Social change is created by people on the street

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Social change is created by people on the street

Fifty years ago the Civil Rights Act became law in the US. Movements, not governments, bring change, says Mark Engler.


Franco Folini

Fifty years ago, on 2 July 1964, American President Lyndon B Johnson brought in the Civil Rights Act. All discrimination because of race, colour, religion, sex or national origin in public became illegal.

The next year came the Voting Rights Act, so African-Americans in Southern states could vote. These laws were two of the most important in the US Congress in the past century.

In April this year, President Obama and three earlier presidents – George W Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter – went to a meeting in Texas to celebrate the fifty year anniversary of the laws. At the meeting, they said how good Johnson was. He helped the history of civil rights. Obama said how good Johnson was in law and negotiations.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton, trying to run for president, said how important Johnson was. She said that Martin Luther King’s ‘dream began to come true when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act’.

‘We needed a president to do it,’ she said.

But people were angry at what Clinton said. They didn’t like it that she talked about the power of the White House and didn’t talk about the citizens who risked their lives. Many people protested for years against Jim Crow racism. They were attacked by police dogs, fire hoses and the Ku Klux Klan.

The problem with what Clinton said is not that Johnson was not important: social change often needs people outside the government and inside the government. The outside people get the public interested, and the insiders make the law.

The problem is that she said it was only Johnson.

We know a lot about how people make laws. But we do not know much about how social movements create change. The civil rights movement is one of the best examples we have of activists forcing politicians – including Johnson – to look at a problem they didn’t want to look at.

The protests in Birmingham, Alabama, were an important turning point. In 1963, people tried to fight, in a non-violent way, against businesses that separated white and black people. Police chief Bull Connor said the civil rights groups would not find enough black people who would fight the police. And there was an international crisis.

The people of Birmingham were stronger that Connor thought. And many more people started to demonstrate across the US.

‘For two years, [Attorney General] Robert Kennedy tried to deal with each racial crisis by itself,’ writes historian Adam Fairclough. ‘After what happened in Birmingham, he finally knew that the crises would happen so often and be so big that the government had to do something stronger.’

A short time after this, President John F Kennedy decided on the law that became the Civil Rights Act.

Two years later, Martin Luther King talked about how the social movements changed public opinion. This helped the law pass through Congress. And it also made sure people respected the law. There had been no respect of laws before that, for example for the law about not having separate schools for black and white children.

‘People thought the public would not agree,’ King said. ‘But there was a very important point. The new law was not because white America felt sorry for powerless black America. And it was not because of wonderful leaders in the law. It was because the law came from the people on the street.’

Other laws have been written by people on the street too: the end of child labour, minimum wages, women’s right to vote, environmental protections and gay marriage.

Politicians who like to praise other politicians may choose to forget the importance of people on the street. But, if we want progress in the future, we mustn’t forget.

Mark Engler, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, is writing a book about the evolution of political nonviolence. See his website:

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