Mass Movements & Social Revolution

Bruce Hartford, 2024

A Movement of "We The People"

In 1857, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney ruled that, "A negro of the African race had no rights which a white man was bound to respect." For more than a century thereafter, Taney's edict was the governing principle of both the Southern Way of Life and the American Way of Life. The Freedom Movement of the 1950s-1960s was a social revolution that fundamentally altered and upended the Jim Crow system — though as we well know, racism and racial hatred remain actively present in our society to this day.

The Freedom Movement was, above all, a mass peoples' movement, people coming together to make history for themselves. What was most fundamental and profound about that up-from-below struggle was the central role played by women and men, young and old — mostly Black but including some of all colors and religions — transforming their own lives for themselves through extraordinary courage.

The Civil Rights Movement focused on segregation and voting, but at root it was about overthrowing the entire system of feudal oppression, economic exploitation, and social subjugation that had replaced slavery after the Civil War. Which is why our songs and chants were, "Freedom Now!" not, "civil rights now."

Like other social justice movements of the past, the Civil Rights Movement showed that people can create political power out of their innate sense of justice, indignation, courage, and the inspiration of standing together in a common cause. A kind of mass People Power that has fundamentally altered the course of history and the face of society time and time again.

Small Groups & Mass Movements

The Freedom Movement of the 1960s taught me that the goal and purpose of organizing and protesting was to win some real change — not just to vent, act out, or seek the limelight.

Margaret Mead once famously observed, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." The Civil Rights Movement proved her correct — but only so long as we add that those small groups eventually had to win mass support for their ideas. In other words, they had to evolve into or join a broad peoples movement.

Small groups who alienate, frighten, or enrage the people whose support they need do NOT change the world. Which is why explicitly nonviolent tactics proved so much more effective than rhetoric of hate and acts of violence or vandalism.

The Necessity of Political Power

From the Civil Rights Movement I came to understand that however satisfying moral righteousness and intellectual analyses are, without political power they accomplish nothing in terms of making real changes in peoples lives. Actual change requires political power to both achieve that change — and then maintain it and enforce it over time.

In this context, political power means the ability to change — or maintain — some aspect of government policy, the economic system, or social society. When boiled down to its essence, there are three sources of political power — violence, money, and people. Our government, corporate, and individual adversaries have far greater access to money-power and violence-power than do "We the People." Our strength is People Power, which requires more than just a small group, it requires a mass movement.

So it's the responsibility of Mead's small groups to inspire, educate, organize, and mobilize people into large-scale political action — both in the streets and at the ballot box.

United We Stand, Divided We Fail

For two years in the late 1970s, I blundered into what can best be described as a Marxist-Leninist cult. An experience that soured me on the Far Left forevermore. But even a broken clock is correct twice a day and one Maoist principle remains valid for me — Unite everyone who can be united around the most important issue and against the main foe. Which means building coalitions and alliances with people whose analyses and interpretation of issues may not be identical to mine, and with people who may disagree with me on other matters.

When I was a campus SDS activist, all too often we treated those who did not agree with us on every single point as if they were evil enemies who needed to be reeducated or humiliated or squashed. When that was our attitude and approach we united almost everyone against our small faction of self-righteous true-believers.

The Freedom Movement, however, united the Black community and progressives of all races around ending Jim Crow segregation and winning voting rights for nonwhite Americans. It united people around those key issues regardless of their differences on economic systems, foreign policy, abortion, religion, and other contentious matters. And for the most part, it managed to unite people who advocated widely divergent strategies and tactics, ranging from the judicial and legislative remedies of the NAACP, to the direct action protests of SCLC & CORE, and the community organizing focus of SNCC.

We fiercely argued and endlessly debated strategies and tactics with each other — not always with love, sometimes with rage and bitterness — but for the most part we remained allies rather than enemies. And at the end of the day, we realized that the movement and the cause required a variety of viewpoints & strategies, and a range of nonviolent tactics & methods. And time and time again we confirmed that violent tactics and rhetoric weakened our movement and sabotaged our effectiveness. Violence may be as "American as apple pie," but so too is police/judicial repression/suppression of those who dare challenge the status quo — tactical nonviolence proved to be at least a partial shield against state violence.

And we also discovered that when two groups of dedicated and experienced activists disagree over strategy or tactics, in most cases both are right and both things need to be done. When SNCC almost split over direct action versus voter registration Ella Baker counseled "Do Both." And it turned out that voter registration was a form of protest, and that nonviolent street action by those too young to vote inspired their elders to publicly defy white-supremacy by daring to demand the ballot.

Organizing for Political Power

From the struggles of the 1960s I learned that mass movements have to be organized — not just mobilized. And that organizing requires one-on-one and small-group conversations with people who are not yet supporters or allies. Conversations that start with what those whom we are talking to think is important and where they are at. Social media can mobilize the choir, but it cannot substitute for personal human interaction.

