Current Events and Philanthropy / Philanthropy and Historical Research / Philanthropy and Inequality

Seven Lessons from History about How to Make Protest Work

Editors’ Note: Many Americans are anxious about Donald Trump’s presidency, and particularly Trump’s disparaging language and treatment of immigrants, Muslims, Hispanics, African Americans, women, the press, the judicial system, among other individuals and key institutions of American democratic life. They subsequently have wondered what role, if any, they can play in defending democratic values and principles in the United States. Reflecting on her own and colleagues’ work on the history of collective action, Tomiko Brown-Nagin advises today’s protestors to strengthen and enrich civil society, respect diversity, and gain the support of foundations, social entrepreneurs, political parties, and think tanks without compromising their independence

The near-daily protests that have occurred nationwide since the election of Donald Trump have captivated Americans—journalists, politicians, academics and everyday people, alike. Powerfully diverse and impressive in scope, the protests have created community and optimism during a presidential administration defined, many think, by a divisive and dystopian worldview. The new civic activism and the unusual circumstances in which it has arisen have created new political and social opportunities.

But what do the activists hope to make of the political opening that has emerged? Do they want to resist the Trump administration through their mere presence on the streets? Or do the activists aspire to become a full-fledged movement for change, akin to the black freedom struggle, the women’s liberation movement or the gay rights crusade?

If activists wish to transform from an assemblage of protesters to a protest movement, my own and others’ scholarship on collective action offers invaluable lessons about how to proceed. Following are seven takeaways from history about how aggrieved people can join and demand solutions to society’s ills. In essence, activists will need to grow and strengthen civil society and respect diversity. While maintaining their independence, protestors also will need to gain support from social entrepreneurs, foundations, political parties, and think tanks.

