Social Movements: How People Make History

By Peter Dreier

Back in 1900, people who called for women’s suffrage, laws protecting the environment and consumers, an end to lynching, the right of workers to form unions, a progressive income tax, a federal minimum wage, old-age insurance, dismantling of Jim Crow laws, the eight-hour workday, and government-subsidized health care and housing were considered impractical idealists, utopian dreamers, or dangerous socialists. Now we take these ideas for granted. The radical ideas of one generation have become the common sense of the next.

How did this happen?

Social movements transformed these (and many other) radical ideas from the margins to the mainstream, and from polemics to policy.   The 20th century is a remarkable story of progressive accomplishments against overwhelming odds. But it is not a tale of steady progress. At best, it is a chronicle of taking two steps forward, then one step backward, then two more steps forward. The successful battles and social improvements came about in fits and starts. When pathbreaking laws are passed–such as the Nineteenth Amendment (which granted women suffrage in 1920), the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (which created the minimum wage), the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which outlawed many forms of racial discrimination), and the Clean Air Act of 1970–we often forget that those milestones took decades of work by activists, thinkers, and politicians.

Each generation of Americans faces a different set of economic, political, and social conditions. There are no easy formulas for challenging injustice and promoting democracy. But unless we know this history, we will have little understanding of how far we have come, how we got here, and what still needs to change to make America (and the rest of the world) more livable, humane, and democratic.

I’ve been teaching about social movements, as well as  about community organizing, for over 30 years.  My movements course explores the history, sociology, and politics of America’s struggles for social justice. The organizing class puts more emphasis on “how to” aspects of fighting for social change. The bottom line for both courses is to encourage students to see themselves as potential history-makers, by learning from the past and learning the skills and analytic tools to help mobilize people for action now and in the future. In terms of whether to be “value free,” I follow C. Wright Mills’ dictum:  “I have tried to be objective,” he wrote. “I do not claim to be detached.”

Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, once said:

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

Douglass’ words articulate the basic theme of my movements class.  Throughout human history, people have organized social movements to try to improve their lives and the society in which they lived. Powerful groups and institutions have generally resisted these efforts in order to maintain their own privilege, although there are always people from privileged backgrounds who join forces with the oppressed. How did these movements come about?  What did they do to force society’s elites to compromise and enact reforms? What did these movements accomplish in terms of improving people’s day-to-day lives?

Most sociologists believe that structural conditions make movements more or less likely.  They argue, in everyday parlance, that sometimes the “time was ripe” for movements to emerge, to grow, and to bring about change. That’s what Carl Oglesby, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, meant when he observed,  “It isn’t the rebels who cause the troubles of the world; it’s the troubles that cause the rebels.”

But it is also true, as Oglesby and all other activists understand, that human beings are actors in their own history. They don’t wait for the time to be ripe. Instead, they “ripen the time.”

That’s what  Karl Marx meant when he wrote:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.  (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852).

My movements course focuses on the connection between social conditions and human agency.  It looks specifically at 20th century America, although I always bring the course up-to-date with readings, films, and discussions about contemporary struggles for justice.  Students always seem to be more excited about the course – and receptive to seeing themselves as activists and history-makers – when there are vibrant movements in the news.  The 2008 Obama campaign, the recent campus-based anti-sweatshop crusades,  the battles in California and elsewhere over same-sex marriage, and the Occupy movement help students link past and present.

Most students come to college woefully uninformed or miseducated about American history.  So it is always necessary to provide students with the historical context in order to understand why and how protest movements emerged. My course looks at the Populist (farmers) revolt, the labor movement, the women’s suffrage movement and later waves of feminism, the civil rights movement (starting in the early 1900s), movements against militarism and war, student activism, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement, the consumer movement, and various strands of community organizing, beginning with the settlement house, through Alinskyism, and more recent activism by groups like ACORN and National Peoples Action.  After a quick overview of some key concepts – like leadership, mobilization, and strategy – the course proceeds chronologically, looking at the key movements in each major period of the 20th century.

For each movement, we examine the major social, economic, and political conditions that led people to feel oppressed, angry, frustrated, and/or hopeful enough to try to bring about change.  I want students to consider why, as Frederick Douglas understood, people often endure a great deal of suffering and humiliation before they resist and rebel. Do they think that their situation is inevitable and thus not worth trying to change?  Do they fear reprisal for any hint of resistance (for example, getting fired if they participate in a union organizing campaign)? Do they lack the knowledge to understand what changes are possible or lack the skills to identify and challenge those who have power over them?