The purpose of conversations, meetings, speeches, articles, and political demands is to motivate people to take political action. Showing off how bold, radical or revolutionary we are, or signaling our personal virtue, influences only those who already agree with us. And guilting, shaming, and intimidating people may win short term influence for the person who shouts the loudest, but in the long term such methods weaken rather than build mass movements.

And arguing for the maximum possible position often isolates maximalists from those they need the most. After Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955, Black leaders initially called for a one-day bus boycott asking for a more humane form of segregation. Not because they didn't want to totally eliminate bus segregation, but because they knew what their community was — and was not — ready to undertake. It was only the overwhelming success of that first day of boycott that created the necessary foundation for the bitter, year-long struggle that ended bus segregation entirely.


The Civil Rights Movement convinced me that leadership is necessary. Leadership might be overt or covert, individual or collective, but whenever two or more people are doing something together, someone is exercising leadership or nothing is accomplished. And the movement showed me that there were alternatives to egotistic, look at me, I'm the bigshot, do what I tell you, types of leaders. In the Freedom Movement we saw how real leaders lead by action and example, not rhetoric, not command, and not titles or position.

The movement slogan, "Mr. Say Ain't Nothing, Mr. Do's the Man," encapsulates the essence of real leadership.

In the Freedom Movement, status and leadership was — for the most part — based on someone's success (or lack thereof) at organizing and leading real people to do real things that affected lives. And for young activists, it came from a willingness to "put your body on the line," and enduring the consequences that followed.

But when I left the South for the anti-war movement and campus SDS activism, I encountered political cultures where status and leadership were based on organizational politicking and what someone wrote or spoke, rather than what they did or accomplished. Political cultures where militant rhetoric, fiery speeches, and "revolutionary" posturing counted for more than actually effecting some real change. It took me far too long to realize that wasn't leadership at all, it was just a form of self-promotion.

Social Change is an Art, Not a Science

It was in the Civil Rights Movement that I learned the necessity of serious analysis, careful planning, and effective strategizing. The student sit-ins that swept across the South in 1960 seemed to appear out of nowhere like a surprise thunderclap. But they were actually the product of deep thought and stealthy organizing. Yes, cathartic protests can be called and held on a moment's notice, but unless they are tied to a consistent, longer-term strategy and use tactics designed to advance that strategy, they have little long-term effect.

Contrary to the beliefs of ideologists, there are no instruction manuals for achieving political reform, nor are there easy how-to pamphlets. More often than not, effective political strategies, organizing methods, and protest tactics arise organically out of the community and the circumstances that people in action encounter rather than through academic study of political theory books.

Social struggle is like water flowing to the sea. If something dams the water, it goes around. If it can't go around, it goes over, if it can't go over, it goes under, if it can't go around or over or under, it eats away at the blockage until it dissolves. It's a Darwinian process — you try something. If it works do it more. If it fails, try something else. That which succeeds survives and thrives. That which fails becomes a stagnant political backwater.

Diversity of Tactics

The Freedom Movement of the 1960s was a mass movement. So too were the labor movement of the 1930s, the 70-year-long Woman Suffrage Movement, and the Abolition Movement of the 1800s. Powerful and effective mass movements are composed of allies using different — but mutually-supporting — strategies and tactics. In the Civil Rights Movement some organizations and individuals engaged in legislative lobbying and judicial litigation, some put their bodies on the line in nonviolent direct action protests, some dedicated themselves to voter registration and deep community organizing, some fed and sheltered activists, and some protected communities from terrorist violence. All were necessary.

This broad approach to building an effective mass movement can be thought of as "Diversity of Tactics."

But true diversity of tactics rests on a foundation of shared goals and mutual respect. When a thousand nonviolent marchers are denouncing police racism and demanding changes in the justice system, but 50 provocateurs in their midst are throwing bottles at the cops and setting trash fires because they believe that doing so will somehow overthrow all forms of government and create some kind of theoretical anarchy, that's not a shared goal. And it's not Diversity of Tactics — it's hijacking plain and simple. Such hijacking is destructive because people will not participate in a demonstration if they believe their message is going to be sabotaged by a small number of provocateurs with whom they profoundly disagree.

Even if the end goals are identical, hijacking someone else's meeting, rally, or protest with behavior and tactics that they abhor is not Diversity of Tactics because real diversity would be separate actions at different times and places each using their preferred tactics.

The First Amendment guarantees us freedom of speech — the right to say whatever we want to say. It also guarantees us the right not be forced to say something we don't want to say. That's why we can't be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or pray to gods we do not believe in. A protest is a form of speech, it's a living message, and the tactics and methods of the protest are integral components of that message. So those who call for a nonviolent protest have a legal, moral, and political right to insist that their message not be hijacked by violent provocateurs. And if necessary, they must also have the political courage to expel saboteurs from their ranks.


Two of my favorite slogans from back in the day:

Some Simple Concepts

These simple concepts — which I wish I had understood earlier — are copied and adapted from the writings of Jonathan Smucker:

© Bruce Hartford

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