Vietnam War and women’s rights movement. High school students also helped bring down apartheid in South Africa, starting with the 1976 Soweto protests against mandatory school instruction in Afrikaans.

4. Successful movements combine the personal and the political. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1851 meant that Northerners who thought they had no connection to Southern slavery had to decide whether they would report, capture, and help return to slavery neighbors, coworkers, and members of their church congregation. The threat of the military draft contributed to the rapid growth of the anti-war movement in the 1960s. Reproductive freedom was a crucial component of women’s rights campaigns.

5. There is a difficult balancing act between factionalism and cooptation. As the American labor movement expanded in the 1930s and 1940s, leftists often suppressed more radical demands in order to be part of organizing drives. Business unionists remained in charge of most international unions and drove leftists out of union roles during the Cold War, retaining control of union bureaucracies and acting as junior partners—as it turned out, temporarily—in expansive American capitalism.

6. Every social movement needs catchy songs and slogans. At the March 24 Washington DC rally, Jennifer Hudson and a DC choir sang an updated version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changing.” Let’s hope they are and that “Enough is Enough.”

Alan Singer is a historian and Professor of Education at Hofstra University.

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