For Global Peace with Social Justice in a Sustainable Environment
The sociologists and historians tell us that only rarely does a social movement involve more than 5% of the affected population in active participation.
BUT these struggles by a small activist cores succeeded because they won the political support of the great majority. Going back to the Selma Movement, while less than 10% of Blacks directly and actively participated in the Voting Rights campaign, the overwhelming majority supported those that did take action and they honored the economic boycott that was a significant element in the eventual victory.
During the long student strike for Third World Studies at San Francisco State in 1968, we never had more than 1% of the student body attending planning meetings, passing out leaflets, organizing actions, or doing the other work necessary to call and maintain a strike. And no more than 2000 — well under 10% — walked the picket lines, attended the rallies, or marched on the Administration Building. But a clear majority of all the students honored the strike by not attending class. That mass support was not an accident, it was the product of years — repeat, YEARS — of patient education, consistent organizing, and a long series of escalating protests all designed to educate and build mass support.
The key point is that the 5% who are activists achieve victories by winning political support among the 95% who are not activists (and never will be activists). We don’t have to start out with majority popular support, but we DO have to end up that way. If we don’t end up with the support of a majority of the population, we won’t accomplish anything of significance. Which means that our strategies and tactics must be shaped towards the goal of winning support among the 95% who are NOT activists. That is the criteria by which we have to evaluate our strategies and tactics.
Tactics that alienate, or frighten, the people whose support we need to win are counter-productive. What people fear, they come to hate, what they come to hate, they oppose. Tactics that treat the people we need to educate as if they were enemies turns them into enemies in fact.
Kwame Ture (Stokeley Carmichael) of SNCC once observed that, “All real education is political. All politics is not necessarily educational, but good politics always is. You can have no serious organizing without serious education. And always, the people will teach you as much as you teach them.”
Dear Bruce Hartford,
Thank you very much for this post. I really appreciated your articulation of the fact that historically, successful social movements have never been the result of masses of people all participating, but the result of a few acting strategically to gain the support of the majority.
I also appreciated the conclusion you draw from this historical truth: that "our strategies and tactics must be shaped towards the goal of winning support among the 95% who are NOT activists. That is the criteria by which we have to evaluate our strategies and tactics."
"Tactics that alienate, or frighten, the people whose support we need to win are counter-productive. What people fear, they come to hate, what they come to hate, they oppose." Indeed! Strategic planning is crucial to any social movement, and it is all about the way in which one appeals to the majority. Though social movements are generally seeking to shift the culture or values of the mainstream society, they must also appeal to them, or certain aspects of them, in order to find connection with the majority and effectively communicate with them.
I have been considering these processes in my research into Martin Luther King's rhetoric. One of his amazing accomplishments was to provide the movement with a metanarrative of humankind's continuous struggle toward freedom and justice since ancient times. At the same time, King appealed to the traditional American ideals and historical symbols contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and in fact weaved these into that same metanarrative: U.S. history as having always been moving toward the same end of freedom and justice for more and more people. I think this was a brilliant way to both appeal to the majority effectively and also shift the mainstream cultural and historical understanding and value system toward one with a greater focus on freedom and equality, by reshaping with love, rather than attacking, the American national identity of both whites and blacks and also helping to create a national identity and historical metanarrative that both could embrace.
As a participant in the civil rights movement, does this understanding of the function of King's rhetoric resonate with you? How did you and fellow activists appeal to the majority?
You ask "As a participant in the civil rights movement, does this understanding of the function of King's rhetoric resonate with you?" In my opinion you are absolutely correct. When we rooted our struggle in those American values and traditions that speak to "liberty and justice for all" we won victories. When you look at the photos of the March to Montgomery posted on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website you see an American flag leading the way.