In a recent meeting with activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, Hillary Clinton gave an interesting take on the concept of social reform. “I don’t believe you change hearts,” she said, explaining how social change occurs and should occur. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.” For Clinton, this is actually quite an old argument, stretching back to the 2008 election when she famously credited the legal wranglings of Lyndon Johnson as the difference-maker in the Civil Rights Movement, rather than the mass protest movement led by, among others, Martin Luther King Jr. On that occasion, she said “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act… It took a president to get it done.”
Each of these statements met with some criticism, but they are very much worthy of historical analysis. In the end, the question comes to this: when a social justice issue has been ignored by systems of power – as the Jim Crow system had been at the start of the 1950s, and as the issue of police/community relations and racial disparities in criminal justice had largely been before the Michael Brown shooting – how can change be created? Is a mass movement, whose job is less policy and more persuasion, the right instrument, or is it the role of lawmakers to force change that society will simply have to obey
Obviously American history is rife with examples that shed light on this question. Much of our history has been defined by tension between the passion of reform and the exigencies of government. But let’s start early in the nation’s history before ending with the two movements that Clinton’s quotes reference above. We’re going to examine a few of the most successful and well-known social movements in our country’s history to try and determine which approach tends to produce the most change.
Abolitionism – the movement to abolish the practice and institution of American slave labor – was the defining social movement of the first half of the nineteenth century. Many abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, the Boston-based publisher of The Liberator, saw politics as a road to nowhere. Garrison saw an American system that was bound up in slavery; it was woven into the social fabric of the south, and the north depended on slavery as well, for its economic well-being. The federal government seemed all too willing to capitulate to the slave power as well, in laws such as the Missouri Compromise which allotted new land to cotton production, and actions such as the Mexican American War, which many abolitionists (quite rightly) saw as a war to expand cotton land westward. Garrison, and those like him, concluded that there was no political path when the whole of the government seemed arrayed to defend slavery; for them, the only method was what they called ‘moral suasion’, the attempt to prevail on the moral and often religious sensibilities of a nation and change minds one at a time until slavery was abolished.
Abolitionists set out to work at a furious pace with the tools available to them: the press, the mail, and the possibility of mass meetings and crowds. Their writing was prodigious. They churned out newspapers, pamphlets, books and novels at an increasing pace through the 1820s, 1830s, 1840s, 1850s. They attacked southern perpetration and northern acquiescence. They appealed to morality, logic and religion. They sent mailings into the south and spoke across the north. They met more often with resistance than conversion; they were chased, their buildings burned, their publications banned; a few were attacked or even killed. The results of their agitation were mixed; they brought the issue of abolition to the forefront, but often also provoked a strong opposing reaction. In some ways, their agitation caused slaveowners to tighten restrictions on slaves, and to attempt to close off southern society to northern voices of protest; yet they also showed the country what the slave power was prepared to do to hold onto its influence. Without the abolitionists it is unlikely the Civil War would have begun when or in the manner it did, and even less likely that slavery would have become the rallying cry for either side. Yet it was that war – and President Lincoln’s careful legal maneuvering – that finally did slavery in, not the peaceful moral suasion espoused by abolitionists.
We can see a similar model in the protracted fight for women’s suffrage, which stretched from the 1840s to 1920, almost 80 years of agitation. Women, like slaves, lacked any political representation whatsoever, and largely had to pursue their goals through moral suasion and direct protest. Like the abolitionists, they often ran afoul of existing law; one of the most famous moments of the women’s suffrage campaign saw Susan B. Anthony arrested for attempting to cast a vote in the 1872 election. Even as several states granted women suffrage, Alice Paul was arrested on trumped up charges for picketing the White House in demand of presidential support for suffrage. And certainly they engendered strong reactions; though they convinced many men and women of the righteousness of their cause, they also suffered the indignity of deeply sexist opposition. Suffragettes, as they were often called, were at best ridiculed and at worst physically assaulted in their efforts; like the abolitionists before them, they were a polarizing force in American politics. However, they too were difficult to ignore, and as they worked their persuasive attention in papers, speeches and protests nationwide, they forced the attention of lawmakers. Unlike abolitionists, however, their methods were deeply political; this is perhaps because their goal was explicitly political as well. They appealed directly to Congress and state legislatures, introduced petitions, requested legislation, and attempted lawsuits, most of which many abolitionists would have seen as capitulation. Their efforts paid off as well; over the course of the early 1900s, following the trend of a few western states, more and more state legislatures enfranchised female voters. Immediately after World War I, and in part as recognition of the role women played in that war, Congress itself accepted a suffrage amendment. By 1920, enough states had voted in favor of suffrage to ratify the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, granting women the elective franchise.
The last historical case study we’ll look at here is that of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s which destroyed Jim Crow and created protections against legal discrimination against African Americans in the United States. In the post-World War II political landscape, two connected ideas dominated: the first was a sense that the United States was the greatest force for democracy and liberty in the world, as it had played a key role in the destruction of fascism and now faced off in a Cold War against the Soviet Union. The second was competition, against the Soviets; a sense that the US had to prove itself that shining example of freedom and righteousness it claimed to be. Yet Jim Crow – the system of racial oppression that dominated southern society before the 1960s – stood in direct opposition to that idea; it was difficult for the United States to make its case to the world when blacks across the south lived in fear daily. Civil Rights activists came to make use of this tension: they forced the world to pay attention to the south through protests that were designed to provoke a response. When those responses occurred – jailings, attacks, beatings, murders – they embarrassed the federal government and shocked many US citizens, who were able to watch them on the nightly news. The federal government had not been fully ignoring civil rights to that point; a few admittedly weak civil rights bills had been passed, and incremental change was occurring through the courts and in areas of public life. But the Civil Rights Movement refused this gradualism, forcing the government to confront its own southern states directly. First John F. Kennedy, and then Lyndon Johnson, were pushed into fighting for laws that they were not always ready for, because of the power of the protests activists led.
This was the tension that Hillary Clinton referenced when she said that Dr. King’s dreams were only realized through the power of a president. And in a way she’s right: without Kennedy, and especially without Johnson, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the two most powerful pieces of civil rights legislation in the history of the nation – would never have come about. Yet what she missed in that statement was the inverse: without the agitation of the Civil Rights Movement, and the appeal to the morality of both a nation and the world, the wheels of government would have turned much more slowly, or not at all.
So this is what we come back to, when Hillary Clinton confronts Black Lives Matter. It is hard to fight the inference, in her statement, that she believes their protests should take a back seat to her political prowess, or that she sees their movement as a potentially dangerous distraction. The truth is that social change has been incredibly difficult to attain through politics alone. Politics needs mass movement to create social change, just as mass movements require a political response. Clinton presents an authority-driven model that is simply unattainable; difficult change cannot emerge from political comfort. Yet this is an important moment for Black Lives Matter as well; how will they acknowledge the need for specific political action, and support it, while continuing to put pressure on American politics and society? Can they find a way to work with Clinton, or Bernie Sanders, or any of the other myriad candidates in either party, without sacrificing the very necessary moral power of their agitation? The answer to those questions may well determine what impact their movement has.