The Strategies That Transformed Some of America’s Greatest Protest Movements - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Strategies That Transformed Some of America’s Greatest Protest Movements

The Strategies That Transformed Some of America’s Greatest Protest Movements

By Sean Braswell

Rev. Ralph Abernathy (left) and Dr. Martin Luther King (center) are greeted with microphones as they emerge from the Jefferson County jail wearing a four-day growth of beard in Birmingham, Alabama. A Nobel Prize winner, King suffering from a virus cold, said he felt fine after being released. King, Abernathy and two aides served a four-day jail term after the Supreme Court upheld their conviction for contempt of a court induction against the civil rights demonstrations here in 1963. An Aide to Dr. King disclosed late November 3rd that the civil rights leader was planning a visit to the Soviet Union.


Because to achieve lasting impact, it’s not enough to rally millions of people to your side.

By Sean Braswell

The United States was born in dissent, and acts of protest and defiance have defined key junctures in its history and facilitated social change. But not all protest movements are created equal. Some iconic social movements figure out how to transcend the bounds of ordinary resistance to make a more lasting impact on public policy and the collective conscience. Most do not. Some, for example, may be high profile but result in little substantial policy change (e.g., Occupy Wall Street and March for Our Lives). Others bring short-term political gains (e.g., tea party movement) or serve as useful starting points (e.g., the Stonewall Riots and Colin Kaepernick), but fail to be embraced by wider society.

Will today’s Black Lives Matter protests stand the test of time and produce meaningful reform? Here are some key tactics and strategies that helped some of the more successful movements from American history take hold and usher in lasting change. 

The Civil Rights Movement Breaks Through in Birmingham

By 1963, the nonviolent civil rights campaign in the United States led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was organized, persistent and … almost entirely ignored. King knew that the movement needed a confrontation to regain the nation’s attention after the Montgomery bus boycott and earlier breakthroughs. “He realized that resisting nonviolently would only work if people saw you doing it,” says Mark Kurlansky, author of Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea.

Enter Eugene “Bull” Connor, the segregationist police chief of Birmingham, Alabama. When Connor unleashed the police dogs and turned the firehoses on protesters — and television cameras captured the brutal attack — King and his marchers made headlines across the country. “Many whites in the rest of the country were going about their lives not even noticing that this was going on in the South,” says John D’Emilio, professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Well, you couldn’t not notice this [in Birmingham].”

Abolitionists Enlist ‘Moral Suasion’ Media Campaigns

The civil rights movement was not the first to make use of shaming mainstream American society. As early as the 1830s, abolitionists like the Boston newspaper publisher William Lloyd Garrison set out to make all Americans ashamed of their connection to slavery. Garrison believed in what he called “moral suasion” — that the abolitionist argument should be taken directly to the conscience of the people. Politics as usual was not an option.

But, with no television, and abolitionist newspapers banned in many states, Garrison and his fellow abolitionists had to get creative. “The abolitionists were the first American activists to figure out what publicity is,” says Bruce Laurie, author of Beyond Garrison: Antislavery and Social Reform. The abolitionists filled the mail with newspapers, declarations and propaganda sheets. They circulated petitions and held fairs and town halls. By the 1850s, a relatively small activist community had succeeded at shaping the terms of a nationwide debate about the practice of slavery. Moral suasion was not enough to end that practice, but it persuaded millions of Americans that it was a cause worth fighting for.

The Temperance Movement Expands its Targets

The early temperance movement also focused on moral suasion tactics in an effort to sell Americans on the virtues of abstaining from alcohol. Widespread drinking at the time came with enormous social costs, especially the husbands and fathers who abused their families and spent their entire paychecks on liquor. Organized women would kneel outside local saloons in an effort to sway patrons. But it wasn’t enough. 

And so the Anti-Saloon League and other groups were formed to advocate for legislative change, and to broaden the appeal of outlawing alcohol. The temperance groups pushed for a federal income tax (to end government dependence on taxing liquor) and an alcohol-free military. They also convinced employers there would be fewer workers’ compensation claims with a sober workforce, and they even embraced anti-German sentiment during World War I to stoke fears that the predominantly German-American-run breweries like Budweiser and Pabst might have treacherous sympathies. This new temperance legislative arsenal, however, resulted in Prohibition in 1920.

It’s important to remember that change takes time and consistent pressure. And even the most successful American protest movements have taken years, if not decades, to bear fruit. The Montgomery bus boycott did not yield results immediately after Rosa Parks’ act of defiance — that would take a community of more than 50,000 people protesting for 382 straight days to achieve. As Dr. King once observed, “[c]hange does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”

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