by Jo Freeman
Published in Waves of Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties, (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999, pp. 7-24. Based on a paper written in 1971 and first published in Social Movements of the Sixties and Seventies, (Longman 1983).
Most movements have inconspicuous beginnings. The significant elements of their origins are usually forgotten or distorted by the time a trained observer seeks to trace them out. Perhaps this is why so much theoretical literature on social movements concentrated on causes (Gurr 1970, Davies 1962, Oberschall 1973) and motivations (Toch 1965, Cantril 1941, Hoffer 1951, Adorno et al. 1950), while the “spark of life” by which the “mass is to cross the threshold of organizational life” (Lowi 1971, 41) has received scant attention.
From where do the people come who make up the initial, organizing cadre of a movement? How do they come together, and how do they come to share a similar view of the world in circumstances that compel them to political action? In what ways does the nature of its sources affect the future development of the movement?
Before answering these questions, let us first look at data on the origins of four social movements prominent in the sixties and seventies: civil rights, student protest, welfare rights, and women’s liberation. These data identify recurrent elements involved in movement formation. The ways in which these elements interact, given a sufficient level of grievances, would support the following propositions:
Proposition 1: The need for a preexisting communications network or infrastructure within the social base of a movement is a primary prerequisite for “spontaneous” activity. Masses alone do not form movements, however discontented they may be. Groups of previously unorganized individuals may spontaneously form into small local associations —- usually along the lines of informal social networks -— in response to a specific strain or crisis. If they are not linked in some manner, however, the protest does not become generalized but remains a local irritant or dissolves completely. If a movement is to spread rapidly, the communications network must already exist. If only the rudiments of a network exist, movement formation requires a high input of “organizing” activity .
Proposition 2: Not just any communications network will do. It must be a network that is cooptable to the new ideas of the incipient movement. To be cooptable, it must be composed of like minded people whose backgrounds, experiences, or location in the social structure make them receptive to the ideas of a specific new movement.
Proposition 3: Given the existence of a cooptable communications network, or at least the rudimentary development of a potential one, and grievances, one or more precipitants are required. Here, two distinct patterns emerge that often overlap. In one, a crisis galvanizes the network into spontaneous action in a new direction. In the other, one or more persons begin organizing a new organization or disseminating a new idea. For spontaneous action to occur, the communications network must be well formed or the initial protest will not survive the incipient stage. If it is not well formed, organizing efforts must occur; that is, one or more persons must specifically attempt to construct a movement. To be successful, organizers must be skilled and must have a fertile field in which to work. If no communications network already exists, there must at least be emerging spontaneous groups that are acutely attuned to the issue, albeit uncoordinated. To sum up, if a cooptable communications network is already established, a crisis is all that is necessary to galvanize it. If it is rudimentary, an organizing cadre of one or more persons is necessary. Such a cadre is superfluous if the former conditions full exist. but it is essential if they do not.
THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
The civil rights movement has two origins, although one contributed significantly to the other. The first can be dated from December 7, 1955, when the arrest of Rosa Parks for occupying a “white” seat on a bus stimulated both the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association. The second can be dated either from February 1, 1960 when four freshmen at A & T College in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat-in at a white lunch counter. or from April 15-17, when a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, resulted in the formation of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC). To understand why there were two origins one has to understand the social structure of the southern black community, as an incipient generation gap alone is inadequate to explain it.
Within this community the two most important institutions, often the only institutions, were the church and the black college. They provided the primary networks through which most southern blacks interacted and communicated with one another on a regular basis. In turn, the colleges and churches were linked in a regional communications network.
These institutions were also the source of black leadership, for being a “preacher or a teacher” were the main status positions in black society. Of the two, the church was by far the more important; it touched on more people’s lives and was the largest and oldest institution in the black community. Even during slavery there had been an “invisible church”. After emancipation, “organized religious life became the chief means by which a structured or organized social life came into existence among the Negro masses” (Frazier 1963, 17). Furthermore, preachers were more economically independent of white society than were teachers.
