On July 12, hundreds of protesters gathered at the University of Georgia Arch to protest migrant detention centers. No matter what side of the issue you are on, this should be an encouraging sign for the future of our politics — that so many people are willing to take time out of their day to advocate for a cause they believe in is a good sign for our democracy. However, I do wonder if these protests will prove ineffective; if, after an initial rush of enthusiasm, the movement will begin to fizzle out and die.
If people wish to effect real change, they should look to the past to learn what strategies work and which do not.
Activists on both sides of the political spectrum often look reverently on protests of the past as agents of change. However, political protests are not enough to drive progress, and without turning the political energy into tangible results, movements can quickly sputter and die — something Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party activists know all too well.
The Occupy movement failed to achieve the transformation in the American economy that activists wanted as many firms resisted the sweeping changes the protesters sought. Thus, despite the widespread protests and intense political energy, Occupy Wall Street ended with little to show for its efforts.
The Tea Party’s results were more mixed. President Donald Trump has gutted Obamacare through policies like pulling its subsidies and rolling back requirements for birth control coverage. In some ways, that represents a serious win for Tea Party activists. However, they have failed to fully repeal Obamacare, rendering the movement’s success ambiguous. Furthermore, it seems that the Tea Party is dying out, underscored by former Representative David Brat’s — who had famously defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary in 2014 — loss in his reelection bid last year.
So then, how can political movements attain their objectives? To answer this question, it might be best to consider the Civil Rights Movement.
The most famous single event in the entire movement was undoubtedly Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” The speech is an American classic, but the movement was built on more than just the March on Washington.
For example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was an early victory by the protesters. After Rosa Parks was arrested, protesters boycotted Montgomery buses for 13 months until the Supreme Court declared it illegal to segregate on public buses. I believe the protest was successful for three key reasons: sustained efforts, a clear goal, and large national attention. Initially, 90% of black Montgomery citizens refused to ride the buses. The large decline in bus usage forced the city to reckon with the protesters. In addition, the brutal backlash, including the bombing of Dr. King’s home, instilled sympathy for the protesters, and support from across the country poured in.
The Civil Rights Movement also succeeded in part because it formed powerful political alliances, notably with President Lyndon Johnson. Until King denounced the Vietnam War, he had a strong political alliance with Johnson, a savvy politician from Texas, that led to major victories, including the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968.
American history has shown that political movements can enact real change, but simply showing up is not enough. Activists should learn from the Civil Rights Movement and work toward clear goals, maintain energy, build broad coalitions and form lasting bonds with key politicians who are sympathetic to their goals.