Then, something happens to alter these calculations. What was happening in the society that catalyzed a significant number of people to change their daily routines and participate in some form of activism?  What specific events triggered people to organize?

But finding the will to organize doesn’t guarantee that they will do so successfully. So we also ask: What sources of power are available to disadvantaged people? What strategies and tactics do movements employ? How important are strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, sit-ins, music, and the mass media? What is the relationship of protest movements to conventional politics — elections, political parties, voting, lobbying, and so on?  How do activists and movements balance the tension between being outsiders and insiders? That was a question that Martin Luther King explored in his famous  “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of the readings I always incorporate into my course.

Social movements are about mobilizing people for action, so the course examines the internal dynamics of movements. To get at this question, we explore the different ways that people are recruited to action and how they participate in movements.  Every movement has a division of labor. There are organizers, leaders, and rank-and-file activists as well as the many kinds of supporters and allies – writers, journalists, musicians and singers, artists, intellectuals, clergy, lawyers, politicians, and others. How does this happen?

All successful movements require organizations, large and small,  to carry out that division of labor.  So we look at specific groups — such as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Hull House, the National Consumers League, the Highlander Center, the NAACP, the Catholic Worker,  United Auto Workers, the Women’s Trade Union League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Mattachine Society, the Sierra Club, the War Resisters League, the Women’s Party, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation – to explore what roles they played in different movements.

But how do these organization emerge and sustain themselves?  To answer that question,  we look at  how movement groups (particularly movements among poor people) find the resources to keep going — to pay staff and rent, produce leaflets and newsletters, attend national meetings, find lawyers to file law suits, hire researchers to do studies, etc.?

Ultimately, movements are about real people making choices about how to use their time, talents, and resources.  To get at that human dimension, we read short biographies of different movement participants, particularly the most important leaders and activists during the 20th century.  We explore their “life and times” – not only who they were as people, what motivated them, and how they expressed their commitment to social change, but also the roles they played in the great movements and organizations that made this a better society.

Like all collections of human beings, people engaged in movement-building don’t always agree about what to do. What happens when different organizations or groups within the same social movement disagree over strategy, tactics, or goals? When are such differences useful and when do they undermine a movement’s effectiveness? Every movement faces this dilemma.

I ask students to put themselves in the shoes of movement activists who had to deal with real dilemmas. For example, if they were in Robert Moses’ or Fannie Lou Hamer’s shoes in Atlantic City in 1964, would they — as leaders of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party — have accepted the compromise offered by President Johnson (and supported by Martin Luther King and Walter Reuther) to get two seats in the otherwise segregated Mississippi delegation?  Would they have seen this as a stepping stone victory that they could build on in the future, or would they see it as a  sell-out, a crumb from the Democratic establishment to co-opt the civil rights movement?

Understanding social movements requires an analysis of the battle over interests and ideas. All movements face opposition from political and/or corporate elites, grassroots counter-movements, or both. Movements win victories when they can take advantage of their opposition’s weaknesses.  So, like movement organizers and strategists, we spend time in the course evaluating what resources the opposition had, how cohesive it was, and where it was vulnerable to challenge – at least vulnerable enough to have to negotiate and compromise.

Movements are usually more successful when they can persuade a significant slice of the public that their cause is just and should be supported.  Thus, they have to engage in the battle of ideas to influence public opinion.  I ask students to consider each movement’s key ideas and think about how activists sought to appeal to a wider audience – how, in contemporary parlance, movements “framed” their goals and demands to gain the moral high ground.

The course also explores each movement’s internal culture — music, leaflets, speakers, religion, slogans, and other elements. How do they get people to participate in efforts that may not succeed and/or may take a long time to win?

We also examine the age-old question: reform or revolution? (Or, more pragmatically, what Andre Gorz called “non-reformist reforms”). How important is “reform” — pressing for short-term gains (such as the Equal Rights Amendment or a shutdown of a nuclear power plant) — in achieving longer-run changes?

Finally, what does “success” mean for a protest movement? For example, was the antiwar movement “successful” when the VietNam war ended, even though the degree of U.S. militarism did not significantly decline? Why are some movements successful and others not? How important are such factors as: the numbers of people; use of violent or non-violent tactics; the scope of goals (it is easier to win if you don’t ask for much); the strength of the opposition? How do people’s everyday lives and routines change as they participate in social movements? How do people’s lives change when (and if) movements are successful? In other words, do social protest movements really make a difference in achieving more social justice?