Neither of these institutions represented all the segments of black society but the segments they did represent eventually formed the main social base for supplying civil rights activists. The church was composed of a male leadership and a largely middle-aged, lower-class female followership. The black colleges were the homes of black intellectuals and middle-class youth, male and female.
Both origins of the civil rights movement resulted in the formation of new organizations, despite the fact that at least three seemingly potential social movement organizations already existed. The wealthiest of these was the Urban League, founded in 1910. It, however, was not only largely restricted to a small portion of the black and white bourgeoisie but, until 1961, felt itself to be “essentially a social service agency” (Clark 1966, 245).
Founded in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pursued channels of legal change until it finally persuaded the Supreme Court to abolish educational segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. More than any other single event, this decision created the atmosphere of rising expectations that helped precipitate the movement. The NAACP suffered from its own success, however. Having organized itself primarily to support court cases and utilize other “respectable’` means, it “either was not able or did not desire to modify its program in response to new demands. It believed it should continue its important work by using those techniques it had already perfected” (Blumer 1951, 199).
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), like the other two organizations, was founded in the North. It began “in 1942 as the Chicago Committee of Racial Equality, which was composed primarily of students at the University of Chicago. An off-shoot of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, its leaders were middle-class intellectual reformers, less prominent and more alienated from the mainstream of American society than the founders of the NAACP. They regarded the NAACP’s legalism as too gradualist and ineffective, and aimed to apply Gandhian techniques of non-violent direct action to the problem of race relations in the United States. A year later, the Chicago Committee joined with a half dozen other groups that had emerged across the country, mostly under the encouragement of the F.O.R. to form a federation known as the Congress of Racial Equality” (Rudwick and Meier 1970, 10).
CORE’s activities anticipated many of the main forms of protest of the civil rights movement, and its attitudes certainly seemed to fit CORE for the role of a major civil rights organization. But though it became quite influential, at the time the movement actually began, CORE had declined almost to the point of extinction. Its failure reflects the historical reality that organizations are less likely to create social movements than be created by them. More important, CORE was poorly situated to lead a movement of southern blacks. Northern-based and composed primarily of pacifist intellectuals, it had no roots in any of the existing structures of the black community, and in the North these structures were themselves weak. CORE could be a source of ideas, but not of coordination.
The coordination of a new movement required the creation of a new organization. But that was not apparent until after the Montgomery bus boycott began. That boycott was organized through institutions already existing in the black community of Montgomery.
Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white man was not the first time such defiance of segregation laws had occurred. There had been talk of a boycott the previous time, but after local black leaders had a congenial meeting with the city commissioners, nothing happened—on either side (King 1958, 37-41). When Parks, a former secretary of the local NAACP, was arrested, she immediately called E. D. Nixon, at that time the president the local chapter. He not only bailed her out but informed a few influential women in the city, most of whom were members of the Women’s Political Council (WPC). After numerous phone calls between their members, it was the WPC that actually suggested the boycott, and E. D. Nixon who initially organized it. (Ibid., 44-45).
The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed at a meeting of eighteen ministers and civic leaders the Monday after Parks’s conviction and a day of successful boycotting, to provide ongoing coordination. No one then suspected that coordination would be necessary for over a year with car pools organized to provide alternative transportation for seventeen thousand riders a day. During this time the MIA grew slowly to a staff of ten in order to handle the voluminous correspondence, as well as to provide rides and keep the movement’s momentum going. The organization, and the car pools, were financed by $250,000 in donations that poured in from all over the world in response to heavy press publicity about the boycott. But the organizational framework for the boycott and the MIA was the church. Most, of the officers were ministers, and Sunday meetings with congregations continued to be the main means of communicating with members of the black community to encourage them to continue the protest.
