3. Redefine the meaning of punishment
On July 6, 1892, 300 armed detectives confronted a group of unionized steelworkers who had been locked out of a steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania. The workers, who were striking for better wages at a time when people routinely worked 12-hour-per-day, six-day weeks, fought back with stones and guns. They eventually forced the armed detectives to surrender. Three workers and seven detectives died.
That confrontation is now known as the Homestead Strike. It pitted ordinary workers against steel titan Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie eventually crushed the worker’s union, reduced wages and eliminated 500 jobs.
The past can inspire, yet it can also be intimidating. Some believe that contemporary Americans are too jaded and lazy to take the risks that 19th century workers at the Homestead Mill took. Can anyone envision striking fast-food workers fighting pitched battles against armed troops today?
One historian who has studied movements, though, says the belief that modern Americans lack the right stuff to rise up is “hogwash.”
Sam Pizzigati is the author of “The Rich Don’t Always Win,” a book that traces how ordinary Americans in the first part of the 20th century rose up against plutocrats like Carnegie to create a vibrant middle class. Pizzigati calls that battle a “forgotten triumph.”
When people experience enough pain, they will mobilize, says Pizzigati, a labor journalist and associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
“When people’s situation becomes worse, when something changes and things that people took for granted have suddenly gone by the board and they see their position in society sinking, that’s a powerful factor that can drive movements,” Pizzigati says.
He points to the Great Depression as an example. In 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression, the top 1% of Americans took in 23.9% of the nation’s income. The rich ruled. (In 2007, on the eve of the Great Recession, the 1% took in 23.5% of the nation’s income, according to a University of California Berkeley study.)
In 20 years, though, a political movement arose that “totally” transformed the nation, he says. A “New Deal” coalition led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced a series of reforms to protect Americans from the worst features of unrestrained capitalism. They created Social Security, strong banking regulations, raised taxes on the rich and protected the rights of unions to organize.
The New Deal is a classic example of the weak and powerless — out of work Americans standing in bread lines — triumphing over the fierce resistance of many of the wealthiest and most powerful elites in America who dismissed the New Deal as socialism and class warfare.
Pizzigati calls the New Deal an “egalitarian triumph.”
He says most Americans in the “Roaring ’20s” seemed to accept the economic inequality of that time. Few people thought anything could change, and the courts often ruled against any attempts to protect ordinary workers from workplace injuries and low pay.
Yet that same generation rose up to make the New Deal a reality, he says.
“As dark as things may seem at a given moment,” he says, “things can change very rapidly when a social movement takes off.”
Sometimes there is no cataclysmic event that inspires people to risk it all to join a movement. It can be the steady buildup of humiliation as people stew over being treated as second-class citizens.
Consider the gay and lesbian movement for equality. Palmer, author of “Healing the Heart of Democracy,” says that for years, many gay and lesbians suffered in silence as people denigrated their humanity. That changed when a critical mass decided that the pain of “behaving on the outside in a way that contradicts the truth” that they held inside was too much.
“They redefined punishment,” Palmer says.
“The redefinition goes like this: No punishment anyone can lay on me can possibly be any worse than the punishment I lay on myself by conspiring in my own diminishment.”
4. Divide the elites
It’s easy to demonize “The Man” if you’re talking with friends in a late-night dorm room rap session. But you’re going to need “The Man” if you’re going to beat “The Man,” some historians say.
“Movements at some point have to get support from the elites,” says Kazin, the Georgetown historian. “You need legitimation. You need some authorities to sort of say we may not support everything you’re doing but basically you’re in the right.”
The civil rights movement got that support from the elites when the Democratic Party backed a civil rights bill during its convention in 1948, even though Southern White Democrats walked out, Kazin says.
Five years later, another group of elites lent their support to the movement. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the separate but equal doctrine was unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education.
“The Supreme Court unanimously said that segregation was wrong,” Kazin says. “They had an impact.”
A movement, though, can’t appeal to the altruism of elites to get their support. Elites help movements when they feel their own interests are threatened, says Pizzigati, author of “The Rich Don’t Always Win.”
That cold calculus among the rich is what made the New Deal possible, he says.
Economic conditions were so bad in America during the 1930s that many of the rich in America feared social upheaval, he says. The rich were being blamed for miserable economic conditions. People feared revolution. In 1932, the Communist Party held a rally in New York — 60,000 people showed up as nervous police officers with machine guns looked on, Pizzigati says.
The people at the top feared that social instability would cause American society to crumble. They were people like Randolph Paul, a wealthy Wall Street tax lawyer who warned other wealthy Americans that they were courting disaster, Pizzigati says.
“Paul became such a fierce advocate for very high taxes on the American rich because he said that we could not tolerate the level of income inequality in the U.S., that it was going to bring the country down,” Pizzigati says.
Other wealthy Americans brought into Paul’s rationale. They allowed their taxes to go up. The Cold War helped as well. Communists said capitalism spawned yawning gaps between the rich and poor, and the American elite wanted to prove them wrong, Pizzigati says.
And they were willing to pay the price to make these changes possible, he says. By 1961, a married couple’s income over $400,000 was taxed at a 91% rate, Pizzigati says.
The rich weren’t as rich, but America’s middle class was booming, Pizzigati says.
“We had a fundamental economic shift,” Pizzigati says. “The plutocracy that had existed at the beginning of the 20th century had essentially disappeared. We went from a place that was two-thirds poor to two-thirds middle-class.”
Could people without power spark such a movement today?
Palmer, author of “Healing the Heart of Democracy,” believes they can. He is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, a nonprofit that often works with activists through programs and retreats.
He says younger activists are more adept at coalition building.
“The young people today walk across lines of difference like they’re not even there,” he says. “My generation didn’t walk across lines of sexual orientation, race or religion as easily as these kids. For a lot of them, it’s not even noticed.”
Still, there is one final lesson for anyone who wants to join a movement. Victory is fleeting and setbacks rare inevitable. At times, it can seem like it was all a waste.
King fought such a letdown later in his life.
Five years after he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, he gave a different one at a church in Memphis, Tennessee. The crowds weren’t hanging onto his words like they once did. He had become unpopular because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam. Black militants scorned his nonviolent approach. And his plan to create a multiracial army of poor people to occupy Washington was floundering.
Yet he told the shouting audience at the Memphis church that “we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
King was assassinated the next day as he stood on the balcony of a motel chatting with his friends below.
He would not live to see his birthday turned into a national holiday. He wouldn’t see the first Black president elected. And he wouldn’t see his four children become adults.
Those who give the most to a movement often don’t see the rewards of their risk.
“We plant the seeds, but we don’t know what the crop will look like,” Palmer says.
That is perhaps the harshest lesson of all.