Mar 13, 2020 in Sociology

Social Protest Movements

Social protest movements occupy an important role in the history of the United States. US citizens are freedom loving and, thus, they do not want to experience oppression and inequality. In such a way, social protest movements are highly widespread in the United States. In fact, it is especially true for the period after World War I, when the Great Depression prevailed in the country. In general, US social movements represented a combination of collective actions aimed at supporting changes in the society. The relevance of the research topic stems from the fact that people of the modern era serve as an active political force; thus, it is important to study social protest movements in the United States in order to identify the features of the movements, the conditions of their origin, and the evolution patterns.

The XX century was rich in numerous tragic events for the country. The events of special importance include World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. All the events were connected to a large plurality of protest movements. In fact, World War I enriched the United States., as the country profited from supplying warring countries. The war transformed the country from the debtor into the creditor of Europe and positioned USA as the strongest power in the capitalist world. The industrial boom of war intensified in the first two years after the war. The American working class grew in number over the years and changed in composition. Thus, the number of black workers greatly increased. So, people moved from the southern to the northern states, where demand for labor increased. At the same time, the fight of workers for better working and living conditions intensified. However, the strikes did not last long; thus, the United States entered a period of relative economic stability.

Actually, the period of US prosperity did not last long. In 1929, an unprecedented economic crisis erupted in the United States, which later engulfed the entire capitalist world. The number of unemployed in the country reached 17 million people. Therefore, every second industrial worker was unemployed. In fact, the economic crisis received the name of the Great Depression. In the book When Government Helped, it is noted that “during the Great Depression many vibrant social movements arose contributing to a profound critique of American society and exerting pressure for change in government and corporate spheres”. The agrarian crisis, which began after the war, extremely aggravated. Such a situation represented the impetus for the protest mood of the population. A heavy blow of the economic crisis the country befell for several years, an unprecedented aggravation of poverty and distresses of millions of working people, and an anti-national course of the bourgeois government represented the objective basis for the origin of a new wave of mass labor and democratic movement in the United States in the early 30s.

However, the US working class was caught off guard for some time. Actually, it was quite a natural situation, as the degree of professional organization was extremely low. By the end of the 20s, only about 10% of workers represented the members of trade unions. The capabilities of the organized labor movement were significantly reduced because the union leadership, which was in a net of the ideology of business unionism, was unable to put forward a program of struggle for the social interests of the working class. The leaders of the American Federation of Labor failed to offer anything in order to resist the appearance of the monopolies and prevent the shift of all the burdens of the crisis on workers. In the conditions of low professional organization of the American proletariat, apathy and confusion in the trade union movement, and direct deal of AFL leaders with the government, the strike movement was rather weak.

Actually, a great number of workers became more active in their resistance to the encroachment of entrepreneurs even in the hostile environment of the economic crisis, when it was highly difficult to conduct clashes. The largest and the most militant struggles of that time occurred in 1931, in the coal regions of West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. For several months, more than 40 thousand miners waged a stubborn struggle against the anti-union terror unleashed by the mine owners, mass layoffs, and wage cuts. The miners in Illinois and Kentucky, the sewers in New York, and textile workers in Massachusetts held the major strikes. Thus, after a long period of recession of strike struggle, the first signs of revival of the strike movement became visible.

In fact, the movement of the unemployed developed even more intensively. During the crisis, the movement of the unemployed became the main form of struggle of the working class, which was affected by unemployment to a certain extent. Millions of unemployed people went on the path of struggle for the sake of satisfaction of their urgent needs. The movement of the unemployed, which developed in the early 30s, represented the first mass action of the American proletariat, where the communists played the leading role. In December 1929, the Communist Party developed a concrete program of action of the unemployed. Moreover, the communists urged them to fight for the introduction of the state social security system including unemployment insurance, the provision of immediate assistance to the unemployed by the federal government, the state and the municipal authorities, and the organization of a wide network of community work with fair pay. Under the leadership of the Communist Party, mass demonstrations against unemployment were conducted in March 6, 1930. Therefore, a great number of workers went in the streets of Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, and other industrial centers. Actually, it was the biggest demonstration of the unemployed in the US history.

Shortly after the movement of the unemployed, the Communist Party developed a draft law on social insurance. The bill provided for the payment of benefits for unemployment, sickness, and old age equal to the average wage of an industrial worker; moreover, the bill stated that the discrimination on the ground of race, sex, political or religious beliefs should be banned. The proposal for the introduction of the federal social security system found a wide response among the workers. In addition, the bill found support in numerous demonstrations and hunger marches of the unemployed in various regions of the country. Nevertheless, the congress and the president did not support the provisions of the bill.