The boycott did not end until the federal courts ruled Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional late in 1956 -— at the same time that the state courts ruled the boycott illegal. In the meantime, black leaders throughout the South had visited Montgomery, and out of their discussions came agreement to continue antisegregation protests regularly and systematically under the aegis of a new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The NAACP could not lead the protests because, according to an SCLC pamphlet “during the late 50s, the NAACP had been driven out of some Southern states. Its branches were outlawed as foreign corporations and its lawyers were charged with barratry, that is, persistently inciting litigation.”
On January 10, 1957, over one hundred people gathered in Atlanta at a meeting called by four ministers, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Bayard Rustin drew up the “working papers.” Initially called the Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration, the SCLC never developed a mass base even when it changed its name. It established numerous “affiliates” but did most of its work through the churches in the communities to which it sent its fieldworkers.
The church was not just the only institution available for a movement to work through; in many ways it was ideal. It performed “the central organizing function in the Negro community” (Holloway 1969, 22), providing both access to large masses of people on a regular basis and a natural leadership. As Wyatt Tee Walker, former executive director of SCLC, commented, “The Church today is central to the movement. If a Negro’s going to have a meeting, where’s he going to have it? Mostly he doesn’t have a Masonic lodge, and he’s not going to get the public schools. And the church is the primary means of communication” (Brink and Harris 1964, 103). Thus the church eventually came to be the center of the voter registration drives as well as many of the other activities of the civil rights movement.
Even the young men and women of SNCC had to use the church, though they had trouble doing so because, unlike most of the officers of SCLC, they were not themselves ministers and thus did not have a “fraternal” connection. Instead they tended to draw many of their resources and people from outside the particular town in which they were working by utilizing their natural organizational base, the college.
SNCC did not begin the sit-ins, but came out of them. Once begun, the idea of the sit-in spread initially by means of the mass media. But such sit-ins almost always took place in towns where there were black colleges, and groups on these campuses essentially organized the sit-in activities of their communities. Nonetheless, “CORE, with its long emphasis of nonviolent direct action, played an important part, once the sit-ins began, as an educational and organizing agent” (Zinn 1964, 23). CORE had very few staff in the South, but there were enough to at least hold classes and practice sessions in nonviolence.
It was SCLC, however, that was actually responsible for the formation of SNCC; though it might well have organized itself eventually. Ella Baker, then executive secretary of SCLC, thought something should be done to coordinate the rapidly spreading sit-ins in 1960, and many members of SCLC thought it might be appropriate to organize a youth group. With SCLC money, Baker persuaded her alma mater, Shaw University, to provide facilities to contact the groups at centers of sit-in activity. Some two hundred people showed up for the meeting, decided to have no official connection with SCLC beyond a “friendly relationship,” and formed the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (Zinn 1964, 32-34). It had no members, and its fieldworkers numbered two hundred at their highest point, but it was from the campuses, especially the southern black colleges, that it drew its sustenance and upon which its organizational base rested.
The term “the Movement” was originally applied to the civil rights movement by those participating in it, but as this activity expanded into a general critique of American society and concomitant action, the term broadened with it. To white youth throughout most of the sixties, “the Movement” referred to that plethora of youth and/or radical activities that started from the campus and eventually enveloped a large segment of middle-class youth. The term also refers to “the student movement” and “the New Left.” The campus was a natural communications network for students and intellectuals. But it was a large place, for the most part, so at least in the beginning the basic units had to be smaller and the ties between them more definitive than was necessary once the movement was more developed.
In the late 1950s liberal and socialist groups of students on different campuses formed new organizations. SLATE appeared at Berkeley, POLIT at Chicago, and VOICE at Michigan. Student journals, such as New University Thought and Studies on the Left, modeled after the New Left Review in London, began publishing. Several crises prompted other student organizations to form. The Bay of Pigs fiasco led to Fair Play for Cuba chapters. The Berlin crisis in the summer of 1961, the resumption of nuclear testing, and the push for a massive civil defense program, resulted in the Student Peace Union and student chapters of SANE (O’Brien 1969, 4-5). These groups were not themselves a student movement, merely the student branches of “adult” organizations (Haber 1966, 35-36). They were inspired to reach beyond their origins by the Southern sit-ins of 1960. “[T]he sit-ins served as a mechanism for bringing … students together for the first time for practical interaction over political issues.” and disrupted “the prevailing pattern of political apathy” (Flacks 1970, 1).
