A study of social movements advances a people’s history of the United States, providing a window into the ways ordinary people often took extraordinary measures to make laws, workplace conditions, the educational system, the quality of home life, and public spaces more open and responsive to the needs and concerns of marginalized groups. With the rise of industrial capitalism in the early 1800s came a host of social ills that prompted individuals to form organizations that enabled them to operate as a force for social change. As the Native American Chief Sitting Bull is purported to have said, “As individual fingers we can easily be broken, but together we form a mighty fist.”
The 1800s through the early 21st century provides numerous examples of people acting together as a mighty fist. As early as 1824, workers in textile mills in the Northeast United States enacted work stoppages and strikes in reaction to wage cuts and deplorable working conditions. The movement to abolish slavery in the mid-1800s provided a way for disenfranchised black men and women, such as the eloquent Frederick Douglass and Maria Stewart, as well as white women, to speak and organize publically. In the area of labor, female and black workers, excluded from the more formal organizing of trade unions through the American Federation of Labor, organized their own labor meetings (e.g., the National Labor Convention of the Colored Men of the United States), unions (e.g., the Women’s Trade Union League), and strikes (e.g., the Uprising of 20,000). By the late1800s through the 1930s, American socialism and the Communist Party, USA, influenced the philosophy and tactics employed by labor activists, many of whom were factory girls who played a formidable role in mass walk-outs in the Progressive Era. Struggles for workplace and civil rights continued throughout the 20th century to undo Jim Crow and segregation, to advocate for civil rights, to advance the rights of women in the workplace, and more recently, to fight for the rights of the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender communities, undocumented workers, and immigrants, and to fight against the police repression of black and brown communities and against imperialism and globalization. Activists’ tools for resistance have been as diverse as their causes and include petitioning formal legislative bodies, picketing and rallying, engaging in work stoppages, occupation of public spaces (e.g., sit-downs, walk-outs, occupying squares and parks), and most recently, using social media platforms, blogs, and other forms of Internet activism to facilitate empowerment of marginalized groups and progressive social change.
The Internet has provided an important tool for facilitating international connections of solidarity in struggle. Although what follows focuses specifically on movements in the United States from roughly the 1800s to the present, efforts should continue to focus on the ways movements join forces across and around the globe.