A Brief History of Activism That Has Made a Big Difference in Society

When we reflect on the activists who changed the course of history, we often think of those who showed up and made their presence known: the Civil Rights activists who took to the streets, despite the very real threat of police brutality; the protesters amassing by the hundreds of thousands, signs in hand, like those who participated in the recent Women’s March; the canvassers tirelessly knocking on doors, getting out the vote to shape the future of American politics.


But history has not always been made by those who are so visible.

Martin Luther King Jr. is best remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial — but many are unaware that these most famous lines were reportedly inspired by Baptist minister Prathia Hall, who used the phrase in a public prayer honoring those lost in the Mount Olive Baptist Church arson.

Similarly, “Queen of Gospel” Mahalia Jackson, who performed the last musical act before King’s iconic speech, used her public platform from behind the podium to interrupt King partway through his oration and advise him to “tell them about the dream,” a phrase she had heard him use in previous speeches. At her request, he instantly improvised the next section, which began:

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Mahalia Jackson (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

These kinds of behind-the-scenes actions are often overlooked in favor of more visible activism. But it’s both inaccurate and problematic to dismiss this brand of social justice advocacy—in part because for many, highly visible activism simply isn’t possible.

In January, my Instagram feed was filled with images of friends, family, and acquaintances participating in the Women’s March all over the country, with the highest turnout in my current city of Los Angeles. I got out of bed hopeful that we can make a difference — but I say “we” even though I slept through this monumental event. That’s because I have dealt with many health conditions, including sleep apnea, which can cause severe exhaustion.

Those with visible disabilities often need to work against obstacles and have crucial needs that are frequently overlooked. At the same time, we must also acknowledge those with invisible illnesses — like anxiety, a sleep disorder, or depression — that may hinder their ability to be present for marches, protests, canvassing, and other in-person engagements.

For inspiration and wisdom, we can glean much from examining the history of social change, which has long been shaped in part by those behind the scenes.

The Power of the Pen

As is true today, writers, editors, publishers, and everyday folk were instrumental in the success of the pre-Revolutionary War and Civil Rights Movement, even when they weren’t on the front lines of protest.

Leading up to the American Revolution, the British Stamp Act required “government-issued stamps be placed on all legal documents and newspapers, as well as playing cards and dice,” according to historian Carol Berkin in Revolutionary Mothers. In protest, a group of women in New York City made a public announcement in the newspaper, refusing to marry their fiancés if they applied for a stamped marriage license. This act of opposition was a bold feat at a time when women were discouraged from participating in print dialogue.

In another prime example, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that abolished anti-miscegenation laws. Mildred and Richard Loving, black and white respectively, were not allowed to return home to their state of Virginia after marrying against Virginia law. Mildred, though highly unassuming, wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy asking for assistance, which she then received from the ACLU. This simple letter ignited change that has altered marriage laws country-wide and was the inspiration for same-sex marriage equality in the 21st century.

Mildred Loving’s letter launched one of the most important Supreme Court cases in history. (Credit: flickr/Freedom to Marry)

In a different historic Supreme Court case, Daisy Bates, co-publisher of the black newspaper the State Presschronicled the fight for school integration following Brown v. Board of Education in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to using her pen to document civil rights issues, Bates acted behind the scenes to protect and support the first nine black students integrating Little Rock Central High School — a group commonly referred to as the “Little Rock Nine.” Bates even penned a letter to President Eisenhower, asking for reinforcements to combat the violence she and other activists experienced as a result of upholding the new legislation. She ingeniously placed “spies” on campus to report both positive and negative truths about what happened inside the school, in order to combat misinformation from both sides.

Bates has inspired me in my own efforts to contribute in part by writing words — words about Gabrielle Gorman and Jesse Williams, about black NASA trailblazers, and about the biased American captivity narrative. This, too, matters.

Boycotting Goods

The Montgomery bus boycotts and the Boston Tea Party are of course the most widely recognized boycotting efforts in the U.S. But other boycotts past and present have played significant roles in the country’s progression.

After the dissolution of the Stamp Act, the colonies began boycotting other British imports, especially luxury items. Sugar, mirrors, silk, lace, and even pickles were renounced in 1769 by the Virginia House of Burgess. It took several years for the boycotts to gain momentum, but we know how the story ends: America was able to release itself from British rule following the Revolution. This type of activism was performed by everyday men and women, all of whom relied on goods and services for their daily needs. While the boycotts themselves became a public force, individuals were able to contribute in small ways with a big impact.

Today, boycotts against companies that financially back Trump and his family have also proven effective. Lyft downloads surpassed Uber for the first time after a recent boycott, resulting in Uber pledging a $3 million defense fund to help drivers with immigration issues. Additionally, following a recent boycott of Nordstrom, the clothing company decided to no longer carry Ivanka Trump’s brand, citing a significant drop in sales due to the boycott as its motivation. Other retailers, such as Neiman Marcus, T.J. Maxx, and Burlington, have followed suit.

Taking Care of Loved Ones

We each have different roles in the current fight for the preservation of our country. While my aunt and uncle (a Democratic county representative and legislative district chair, respectively) participated in the Seattle airport protests against the immigration ban, my cousin, who participated in the Women’s March with my aunt, contributed to the cause that night by watching over our ailing grandmother. My sister, who was well into her third trimester and recently had her baby, sat out the march but contributed to the ACLU.

While we must all push ourselves to do more during this horrific presidency, we should also take advantage of enacting change within our individual spheres of influence and power. Though I cannot participate in everything, I have been able to not only use my writing to speak power to truth, but also to sign petitions and send emails (though still not as much as I should).

Those with invisible illnesses, or who otherwise can’t engage in in-person actions, may fear they can’t do their part. But as essayist Michel de Montaigne so wisely put, “We are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game.”

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