In 1960, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was just one of several national student political groups. It had recently changed its name from the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), but still remained the relatively insignificant youth affiliate of an aging social democratic clearinghouse for liberal, pro-labor, anti-communist ideas. What put life into this moribund group were two University of Michigan students, Al Haber and Tom Hayden. In the late spring of 1960 Al Haber organized a conference on “Human Rights in the North,” … which began SDS’s long association with SNCC and recruited some of the young people who subsequently became the ‘old guard’ SDS leadership” (Kissinger and Ross 1968, 16).
After the conference, the United Auto Workers donated $10,000 to SDS, which used the money to hire Haber as an organizer. He corresponded widely, mimeographed and mailed pamphlets, gave speeches, and generally made contacts with and between others (Sale 1973, 35). Both Hayden and Haber argued that the different issues on which activists were working were interconnected, that a movement had to be created to work for broad social change, that the university was a potential base and agency in a movement for social change, and that SDS could play an important role in this movement (O’Brien 1969, 6). Despite this potential, SDS “remained practically non-existent as an organization in the late 1960-to-1961 school year. Then, in the summer of 1961, the 14th Congress of the National Student Association was held in Madison, Wisconsin…. It was regional and national meetings of NSA which first brought together Northern white radicals” (Kissinger and Ross 1968, 16). In 1962 SDS broke away to stand by itself.
What followed were years of hard organizing effort, stimulated by civil rights activity and campus protests (Sale, 1973). In the early years SDS had many competitors for the affections of students, but none in the form of organizations claiming to represent students as students. The others were largely youth groups of national liberal and socialist organizations. SDS’s activities were never confined solely to the campus, and usually sought to channel student activity to the support of other movement efforts. But its formation does illustrate once again the pattern found elsewhere (Haber 1966, 35).
THE NATIONAL WELFARE RIGHTS ORGANIZATION
The welfare rights movement is an excellent example of movement entrepreneurship and government involvement in movement formation. If ever a movement was constructed, this one was. The building blocks of its construction were the Great Society antipoverty programs and the plethora of black and especially white civil rights workers who were left “unemployed” with that movement’s decline (Piven and Cloward 1971, 321). Many local welfare protest groups originated in antipoverty agencies in order to get more money for the poor. Many others came out of community organizations formed by liberal church groups and urban civil rights activists a few years before. These groups were widely scattered throughout the country and not linked by any communications mechanism.
The entrepreneur who linked them in order to create a movement was George Wiley, a former chemistry professor and civil rights activist who left CORE after losing his bid to become national director. Attracted to the idea of organizing welfare recipients by a pamphlet written by Columbia social work professor Richard Cloward, later published in the Nation, Wiley organized the Poverty/Rights Action Center in Washington in May 1966. The P/RAC office opened on a $15,000 budget soon after a conference on the guaranteed annual income at the University of Chicago. Organized by three social work students, the conference brought together organizers and representatives of welfare groups, community organizations, and poverty workers. Although not specifically invited, Wiley came and was given a place on the conference program. When the participants seemed receptive to his ideas, Wiley announced to the press that there would be national demonstrations on June 30 in support of an Ohio march for adequate welfare already being organized by the Cleveland Council of Churches (Piven and Cloward 1977, 288-91).
Wiley volunteered his new organization to coordinate the national support actions. Drawing upon his contacts from the civil rights movement and those he met at the conference, his “support activities” were highly successful. “On the morning of June 30, when they finally reached Columbus, the forty marchers were joined by two thousand recipients and sympathizers from other towns in Ohio. On the same day in New York two thousand recipients massed in front of City Hall to picket in the hot sun…. Groups of recipients in fifteen other cities. . . also joined demonstrations against ‘the welfare’“ (Piven and Cloward 1971, 323).