In addition to the unemployment, the veterans of World War I required justice. Thus, they conducted a mass demonstration in 1932. Along with veterans, many workers, small entrepreneurs and traders, impoverished farmers, and employees participated in the demonstration. The demonstrators demanded the government to pay the compensation for serving in the army during war. The first participants of the demonstration began arriving in Washington in late May of 1932; there were about 24 thousand people by the middle of June. Many congressional representatives were impressed by the presence of such a large army of hungry and angry people. Therefore, the House of Representatives decided to satisfy the requirement of the veterans. However,  a bill for immediate payment of the bonus was rejected due to the insistence of the President Hoover. Such a situation caused widespread outrage of the veterans, who decided to continue the struggle. Under the influence of all the events, the movement of war veterans began to demand not only the bonus payments but also the introduction of the social security system. On July 28, 1932, the government decided to act, as it sent regular troops against war veterans. Therefore, the participants were dispersed and the camp was burned. Such actions represented the administration’s response to the peaceful movement of the masses that strive to achieve small improvement of their living conditions.

Nevertheless, violence against war veterans did not frighten working people and the movement unfolded with a new vigor. The mass protests of farmers, workers, and the unemployed broke out around the country. All the demonstrators demanded wage increases and the approval of insurance. Moreover, the protests touched upon the population of the South. Actually, mass uprising involved not only the urban workers but also tenant-sharecroppers. In such a way, all the groups of the population were involved in social movements in varying degrees around the country.

Mass movements of people created favorable conditions for agitation in favor of the introduction of the unemployment insurance system. In February 1932, the progressive Republicans achieved the adoption of the first Unemployment Insurance Act in the US history. However, this event was unable to solve the remaining problems of the state. In an extremely tense atmosphere marked by high aggravation of the economic crisis, the rapid take-off of social protest movements, and an extraordinary strengthening of the anti-monopoly sentiment among the masses of ordinary Americans, the Democrats led by Franklin D. Roosevelt came to power. The new US president with New Deal was able to reassure the public protests and bring the country out of crisis.

In the second half of the XX century, huge efforts were made in the United States in order to strengthen the economic and military power of the country, to maintain internal stability, and to improve the living standards of the population. Despite this fact, the problems of citizens encouraged them not only to protests against the existing state of affairs but also to fight for their rights. In different periods, various issues and social movements were in the foreground. In the 40s, more than 4 million people involved in mass demonstrations of workers in response to the adoption of the Taft-Hartley Act, which significantly limited the rights of trade unions. In the 50s, many states of the country experienced a struggle of black Americans against racial discrimination of the civil rights. In 1955, the blacks had a boycott of public transport, which had separate places for different people. After a year of hard struggle, the authorities were forced to cancel the segregation in public transportation. In the second half of the 60s, the movement aimed at ending the war in Vietnam acquired a considerable scope. The youth represented the major participants in the movement. The protest against the war was expressed in the refusal of the recruits to join the army, the public destruction of draft agendas, and demonstrations. In 1969, 250 thousand people held a demonstration in Washington, DC with the requirements of a speedy withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. In 1970, many universities and colleges protested against the US invasion in Cambodia. In the campus of the university, the national guardsmen started fire on students. As a result, several people were killed. During the anti-war movement, people's speeches expressed dissatisfaction with the internal policy of the government. Several groups of young people called themselves New Left. At the beginning of the XXI century, the demonstrations against the war in Iraq broke out. Therefore, social protests were held in the United States thought the XX century.

Actually, the XX century was extremely difficult for the United States. The country survived two wars and a great economic crisis. Such tragic events caused numerous social movement of the population. People were unsatisfied with the economic situation in the country and the standard of living; thus, people wanted changes. Such people as workers, militaries, agrarian, and the youth were involved in the protests. The demonstrators wanted to achieve their actions with peaceful strategies. However, the government acted in a hostile manner in some cases. In general, such factors as poverty, great stratification of the population, and dissatisfaction with the government prompted the protests in the country. Subsequently, a part of people’s demands was satisfied; although, it was done at the expense of numerous victims. In general, social struggles and movements in the United States during the second half of the XX – beginning of XXI century have demonstrated that democratic foundations, wealth, and a high level of development of society do not eliminate all the contradictions and problems of the people. In fact, the protests among the population were rather effective as certain social changes were achieved. These changes included increase of social guarantees and the appearance of social security.

Related essays