  1. Organize. The people who have gathered on the National Mall, at airports and in the streets of cities and hamlets across the country have made speeches and held signs protesting policies that they deplore. While important, speeches and signs are not enough to make change. If protesters hope to build a change movement, the civil sector must grow: to advance a change agenda, activists must form voluntary organizations or collaborate with pre-existing ones. History provides numerous examples of how aggrieved people can coalesce in formal structures to seek change. Several major organizations emerged during the black freedom struggle—the archetypal social movement—to pursue participants’ objectives through specialized functions: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed civil rights lawsuits; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) practiced non-violent civil disobedience; the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) prioritized community organizing; the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) desegregated public facilities through “Freedom Rides;” and the Urban League sought equal employment opportunities. These organizations, complete with mission statements, policies and procedures, helped to channel the desires of the populace for change into productive directions. Similar organizational forms are necessary today if protesters want to methodically engage politics, influence public opinion and shape policy.
  2. Define Purposes and Goals of Advocacy. To attract supporters and become effective advocates for change, a protest organization needs to define its purposes and articulate goals of advocacy. Current activists can study the mission statements of well-known social change organizations (such as the SNCC, the National Organization for Women, the NAACP and Human Rights Watch, among other groups), for relevant examples, and then develop their own statements to guide their organizations’ structures and programs.
  3. Devise and Deploy Innovative Tactics. Protest movements need to adopt innovative tactics and repertoires to attract supporters, dramatize social problems, and influence society. Movements turn to marches, rallies, sit-ins, boycotts, petitioning, lobbying, teach-ins, sloganeering, encampments, community organizing, die-ins, symbols, hunger strikes, lawsuits and protest literature, films and songs to achieve their objectives. Each tactic confers benefits and exacts costs. It is therefore essential for activists to carefully choose tactics and repertories appropriate to their objectives. Many movements have successfully done so. The Black Lives Matter movement brilliantly deployed the die-in as a tactic to dramatize injustice and force observers to bear witness to the life and death consequences of police killings of unarmed black men and women. The civil rights movement used protest songs such as Mahalia Jackson’s “We Shall Overcome,” Sam Cooke’s “Change Gonna Come,” and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” to indict injustice and to build community among movement participants. Petitions by Color of Change have raised awareness of numerous social injustices and catalyzed campaigns for change. Current activists can deploy not just one, but an array of these tactics to pursue their goals.
  4. Define, Control and Disseminate Narratives. Protest movements tell their own stories and preserve their own history. In an era of “alternative facts” and war against the free press, it is especially vital for protesters to define, control and disseminate narratives. They can do so through newsletters, social media, literature, the arts, and the creation and preservation of records and artifacts. Narratives should explain movement objectives and tactics, rebut falsehoods and otherwise serve as a medium for communicating to participants, observers and posterity. Consider anti-slavery newspapers such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, reportage on lynching, discrimination and civil rights activism by black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender during the era of segregation, Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, SNCC’s newsletter, The Student Voice, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique as examples of narrative definition and dissemination.
  5. Strategically Collaborate with Political Parties. In the wake of nationwide anti-Trump protests, numerous commentators have zeroed in on a single question: are the protests good for the Democratic Party? To be sure, the activism may create a favorable environment for Democrats. But the zero-sum dynamics of partisan politics is too narrow a framework in which to view and analyze the value that can be added to politics by change movements. The most successful protest movements set their own agendas. Whether abolitionists, woman suffrage advocates or civil rights activists, progressive change movements have gained influence by disrupting politics as usual—not by aligning lockstep with electoral parties. In fact, change movements frequently have fielded their own political candidates or formed their own political parties to pursue their agendas. SNCC veterans John Lewis and Julian Bond heeded the call to transition from “protest to politics;” they successfully ran for public office in order to work for policies that advanced the interests of blacks and the poor. Tom Hayden, a leader in the civil rights and antiwar movements, also sought political office to seek change within a system that he long had critiqued. Some leaders in the first- and second-wave women’s movements collaborated with major political parties, but always on their own terms. Aware that protests movements gain power through pressure tactics that disrupt politics as usual, activists have jealously guarded their political independence. The same rule should apply today.
  6. Honor Difference and Dissent. Racial and ideological differences already have become flashpoints in the protests that have swept the nation in recent weeks. Activists who hope to transform the protests into an organized movement should beware: movements that do not manage racial, gender, economic, generational, professional, religious and even ideological differences splinter and fail. Differences among allies need not be fatal to a cause. To remain a cohesive movement, activists must agree on at least one overarching objective and at least one tactic; movements should, at the same time, permit dissenters to have a voice and to shape priorities. First-wave women’s rights activists united around woman suffrage, despite disagreements over whether to target the federal or state governments in pursuit of that objective and whether to prioritize other goals. The black freedom movement comprised activists committed to legal activism as well as those loyal to non-violent direct action and community organizing. Civil rights activists also disagreed over whether to pursue equality for women and how to address economic justice. These struggles over goals and tactics generated productive conversations, the formation of new organizations and the development of new leaders. In fact, one of the great legacies of the civil rights struggle is the “movement of movements” to which it gave rise; instead of crippling the movement, dissent spawned new agendas and more activism. Today’s protesters who learn from these examples will keep lines of communication open and channel dissent in productive directions.
  7. Accept Support but Demand Autonomy. To succeed, protest movements need the financial and logistical support that powerful individuals and organizations can give. By providing resources to grow and sustain the civil sector—including protest movements and protest organizations—social entrepreneurs, foundations and think tanks play a critical role in supporting and advancing democracy. To the extent that recent protesters coalesce into a bona fide movement, they should seek support from such non-profit groups and philanthropic organizations and individuals, while maintaining the independence necessary to define and control their missions and tactics.

-Tomiko Brown-Nagin

Tomiko Brown-Nagin is Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School and Professor of History on Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The Co-Director of the law school’s Program in Law and History, Brown-Nagin is an award-winning legal historian, an expert in constitutional and education law, and a member of the American Law Institute. She has published articles and book chapters on the Supreme Court’s equal protection jurisprudence, civil rights law and history, the Affordable Care Act and education reform in the Yale Law Journal, the Columbia Law Review, the Duke Law Journal and the Journal of Law & Education. Her 2011 book, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford), won the Bancroft Prize in U.S. History. Brown-Nagin also has published articles and opinion pieces on education reform in the popular press. She is a frequent media commentator on legal issues and educational policy. Brown-Nagin currently is at work on a book about the life and times of the Honorable Constance Baker Motley, the civil rights lawyer, politician, and judge. She earned a law degree from Yale, where she served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal, a doctorate in history from Duke, and a B.A. in history, summa cum laude, from Furman University. 

For Further Reading: 

Brown-Nagin, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (2011).

Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1995).

David S. Meyer, The Politics of Protest (2014); Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1920-1970 (1999).

Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (2007).

Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, Contentious Politics (2015).

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