This action was followed by a national conference of a hundred people in August that elected a Co-ordinating Committee to plan a founding conference for the National Welfare Rights Organization. “The organizers were members of Students for a Democratic Society, church people, and most prominently, VISTA and other antipoverty program workers” (Piven and Cloward 1977, 291-92).
VISTA volunteers continued to be the NWRO’s “chief organizing resource” (Piven and Cloward 1971, 329). But they were not the only resource supplied by the government. “If the NWRO developed as a by-product of federal intervention in the cities, it later came to have quite direct relations with the national government. In 1968, the outgoing Johnson Administration granted NWRO more than $400,000 through the Department of Labor, a sum roughly equivalent to the total amount raised from private sources after the organization was formed…. Federal officials were aware that the money would go toward strengthening local relief groups” (Piven and Cloward 1971, 329-30). In effect, the federal government was supporting a social movement organization whose purpose was to extract more money from state and local governments.
This intimate connection between the federal government, the NWRO, and recipient groups lasted only a few years. The NWRO eventually faced organizational problems it was unable to surmount, and antipoverty programs were dismantled by the Nixon administration (Piven and Cloward 1977). But while they lasted, local recipient groups were forged into a movement by experienced civil rights activists and government-funded volunteers under the direction of a single well-trained organizer with an entrepreneurial instinct.
THE WOMEN’S LIBERATION MOVEMENT
Women are not well organized. Historically tied to the family and isolated from their own kind, only in the nineteenth century did women in this country have the opportunity to develop independent associations of their own. These associations took years and years of careful organizational work to build. Eventually they formed the basis for the suffrage movement of the early twentieth century. The associations took less time to die. Today the Women`s Trade Union League, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, not to mention the powerful National American Woman Suffrage Association, are all either dead or a pale shadow of their former selves.
As of 1960, not one organization of women had the potential to become a social movement organization, nor was there any form of “neutral” structure of interaction to provide the base for such an organization. Only the National Woman’s Party remained dedicated to feminist concerns, and it was essentially a lobbying group for the Equal Rights Amendment, which few outside Washington, D.C. had ever heard of. The 180,000-member National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs might have provided a base. Yet, while it steadily lobbied for legislation of importance to women, as late as l966 it “rejected a number of suggestions that it redefine . . . goals and tactics and become a kind of ‘NAACP for women’ . . . out of fear of being labeled ‘feminist’ “ (Hole and Levine 1971, 81). Before any social movement could develop among women, there had to be a structure to bring potential feminist sympathizers together.
What happened in the 1960s was the development of two new communications networks in which women played prominent roles that allowed, even forced, an awakened interest in feminist ideas. As a result, the movement actually has two origins, from two different strata of society, with two different styles, orientations, values, and forms of organization. The first of these will be referred to as the “older branch” of the movement, partially because it began first and partially because it was on the older side of the “generation gap” that pervaded the sixties. Its most prominent organization is the National Organization for Women (NOW), which was founded in 1966. The “younger branch” consisted of innumerable small groups engaged in a variety of activities whose contact with one another was always tenuous (Freeman 1975, 50).
The forces that led to NOW’s formation were set in motion in 1961 when President Kennedy established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women at the behest of Esther Peterson, then director of the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor. Its 1963 report, American Women, and subsequent committee publications documented just how thoroughly women were denied many rights and opportunities. The most significant response to the activity of the President’s Commission was the establishment of some fifty state commissions to do similar research on a state level. The Presidential and State Commission activity laid the groundwork for the future movement in two significant ways: (1) It unearthed ample evidence of women’s unequal status and in the process convinced many previously uninterested women that something should be done; (2) it created a climate of expectations that something would be done. The women of the Presidential and State Commissions who were exposed to these influences exchanged visits, correspondence, and staff, and met with one other at an annual commission conference organized by the Women’s Bureau. They were in a position to share and mutually reinforce their growing awareness and concern over women’s issues. These commissions created an embryonic communications network.
