From our beginnings, activism has been a central theme in American history. When we have been dissatisfied with our situation, our treatment, or our leaders, we have taken a stand and made our voices heard. The Boston Tea Party clearly showed American frustration with British “taxation without representation.” Over the centuries, Americans have protested, rallied, and united for suffrage, civil rights, and peace, among so many other causes. There are some common themes shared by successful activist movements: engagement with existing power structures, a broad coalition, and civil
In the women’s suffrage movement, leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, fought for decades to move the issue from a liberal fringe in the early 19th century to the mainstream. Anthony and others lobbied hard for Congress to introduce a women’s suffrage amendment. They also pushed at the local level for individual cities to give women the right to vote. In addition, over the years, numerous women’s suffrage organizations arose and collaborated on advocacy. At first, the American Women’s Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) were rivals and did not coordinate, but in 1890, they merged to form the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Finally, individuals like Alice Paul took more dramatic steps to raise awareness of the issue. In the 1910s, Paul and her supporters went on hunger strikes and protested outside the White House. These direct actions helped put women’s suffrage on the front page of newspapers. By 1920, years of dedication, coordination, and confrontation had paid off in the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s also engaged with elected officials, required collaboration, and effectively utilized civil disobedience to drive change. In the early 1950s, civil rights activists challenged segregation in court, leading to decisions like Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. Activists also registered African-Americans to vote to give them a voice in American political life. At the highest levels, Southern civil rights activists pushed Democratic leaders like JFK and LBJ to advocate for equal rights. Congress passed the Equal Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Diverse organizations came together to push for these laws. The NAACP was one of the older organizations supporting African-American civil rights, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had a younger base and focused on field work, the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) also took active roles in fighting discrimination and desegregation, and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) provided moral leadership and connection to faith communities. While these organizations had different styles and leaders, they were united under the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). As many know, these organizations often used direct action to advocate for change. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which economically forced the city to desegregate mass transit, to sit-ins, where demonstrators were willing to be arrested, Civil rights activists took great risks in peaceful confrontation. These acts gained public awareness and sympathy for the brutal conditions faced by African-Americans and their advocates.
Both the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement required a tremendous amount of dedication and determination from a great many people. However, each one helped reshape America into a better and more just society. Exploring the Vietnam protests or the rise of worker’s rights similarly shows how a group of committed citizens can pressure their elected representatives, put aside ideological differences, and use civil disobedience to achieve their goals.