Citizen Action Monitor

Building a Social Movement: What can the African-American Civil Rights Movement teach us? Pt 1: Birth pains

No 273 Posted by fw, September 11, 2011

There’s much talk these days – particularly from the left — about the need to build “a social movement”. Different groups espouse different demands, so we have, for example, calls for a social justice movement, human rights movement, environmental movement, eco-socialist movement, workers movement, and more.

But beyond calling for “a movement” advocates seem uncertain how best to translate their noble words into effective action, especially when it comes to building and maintaining their movements. There are exceptions to this generalization: exemplifies an organization on the right path towards building an effective, goal-direced people’s movement across Canada.

As a contribution to the various and sundry “movement” discussions breaking out globally, it might be instructive to look to past movements for clues about what worked or didn’t work. This is the first in a series of posts recounting best practices of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

Our guide on this journey into the past is the late, great American historian and political activist, Howard Zinn, drawing on selected passages from Chapter 6 – “Or Does it Explode” – of his book, The Twentieth Century: A People’s History (2003), which is from his major work A People’s History of the United States

This first post samples a selection of passages reflecting the early stirrings of what is now popularly known as the African-American Civil Rights Movement, which Wikipedia dates from 1896-1954. When I first read the passages presented below, I thought again of William James’ inspiring “Act as if . . .” quote: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.

Zinn begins Chapter 6 this way –

The black revolt of the 1950s and 1960s – North and South – came as a surprise. But perhaps it should not have. The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface. For blacks in the United States, there was the memory of slavery, and after that of segregation, lynching, humiliation. And it was not just a memory but a living presence – part of the daily lives of blacks in generation after generation.

In the 1930s, Langston Hughes wrote a poem, “Lennox Avenue Mural”

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

In the 1920s, Claude McKay, one of the figures of what came to be called the “Harlem Renaissance,” wrote a poem that Henry Cabot Lodge put in the Congressional Record as an example of dangerous currents among blacks [Click here to read the complete poem]:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot. . . .
Like men we’ll face the murderous cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back.

At the time of the Scottsboro Boys incident, Countee Cullen wrote a bitter poem noting that white poets had used their pens to protest in other cases of injustice, but now that blacks were involved, most were silent. His last stanza was [Click here to read the complete poem]:

Surely, I said
Now will the poets sing.
But they have raised no cry.
I wonder why.

Angelo Herndon

In Georgia, in 1932, a nineteen-year-old black youth named Angelo Herndon, whose father died of miner’s pneumonia, who had worked in mines as a boy in Kentucky, joined  an Unemployment Council in Birmingham organized by the Communist party, and then joined the party. He wrote later:

All my life I’d been sweated and stepped-on and Jim-Crowed. I lay on my belly in the mines for a few dollars a week, and saw my pay stolen and slashed, and my buddies killed. I lived in the worst section of town, and rode behind the “Colored” signs on streetcars, as though there was something disgusting about me. I heard myself called “nigger” and “darky” and I had to say “Yes, sir” to every white man, whether he had my respect or not.

I had always detested it, but I had never known that anything could be done about it. And here, all of a sudden, I had found organizations in which Negroes and whites sat together, and worked together, and knew no difference of race or color. . . .

Angelo Herndon petition

Herndon became a Communist party organizer in Atlanta. He and his fellow Communists organized block committees of Unemployment Councils in1932 which got rent relief for needy people. They organized a demonstration to which a thousand people came, six hundred of them white, and the next day the city voted $56,000 in relief for the jobless. But soon after that Herndon was arrested, held incommunicado, and charged with violating a Georgia statute against insurrection. He recalled the trial:

The state of Georgia displayed the literature that had been taken from my room, and read passages of it to the jury. They questioned me in great detail. Did I believe that the bosses and government ought to pay insurance to unemployed workers? That Negroes should have complete equality with white people? Did I believe in the demand for the self-determination of the Black Belt – that the Negro people should be allowed to rule the Black Belt territory, kicking out the white landlords and government officials? Did I feel that the working-class could run the mills and mines and government? That it wasn’t necessary to have bosses at all? I told them I believed all of that — and more. . . .

Herndon was convicted and spent five years in prison until in 1937 the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the Georgia statute under which he was found guilty. It was men like him who represented to the Establishment a dangerous militancy among blacks, made more dangerous when linked with the Communist party.

Campaign to free Herndon organized by Communists


These are some of the “best practices” that I derived from the selected passages:

  1. Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.
  2. Be prepared for a long struggle.
  3. In strategic development planning, be ever-mindful of the overarching social, economic and political context.
  4. Don’t discount the importance of creative dissent in building a movement – prose and poetry, music, theatre, photos, documentary video, signs and posters, archival record, blog/website etc. — for it is in creative imaginings of those bearing witness to injustice that gives emotional and spiritual meaning to the historical moment.
  5. Never underestimate the “power of one”. The Angelo Herndon story illustrates the power of one, especially one, who, in the face of oppression, summoned up the courage of his convictions and was prepared, willing and able to take a stand in a leadership role.
  6. Social movements are defined by collective action. Don’t overlook the importance of building alliances and collectives at the neighbourhood level.
  7. Serve the needs of the oppressed, which, in Herndon’s case, were those needing rent relief.
  8. Hold public demonstrations to get the attention of local politicians


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