During this time, two other events of significance occurred. The first was the publication of Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique in 1963. A quick best seller, the book stimulated many women to question the status quo and some women to suggest to Friedan that an organization be formed to do something about it. The second event was the addition of “sex” to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibiting employment discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission refused to seriously enforce the “sex” provision. A rapidly growing feminist coterie within the EEOC concluded that “sex” would be taken more seriously if there were “some sort of NAACP for women” to put pressure on the government. They talked to the women they thought could organize such a group.
On June 30, 1966, these three strands of incipient feminism came together, and NOW was tied from the knot. At that time, government officials running the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women, ironically titled “Targets for Action,” forbade the presentation of a suggested resolution calling for the EEOC to treat sex discrimination with the same consideration as race discrimination. The officials said one government agency could not be allowed to pressure another, despite the fact that the state commissions were not federal agencies. The small group of women who desired such a resolution had met the night before in Friedan’s hotel room to discuss the possibility of a civil rights organization for women. Not convinced of the need, they chose instead to propose the resolution. When conference officials vetoed it, they held a whispered conversation over lunch and agreed to form an action organization “to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, assuming all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.” The name NOW was coined by Friedan who was at the conference doing research on a book. When word leaked out, twenty-eight women paid five dollars each to join before the day was over (Friedan 1967, 4).
By the time the organizing conference was held the following October 29 and 30, over three hundred men and women had become charter members. Instead of organizational experience, what the early NOW members had was experience in working with and in the media, and it was here that their early efforts were aimed. As a result, NOW often gave the impression of being larger than it was. It was highly successful in getting in the press; much less successful in either bringing about concrete changes or forming an organization. Thus it was not until 1970, when the national press simultaneously did major stories on the women’s liberation movement, that NOW’s membership increased significantly (Freeman, 1975, 85-87).
In the meantime, unaware of and unknown to NOW, the EEOC, or the State Commissions, younger women began forming their own movement. Here, too, the groundwork had been laid some years before. The different social action projects of the sixties had attracted many women, who were quickly shunted into traditional roles and faced with the self-evident contradiction of working in a “freedom movement” but not being very free. No single “youth movement” activity or organization is responsible for forming the youngest branch of the women’s liberation movement, but together they created a “radical community” in which like-minded people continually interacted or were made aware of one another. This community provided the necessary network of communication and its radical ideas the framework of analysis that “explained” the dismal situation in which radical women found themselves.
Papers had been circulated on women and individual temporary women’s caucuses had been held as early as 1964 (see Hayden and King 1966). But it was not until 1967 and 1968 that the groups developed a determined, if cautious, continuity and began to consciously expand themselves. At least five groups in five different cities (Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, Seattle, and Gainesville, Florida) formed spontaneously, independently of one another. They came at an auspicious moment, for 1967 was the year in which the blacks kicked the whites out of the civil rights movement, student power was discredited by SDS, and the New Left was on the wane. Only draft resistance activities were on the increase, and this movement more than any other exemplified the social inequities of the sexes. Men could resist the draft. Women could only counsel resistance.
At this point, there were few opportunities available for political work. Some women fit well into the secondary role of draft counseling. Many didn’t. For years their complaints of unfair treatment had been forestalled by movement men with the dictum that those things could wait until after the Revolution. Now these political women found time on their hands, but still the men would not listen.
A typical example was the event that precipitated the formation of the Chicago group, the first independent group in this country. At the August 1967 National Conference for New Politics convention a women’s caucus met for days, but was told its resolution wasn’t significant enough to merit a floor discussion. By threatening to tie up the convention with procedural motions the women succeeded in having their statement tacked to the end of the agenda. It was never discussed. The chair refused to recognize any of the many women standing by the microphone, their hands straining upwards. When he instead called on someone to speak on “the forgotten American, the American Indian,” five women rushed the podium to demand an explanation. But the chairman just patted one of them on the head (literally) and told her, “Cool down, little girl. We have more important things to talk about than women’s problems.”
