Protest Legacy in US History and 10 Proposal for Social Movements

Social justice protest offers an indispensable and even inspiring view of US history. At the same time, movements for social change must be placed within their historical and social context. In truth, activists often have to rely on middle-class alliances in and out of the political establishment while forging compromises, even unsavory ones, before achieving success.
David A. Horowitz
March 8, 2017

Here are five examples:

* the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement involved several former African American slaves, affluent white male and female reformers, white and black Protestant clergy, professional officeholders, as well as radical pacifists and advocates of violence who both opposed political activity. The war that ultimately freed the slaves was led by a president who opposed social equality and originally fixated on preserving the Union and enhancing free-market capitalism by keeping slavery out of the western territories. In the end, Lincoln addressed emancipation as a moral cause and laid the groundwork for the 13th Amendment, although full citizenship for southern blacks remained elusive for another century.

* the labor movement of the early twentieth century only began to win collective bargaining rights when the American Federation of Labor steered away from the violent class conflicts that had plagued the labor movement by choosing to work within the capitalist system. The Federation mainly tied demands for better wages and the eight-hour work day to skilled, native-born white workers and built alliances with middle-class reformers and politicians. Even the nominally socialist unions in the New York and Chicago garment trades depended upon the protection of elite women activists. Where such support was missing, as with the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), success was limited for a union targeted by government repression during World War I and the ensuing Red Scare.

* another Progressive era reform, national woman's suffrage, only succeeded when its leaders embraced an "insider's strategy" that abandoned confrontational tactics such as the disruption of Woodrow Wilson's first presidential inauguration. When affluent women volunteered to serve the country on the World War I home front, the male political establishment agreed to the 19th Amendment with the implicit understanding that educated Anglo-Protestant women would out-vote their ethnically diverse working-class sisters of the "slums."

* the industrial union movement of the late 1930s, marked by assembly line sit-downs by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), resulted in a consensus by which management maintained control of the shop floor and production priorities in return for wage and fringe benefits that allowed industrial workers to become respected partners in the American Way as consumers. The success of the campaign illustrates historian Jackson Lears's contention that in the United States, working people normally have preferred the abolition of scarcity to the abolition of capitalism.

* the nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1950s and early '60s that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 originated in a coalition of southern black clergy and their congregants, middle-class students from the region's historically African American colleges, leaders of the older civil rights organizations, and members of the rural black poor in conjunction with liberal white supporters in both North and South and conservative leaders concerned that the stains of racial prejudice were compromising the U.S. position in the Cold War.

Historians note how Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and much of the southern based movement espoused hallowed creeds of equality of opportunity and complemented national strains of messianic Protestantism and American Exceptionalism. For their part, white southern leaders had to decide whether the region would cling to its racial folkways and remain an economic backwater or modernize its social structure and enter the American mainstream. As a result, reformulating the South's archaic and brutal rules of exclusion posed no threat to national cohesion or widely shared social values.

The emergence of Black Power and the Black Panther Party in northern cities in the late Sixties was another matter. Although the Panthers served inner-city neighborhoods through breakfast programs for school children and free medical and dental clinics, black nationalist leaders learned to cultivate media attention by adopting revolutionary political postures, including violent rhetoric directed at local police. This tended to frighten older members of the community who normally served as the first line of defense for social activists and elicited a predictable response from law enforcement. By 1969, forty Black Panthers had been killed in FBI-coordinated confrontations with police. When coupled with the rioting that erupted in decaying inner-city communities in the late Sixties, the suggestion that African American aspirations could not be peacefully reconciled with the mainstream helped to fuel a white backlash invoking law and order and respect for authority evident in the rise of racially coded populist conservatives such as George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon.

The self-referential tendencies of radical identity politics would be moderated in subsequent years by the expansion of black office holding amid the gradual integration of Africans Americans into professional, business, military, and academic careers. At the same time, the Black Nationalist model carried over to assertions of Chicano Brown Power and Indian Red Power with marginal results. An American Indian Movement (AIM) protest over collusion between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a corrupt tribal government at South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation led to a 71- day standoff with federal officials in 1973 that resulted in the killing of two Native Americans and the paralysis of a U.S. marshal. Two years later, gunfire at the Oglala Reservation left two government agents dead and two life sentence murder convictions for AIM activist Leonard Peltier.

The difficulty of establishing a straight line between grass-roots protest and concrete social change may be best illustrated by the movement against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, a cause in which I participated as a young Portland State faculty member. The movement certainly was right in questioning the morality of a campaign that deployed overwhelming military firepower to squash a nationalist insurgency on a distant continent with huge civilian casualties. Critics from the political elite even argued that picturing the conflict as a symbolic test of national will created a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure if the effort to subdue "a third rate power" resulted in anything but total victory.

