What led to the success of revolutions like the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Black Panther Party, and the grassroots movement that led to the election of President Barack Obama? How are great movements built? How do organizations mobilize themselves for social change?
United Black America as an organization of a few dozen men and women have spent alot of time seeking the answers to these questions to help focus our efforts and to provide a blueprint for other movements across the country and the world. After looking at movements of the past and the present (the youth revolt in Egypt, for instance) we have been able to identify the three most important incubators for social movements, as well as the three most critical factors for sustaining a social movement after it has begun.
1. Favorable Pre-conditions
It is easy to assume that a charismatic figure rises from obscurity to inspire the people and builds a movement of his or her own accord – leaders like El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), and Robert Mugabe come to mind. But the overall social, economic, and political climates matter more to the development of mass movements than any charismatic leader. These figures can only surf the tide of public sentiment and try to guide their movements towards an end result.
For instance, the climate in 1950s America was one of high unemployment and inflation (the economy turned sharply downward in the summer of 1957 and reached its low point in the spring of 1958. Industrial production fell 14 percent, corporate profits plummeted 25 percent and unemployment rose to 7.5 percent), Jim Crow laws were still in full effect, and Blacks in America saw African countries like Lybia (1951), the Sudan, Morrocco, Tunisia (all in 1956), and Ghana (1957) all winning their independence from their colonizers. Therefore, the atmosphere was ripe in America for the rise of Malcolm X, who stressed the importance of the self-sufficiency and the need for revolution amongst Blacks in America and worldwide. While many Blacks failed to convert to Islam, most sympathized with his motives.
Later, after the end of the Jim Crow era in 1965, states continued to turn a blind eye towards police brutality against Blacks and employed nefarious tactics to try to keep the newly “freed” Black population under control and disenfranchised. Again, while being beaten and socially and politically broken, Blacks in America witnessed the independence of several African countries (Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Congo, The Ivory Coast, and Chad in August of 1960) winning their fight for political and social liberation, and an almost 50% increase in the incomes of their white neighbors as a result of then President Kennedy’s economic policies. Blacks, of course, saw virtually none of the gains in income and quality of life that whites of the time did. Thus, the Black Panther Party was formed.
Finally, after the disastrous double Presidential term of George Walker Bush, President Obama was swept into office by landslide margins. The conditions that Bush created – the destruction of international relations by renegging on a number of international treaties, an economy plunged into recession and the loss of all economic gains made by the previous Democrat president, measures to erode civil liberties (Patriot Act), and a war that raged out of control on multiple fronts-led to the success of President Obama’s grass roots movement.
From these examples, and countless others from across the world, we can see that in order to have a successful social movement, the times have to support it. The people have to be pissed enough to want change. The charismatic leader who comes on the scene simply capitalizes on the zeitgeist, or “the spirit of the times”.
2. Individual Motivation
Would-be members of a movement usually are motivated to join movements by both environmental and social factors. In other words, if an organizations helps you to cope with or resolve issues in your environment, and your friends or associates are sympathetic to, or already a part of, an organization, then you are far more likely to participate in that organization. Going back to the example of Malcolm X’s movement, many Blacks agreed with his Black Nationalist philosophy, did not convert to Islam, but still participated in the movement since it met the need for pride and solidarity in the Black community. The Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children Programs, U.C. Berkeley Students Health Program, GYN Clinics, Community Pantry (Free Food Program), and Visiting Nurses Program made the organization more appealing than any other at the time.
Other motives for individual participation include music (Bob Marley created a whole generation of Rasta Fari wanna be’s), availability (when was the last time you saw a member of the Nation of Islam in the streets selling papers and pies? The more often you see them, the more likely you will join), and media messages (good or bad, the more you hear about a particular group, the more curious you will become).
The easiest way to identify individuals who are already motivated to join your organization would be to find people who have already become members of similar organizations. Assuming you can provide your members with tangible benefits and superior direction, you will quickly win new recruits to your cause. The NAACP, for example, is filled with discontent members of the general Black public who believe in the “on-paper” principles of the organization, but are frustrated with a lack of coherent activity and participation.
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