The “little girl” was Shulamith Firestone, future author of The Dialectic of Sex, and she didn’t cool down. Instead she joined with another Chicago woman she met there who had unsuccessfully tried to organize a women’s group that summer, to call a meeting of the women who had halfheartedly attended those summer meetings. Telling their stories to those women, they stimulated sufficient rage to carry the group for three months, and by that time it was a permanent institution.
Another somewhat similar event occurred in Seattle the following winter. At the University of Washington an SDS organizer was explaining to a large meeting how white college youth established rapport with the poor whites with whom they were working. “He noted that sometimes after analyzing societal ills, the men shared leisure time by ‘balling a chick together.’ He pointed out that such activities did much to enhance the political consciousness of poor white youth. A woman in the audience asked, ‘And what did it do for the consciousness of the chick?’“ (Hole and Levine 1971, 120). After the meeting, a handful of enraged women formed Seattle’s first group.
Subsequent groups to the initial five were largely organized rather than formed spontaneously out of recent events. In particular, the Chicago group was responsible for the formation of many new groups in Chicago and in other cities. Unlike NOW, the women in the first groups had had years of experience as trained organizers. They knew how to utilize the infrastructure of the radical community, the underground press, and the free universities to disseminate women’s liberation ideas. Chicago, as a center of New Left activity, had the largest number of politically conscious organizers. Many traveled widely to left conferences and demonstrations, and most used the opportunity to talk with other women about the new movement. In spite of public derision by radical men, or perhaps because of it, young women steadily formed new groups around the country.
From these data there appear to be four essential elements involved in movement formation: (1) the growth of a preexisting communications network that is (2) cooptable to the ideas of the new movement; (3) a series of crises that galvanize into action people involved in a cooptable network, and/or (4) subsequent organizing effort to weld the spontaneous groups together into a movement. Each of these elements needs to be examined in detail.
The four movements we have looked at developed out of already existing networks within their populations. The church and the black college were the primary institutions through which southern blacks communicated their concerns. In the North the church was much weaker and the black college nonexistent, perhaps explaining why the movement had greater difficulty developing and surviving there. The Movement, composed primarily of white youth, had its centers on the campus because this was where that constituency could readily be found. Nonetheless, campuses were too large and disconnected for incipient movement leaders to find each other. Instead they fruitfully used the national and regional conferences of the National Student Association to identify and reach those students who were socially conscious. The welfare rights movement, much more than the others, was created by the conscious efforts of one person. But that person had to find constituents somewhere, and he found them most readily in groups already organized by antipoverty agencies. Organizers for the national movement, in turn, were found among former civil rights activists looking for new directions for their political energies.
The women’s liberation movement, even more than the previous ones, illustrates the importance of a network precisely because the conditions for a movement existed before a network came into being, but the movement didn’t exist until afterward. Analysts of socioeconomic causes have concluded that the movement could have started anytime within a 20 year period. Strain for women was as great in 1955 as in 1965 (Ferriss 1971). What changed was the organizational situation. It was not until new networks emerged among women aware of inequities beyond local boundaries that a movement could grow past the point of occasional, spontaneous uprisings. The fact that two distinct movements, with two separate origins, developed from two networks unaware of each other is further evidence of the key role of preexisting communications networks as the fertile soil in which new movements can sprout.
A recurrent theme is that not just any communications network will do. It must be one that is co-optable to the ideas of the new movement. The Business and Professional Women’s (BPW) clubs were a network among women, but having rejected feminism, they could not overcome the ideological barrier to new political action until after feminism became established. Similarly, there were other communications networks among students than that of the NSA, for example fraternities and athletic associations. But these were not networks that politically conscious young people were likely to be involved in.
On the other hand, the women on the Presidential and State Commissions and the feminist coterie of the EEOC were co-optable largely because their immersion in the facts of female status and the details of sex discrimination cases made them very conscious of the need for change. Likewise, the young women of the “radical community” lived in an atmosphere of questioning, confrontation, and change. They absorbed an ideology of “freedom” and “liberation” far more potent than any latent antifeminism” might have been.