Yet the antiwar movement suffered from fundamental weaknesses. When marches, rallies, teach-ins, and draft-card protests seemed incapable of influencing public or elite opinion, elements of the activist community began to distrust democracy itself. Hedonistic counter-culture values, which encouraged a view of ordinary people as victims of a media-infused "false consciousness" of selfish individualism, emotional repression, and unthinking patriotism, also isolated the movement. Groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), moreover, saw Vietnam as an example of global imperialism designed to prop up the capitalist order against Third World insurgency. Despairing of genuine revolution in a country in which they had lost faith in the people, some radicals mythologized the Communist Viet Cong and other violent foreign movements as inspiring "agents of change."

At home, a commitment to action-oriented protest resulted in disruptions and mobilizations against police or military forces from Berkeley to the Pentagon, Madison to Columbia University, the Chicago Democratic Convention to Kent State, and even to the Portland State Park Blocks. Even as the cause attracted large numbers of moderates by 1969, SDS leaders talked of "bringing the war home" through disruptive tactics that would raise the costs of doing business as normal. Immersed in various degrees of anti-Americanism, some antiwar partisans excused or ignored the Weather Underground's campaign of bombings against installations deemed symbolic targets of American imperialism.

The tendency to view any accommodation with mainstream opinion as a form of "co-optation" actually may have complemented President Richard Nixon's strategies. Several scholars now suggest that Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were struggling to disengage from a costly and failing war. Accordingly, the president welcomed the opportunity to equate the protest movement with its most disruptive tactics.  This enabled him to disguise the appearance of "cutting and running" and convince his populist conservative base that only he was a reliable defender of the national interest.

If this was the strategy, it worked beautifully. If peace activists saw the Vietnam War as the symbol of an oppressive system, many Americans saw affluent youthful protesters as unpatriotic symbols of the country's moral decline. Polling showed that while high-school graduates supported immediate withdrawal to a greater degree than college graduates, they also opposed the antiwar movement in greater numbers. Nixon completed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam in January 1973 and announced the end of the draft two months later. Yet his presidency marked the start of a forty year period in which Republicans captured the White House seven out of ten times.

For me, the lessons of the historical struggle for social change suggest that political activity in a country with elected leaders must revolve around the sensibilities of ordinary people and relate to the broadest segments of national opinion. It is not enough to articulate a visionary path for the future or point to the system's inadequacies. Politics requires negotiation, compromise, and bargaining with a wide range of economic, political, and social interests and a set of goals addressed to the common interests of the nation, not just those comprising one's base. "We all go up or else we all go down," Franklin D. Roosevelt famously observed in 1937. The assumption that the everyone shares the particular sensibilities and values of one's reference group is a formula for political failure.

Change in democracies inevitably assumes incremental forms. Protest activism or support for third political parties based on the "aspirational returns" of self-gratification and personal affirmation rarely fits this model. In 2011 Occupy Wall Street directed justifiable rage at the financial system. Instead of leading to tangible results like voter mobilization, however, the movement dissipated into a series of confrontations over the right of masked anarchists and the homeless to take over public space.

Barack Obama addressed the subject of social change in a Howard University Commencement Address in May 2016. Awareness and passion are not enough to bring about structural transformation, the president declared. Lasting change, he insisted, requires the evolution of law and custom and concrete strategy. Noting that youth turnout amounted to 20 percent of eligible young voters in the 2014 midterms, Obama pleaded for the acceptance of compromise. "You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you," he insisted. "If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you're not going to get what you want.. I will take better every time."

Several months after the Occupy protest, I compiled a list of proposed principles for social action. They included specific and attainable goals beyond personal agendas, respect for those outside the movement, broad coalitions, accepting incremental change, and sustaining hope in future prospects.

As important as protest and collective assemblies can be in shaping public opinion and maintaining group morale, they are rarely sufficient without good lawyers, participation in the electoral process, and  goals that relate to the broader community. Several spokespersons for Black Lives Matter, for example, have emphasized how professional law enforcement by police who respect the communities they serve works to reduce crime, not increase it. Likewise, supporters of Standing Rock have argued that the Dakota pipeline interferes with a coherent national energy policy that would eliminate gratuitous redundancy and discourage environmental degradation. As the threat of mass deportations of Hispanics under the present administration demonstrates, there may be times when direct resistance cannot be avoided. Yet the recent mobilizations at congressional town meetings have once again shown the effectiveness of political organizing and an inclusive framework in the struggle for human rights.

[David A. Horowitz has taught American political and cultural history at Portland State University since 1968. His recent publications include America's Political Class under Fire: The 20th Century's Great Culture War (2003), The People's Voice: A Populist Cultural History of Modern America (2008), and a memoir entitled Getting There: An American Cultural Odyssey (2015). This commentary was presented at "Protest, Riots, and Social Movements," a panel discussion held at Portland State on March 1, 2017.]

March 24, 2017