A Blueprint for Our Time, Our Cause, Our Victory

The Civil Rights Movement’s success was based on a
coordinated three-prong strategy of civil
disobedience, grass-roots organizing and mass
boycotts. To achieve similar victories, a national
“We are the 99%” movement must adopt and apply that
same approach.

Civil Rights Strategy and the ‘99%’ Movement

I’m Charles Pervo, and I approve of this message.

from Portside,

Applying the Successful Strategy of the Civil Rights
Movement to a National “We are the 99%” Movement

The Civil Rights Movement’s success was based on a
coordinated three-prong strategy of civil
disobedience, grass-roots organising and mass
boycotts. To achieve similar victories, a national
“We are the 99%” movement must adopt and apply that
same approach.

by Andrew Levison
The Democratic Strategist
November 17, 2011

“In the coming days the Occupy Wall Street movement faces
an extremely complex and difficult series of decisions
about its strategy and tactics. It cannot simply repeat
the initial tactic of occupying public spaces that it
has employed up to now but it has not yet developed any
clear alternative strategy for the future.

In debating their next steps the protesters – and the
massive numbers of Americans who support them – will
turn again and again to the history and example of the
civil rights movement for guidance. Martin Luther King’s
closest advisors including Jessie Jackson and Andrew
Young have noted the clear historical parallels that
exist between the two protest movements and both
activists and observers will urgently seek to find
lessons in the struggles of the past.

The discussion, however, will be hindered by the
profoundly oversimplified vision that many people today
have of how the victories of the civil rights movement
were actually achieved. Most Americans have little more
than a series of impressionistic images of the civil
rights movement – police dogs and fire hoses unleashed
against the demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama in
1963, dramatic marches attacked by police in Selma,
Alabama in 1965 and, across the south, sit- ins and
freedom rides that rocked the region in the early years
of the decade. In this vision, dramatic confrontations
with the authorities appear to have been, in effect, the
movement’s entire “strategy.”

But, in fact, behind every major campaign of the civil
rights movement there was actually a very organised and
coherent three-pronged strategy. To seriously seek
guidance for the present in the struggles of the past,
it is absolutely indispensable to understand the basic
socio- political strategy that the movement employed.

The civil rights movement’s three-pronged strategy
combined: 1. Civil disobedience 2. Grass-roots
organising and voter registration 3. Boycotts and
economic withdrawal

In every single major campaign of the civil rights
movement – Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma – these three
elements of the overall strategy were employed in a
coherent, mutually supporting and reinforcing way. In
contrast, no part of this coordinated approach was ever
successful in isolation.

Seen in this light, there are indeed reasonable
comparisons between the civil rights movement and the
initial phase of Occupy Wall Street. OWS represents a
modern application of civil disobedience, the first
component of the civil rights movement’s three-pronged
strategy. The essence of civil disobedience (also called
nonviolent direct action“) is the use of dramatic
protests that disrupt normal activities and usually
violate the law. They are designed to call attention to
the existence of injustice and win public sympathy
through the demonstrators willingness to risk danger and
injury and to go to jail for their cause.

In the early phase of the civil rights movement the most
extensive applications of civil disobedience were the
freedom rides and the sit-in’s, actions that directly
violated the morally unjust laws enforcing segregation.
As the movement’s objectives turned to social and
economic issues in the latter part of the 60’s, the
targets of civil disobedience became more abstract and
symbolic, culminating in the establishment of a tent
city on the national mall during the Poor People’s
Campaign.

But civil disobedience was only tip of the iceberg of
the civil rights movements‘ struggle against
segregation. Behind the dramatic actions that captured
the headlines was a massive grass-roots organizing
effort across the South that involved thousands of
passionate young organisers. For every one sit-in
demonstrator there were a hundred grass-roots civil
rights activists who spent months and years traveling
around the South to conduct “freedom schools” in church
basements, restaurants, barber shops and meeting halls,
gatherings that were held in even the smallest towns and
rural areas. These freedom schools patiently built
support for voter registration efforts and laid the
foundations for later political campaigns by African-
American candidates. King and his lieutenants were
always absolutely clear in saying that the only long-
range solution to segregation lay in Black Americans
winning effective political representation.

Today it is the “We Are Ohio” movement and the Wisconsin
recall campaigns, rather than Occupy Wall Street, that
represent the modern equivalents of the civil rights
movement’s grass-roots organising campaigns. During
these recent campaigns against laws designed to
eliminate the right to union representation hundreds of
thousands of petitions were signed and thousands of
volunteers engaged in door to door canvassing,
literature distribution, the manning of tables in
shopping centers and the operation of phone banks – the
hard, grueling, unsung work that is indispensable for
successful grass-roots campaigns. The one- on-one, face-
to-face organising techniques of the Ohio and Wisconsin
movements actually displayed substantial similarities
with the techniques of traditional trade union
organizing as well as with the civil rights movement.