NSA does not appear to have been as readily co-optable to the Movement as the new women’s networks were to feminism. As an association of student governments, its participants had other concerns besides political ones. But while it didn’t transform itself, it was a source of recruitment and a forum for discussion that gave the early SDS organizers contacts on many campuses.
Exactly what makes a network co-optable is harder to elucidate. Pinard (1971, 186) noted the necessity for groups to “possess or develop an ideology or simply subjective interests congruent with that of a new movement” for them to “act as mobilizing rather than restraining agents toward that movement.” The diffusion of innovation studies point out that new ideas must fit in with already established norms for changes to happen easily. Furthermore, a social system that has as a value “innovativeness” (as the radical community did) will more rapidly adopt ideas than one that looks upon the habitual performance of traditional practices as the ideal (as most organized women’s groups did in the fifties). People who have had similar experiences are likely to share similar perceptions of a situation and to mutually reinforce those perceptions as well as their subsequent interpretation. A co-optable network, then, is one whose members have had common experiences that predispose them to be receptive to the particular new ideas of the incipient movement and who are not faced with structural or ideological barriers to action. If the new movement can interpret these experiences and perceptions in ways that point out channels for social action, then participation in a social movement becomes the logical thing to do.
The Role of Crises
As our examples have illustrated, similar perceptions must be translated into action. This is often done by a crisis. For blacks in Montgomery, this was prompted by Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. For women who formed the older branch of the women’s movement, the impetus to organize was the refusal of the EEOC to enforce the sex provision of Title VII, precipitated by the concomitant refusal of federal officials at the conference to allow a supportive resolution. For younger women there were a series of minor crises.
While not all movements are formed by such precipitating events, they are quite common, as they serve to crystallize and focus discontent. From their own experiences, directly and concretely, people feel the need for change in a situation that allows for an exchange of feelings with others, mutual validation, and a subsequent reinforcement of innovative interpretation. Nothing makes desire for change more acute than a crisis. Such a crisis need not be a major one; it need only embody collective discontent.
A crisis will only catalyze a well-formed communications network. If such networks are embryonically developed or only partially co-optable, the potentially active individuals in them must be linked together by someone. This is essentially what George Wiley did for local recipient groups and what other SDS organizers did with the contacts they made in NSA and on campuses. “Some protest may persist where the source of trouble is constantly present. But interest ordinarily cannot be maintained unless there is a welding of spontaneous groups into some stable organization” (Jackson et al. 1960, 37). In other words, people must be organized. Social movements do not simply occur.
The role of the organizer in movement formation is another neglected aspect of the theoretical literature. There has been great concern with leadership, but the two roles are distinct and not always performed by the same individual. In the early stages of a movement, it is the organizer much more than any leader who is important, and such an individual or cadre must often operate behind the scenes.
The importance of organizers is pervasive in the sixties’ movements. Dr. King may have been the public spokesperson of the Montgomery Bus Boycott who caught the eye of the media, but it was E.D. Nixon and the WPC women who organized it. Certainly the “organizing cadre” that young women in the radical community came to be was key to the growth of that branch of the women’s liberation movement, despite the fact that no “leaders” were produced (and were actively discouraged). The existence of many leaders but no organizers in the older branch of the women’s liberation movement readily explains its subsequent slow development. The crucial role of organizers in SDS and the National Welfare Rights Organization were described earlier.
Other organizations, even the government, often serve as training centers for organizers and sources of material support to aid the formation of groups and/or movements. The civil rights movement was the training ground for many an organizer of other movements. The League for Industrial Democracy financed SDS in its early days, and the NSA provided indirect support by hiring many SDS organizers as NSA staff. The role of the government in the formation of the National Welfare Rights Organization was quite significant.
From all this it would appear that training as an organizer or at least as a proselytizer or entrepreneur of some kind is a necessary background for those individuals who act as movement innovators. Even in something as seemingly spontaneous as a social movement, the professional is more valuable than the amateur.
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