I never teach the course exactly the same way twice, but I always add a weekly film series (both documentaries and Hollywood films), shown at night and open  to the wider community, as well as the twice-a-week class sessions. For readings, I pull together lots of articles from books, journals, magazines, and newspapers and rely on a variety of different books.  Old stand-bys include Piven and Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements, Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, and Morais and Boyer’s Labor’s Untold Story.  Students also have to read two biographies or autobiographies of American radicals and reformers. I usually give them a list of about 100 books to choose from.  And I occasionally use novels – like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Jack London’s Iron Heal, Meredith Tax’s Union Square, and Rosellen Brown’s Civil Wars.

This year, for the first time, I’m using my own book.  After teaching this course for more than three decades, I decided that students needed to know more about the great leaders who propelled the major movements of the past century.  Toward that end, I wrote The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012) to celebrate achievements of the people and movements that have made America a more humane, inclusive, and democratic country.  I also wanted to provoke debate and controversy by encouraging readers to think about how progressive movements often beat the odds and bring about significant and lasting change.

We stand on the shoulders of earlier generations of reformers, radicals, and idealists who challenged the status quo of their day. They helped change America by organizing movements, pushing for radical reforms, popularizing progressive ideas, and spurring others to action.  The book includes an historical introduction, a timeline, and profiles of 100 people, including such figures as Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, Florence Kelly, Robert La Follette, Charlotte Perkins Gilman,  John Dewey, Big Bill Haywood, Rose Schneiderman, W.E.B. DuBois,  Frances Perkins, Lewis Hine, A.J. Muste,  Alice Paul, A. Philip Randolph, Dorothy Day, FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss),  Fiorello LaGuardia, Henry Wallace, Myles Horton, Rachel Carson,  Walter Reuther, Thurgood Marshall, Bayard Rustin, Woody Guthrie, Cesar Chavez,  Barry Commoner, Ella Baker,  Jackie Robinson, Bella Abzug,  Malcolm X,  Michael Harrington, Pete Seeger,  Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk,  Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, Tom Hayden, John Lewis,  Billie Jean King, Bruce Springsteen, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Michael Moore.

Of course, the story doesn’t end in 2000. In the last dozen years, grassroots movements have continued to push and pull America in a positive direction, often against difficult odds. The story of progressive change is a continuing one. That’s why my book – and my course — includes final segment that introduces a few young activists who are strong candidates to make the Social Justice Hall of Fame for the 21st century.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Pedagogy of Social Movements

17 responses to “Social Movements: How People Make History

  1. Pingback: Social Movements: How People Make History | Learning Change

  2. Pingback: Action for Change I: Social Movements | politicsstudent14

  3. calvin kangara

    how can i join your course.


  4. Pingback: About change and why it is possible… | Los muchos caminos

  5. Pingback: About change and why it is possible… | Bitácoras Cubanas

  6. Pingback: How many COP’s do we need to find a solution? - IYNF – International Young Naturefriends

  7. Pingback: COP21: CLIMATE BUS - Registrations are open! - IYNF - International Young Naturefriends - IYNF – International Young Naturefriends

  8. Pingback: Social Movements: Do People Make History? | ellawilliamson97

  9. David Pantalone

    This article could be the basis of an update that talks about the current Democratic Presidential Campaign between Sanders and Clinton and the associated debate about what kind of a leader (President) would be most successful in the long run in producing the kind of social change that Sanders talks about.


  10. Pingback: Part 5: Call to Action – displaced by the state

  11. Pingback: Mobilize | Developments

  12. E

    One of the great social movements that peaked during the late 19th century was started by the American newspaper editor and political economist Henry George. Beginning in 1997 I began a project to document the history of this movement and established an online research and educational project: the School of Cooperative Individualism ( A section of the project is a “Biographical History of the Georgist Movement” which provides biographical information on thousands of people who in some way were involved with this social movement. Persons are grouped by their country of residence, listed alphabetically. Many of their writings have been resurrected from movement periodicals and other sources.


  13. One of the great social movements that peaked during the late 19th century was started by the American newspaper editor and political economist Henry George. Beginning in 1997 I began a project to document the history of this movement and established an online research and educational project: the School of Cooperative Individualism ( A section of the project is a “Biographical History of the Georgist Movement” which provides biographical information on thousands of people who in some way were involved with this social movement. Persons are grouped by their country of residence, listed alphabetically. Many of their writings have been resurrected from movement periodicals and other sources.


  14. Pingback: Blog #2 – Resistance Strategies in American History

  15. Pingback: 7/6 The Draft/Outline – Marcus Lane Jr.

  16. Pingback: 8/8 Unit 3 Reflection – Marcus Lane Jr.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s