In short, comparisons between the movements of today and
the civil rights movement cannot be limited to Occupy
Wall Street. The “We Are Ohio” and Wisconsin recall
campaigns have an equally valid claim to kinship with
the earlier struggles of the civil rights era.

The third prong of the civil rights movement’s strategy
was boycott and economic withdrawal. In the Montgomery
campaign the bus system was boycotted, in Birmingham, it
was all downtown merchants. In view of King and his
associates it was economic withdrawal that was actually
the most powerful single weapon in the nonviolent
arsenal. It was the bus boycott that won King’s first
victory in Montgomery and the boycott of downtown stores
that ultimately forced the business and political
establishment of Birmingham to negotiate.

King himself referred to boycotts as “campaigns of
economic withdrawal” and described them as “nonviolence
at peak of its power”. Here is how he expressed it in
1967:[1]

In the past six months simply by refusing to purchase
products from companies which do not hire Negroes in
meaningful numbers and in all job categories, the
Ministers of Chicago under SCLC’s Operation
Breadbasket have increased the income of the Negro
community by more than two million dollars annually.
In Atlanta the Negroes’ earning power has been
increased by more than twenty million dollars
annually over the past three years…This is
nonviolence at its peak of power.

The modern application of this strategy can now be seen
in the “Move Your Money” and related campaigns that call
on people to withdraw funds from the major banks and
reinvest them in credit unions and other more socially
conscious institutions. There are a variety of
estimates[2] from credit unions and independent sources
that suggest the campaign has already had a significant
and measurable effect, but it is also clear that this is
still the very earliest trial run for future economic
withdrawal campaigns with potentially powerful
consequences.

Beyond the current campaign aimed at the largest banks,
the tactic of economic withdrawal can be applied to a
wide variety of firms and issues. Such campaigns will
all be united by a simple underlying concept: working
people should not spend or invest their money with firms
and institutions that use those same funds to bankroll
conservative candidates, laws and policies that
undermine those same workers’ economic security,
standard of living and hopes for the future.

Consumer product companies are particularly vulnerable
to campaigns of economic withdrawal because the damage
to their reputation and image can in many cases be more
devastating than the direct economic damage itself. The
quite effective campaign by People of Color to pressure
the advertisers of Glen Beck’s TV show in 2009
demonstrated the significant leverage consumer boycott
campaigns can bring to bear in the internet age.

There are already a variety of informal linkages
developing between the three social movements above —
the “Occupy Wall Street”, “We are Ohio/Wisconsin recall”
and “Move Your Money” campaigns. Organizations including
MoveOn.org, Van Jones’ American Dream Movement and the
AFL-CIO/Working America federations have played a
significant “behind the scenes” role in supporting the
OWS, “We are Ohio” and Move Your Money” actions and also
in popularizing and promoting the broader “We are the
99%” political movement and perspective around the
country.

But the critical historical lesson that can be drawn
from the civil rights movement is the vital need for the
three prongs of the movements’ strategy – civil
disobedience, grass- roots organizing/political
mobilization and boycott/economic withdrawal – to be
employed in a coordinated way as part of a single
integrated approach. The movement’s key victories in
Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma all depended on this
coordination.

There is currently no single leader with the immense
stature of a Martin Luther King or grass-roots
organizations like SCLC and SNCC to provide such
coordination for a national “We Are the 99%” social
movement. In the modern internet-connected world,
however, more diversified and decentralized forms of
organisationare more likely to develop and are more
likely to be effective as well.

But for a “We Are the 99%” movement to achieve
substantial victories, coordination must be achieved.
Neither Occupy Wall Street nor the Ohio and Wisconsin
campaigns nor campaigns of economic withdrawal like
“Move Your Money” can, in isolation, produce
transformational victories of the scope and significance
of the victories of the civil rights movement.

In coordination, on the other hand, these three tactics
are immensely powerful. It was the combination of these
three approaches, employed in a coherent overall
strategy, that broke the back of the system of Southern
segregation within a single decade and that same three-
pronged strategy can profoundly transform America once
again today.”

1. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=1426

2. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/11/11/1035479/-Ten-stories-of-people-moving-their-money,-despite-bankefforts-to-stopthem?detail=hide

[Andrew Levison was for many years a research assistant
to Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young and other
participants in the civil rights movement. The analysis
presented here was first formulated at a 1971 conference
of The Institute for Nonviolent Social Change that
included many of the leaders of the major campaigns of
the civil rights movement.]

Emphasis Mine.

see: http://www.thedemocraticstrategist.org/

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