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The sociologists and historians tell us that only rarely does a  social movement involve more than 5% of the affected population  in active participation.

  • Fewer than 7% of the American  colonists actively took part in the revolution against the  British.
  • In 70 years of struggle, the largest Woman Suffrage  protest was 8000 marchers in Washington, DC in 1913.
  • The Selma  Voting Rights struggle of 1965 was one of the largest Freedom  Movement campaigns of the 1960s. But if you add up all those who  marched, picketed, sat-in, went to jail, tried to register to  vote, or just attended a mass meeting, it totaled less than 10%  of Dallas County’s Black population.

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.”

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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? 

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Shara


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.

Bruce

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