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The marches that have shaped America

A wave of progressive movements, driven by decades of swelling unrest among women and minority groups, crested in 1968. It was a show of activism, both peaceful and violent, that the nation hasn’t seen since. At least, not until now.

ANNIE RICE/AP
PROTESTERS MARCH AGAINST GUN VIOLENCE ON CHICAGO’S DAN RYAN EXPRESSWAY JULY 7.

Protest is among the most celebrated means of expression in America. From its founding, the United States has maintained the people’s right to speak – and march and act, especially against injustice – as a basic principle of democracy.

Fifty years ago, that principle was put to the test in a profound way. A wave of progressive movements, driven by decades of swelling unrest among women and minority groups, crested in 1968. That year, political assassinations and race riots took place alongside protests against racial and gender discrimination and the Vietnam War. It was a show of activism, both peaceful and violent, that the nation hasn’t seen since.

At least, not until now. The years preceding the election of Donald Trump saw the rise of a new breed of activist groups, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter. These organizations hit both the streets and social media to call for change to a system they said was oppressive and broken. Then Mr. Trump became president. Now, in 2018, it’s not unusual to see hundreds of thousands of people flood city squares to rally for things such as women’s rights, racial equality, or gun control. 

This summer a companion and I took off on a cross-country road trip from Los Angeles to Washington to take a closer look at this new surge of activism. Is opposition to the president’s policies really the main driving force? What other forms is activism taking? And how closely are these new activists linked to their predecessors of half a century ago?

We went to small towns and big cities and spoke to veterans and educators, musicians and photographers, former militants and recent politicians. We found striking similarities between past and present. 

Now, as then, the crucial issues center on race, gender, and America’s approach to governance both at home and abroad. As before, good old-fashioned marches are considered vital to activism but not the only, or even most important, element. And while Trump’s actions may be a motivating factor, there’s a sense – as there was in the 1960s – that the problem isn’t one person but the system writ large. 

We also saw how much technology, and the times, have changed. The internet and social media have transformed activism about as much as they’ve transformed everything else. The minority groups that once wanted to be heard are now mobilizing the vote and aiming for positions of leadership, many for the first time. Ultimately, we learned that the power of America’s protest tradition is undiminished. Americans remain radically hopeful that they can bring about the progress they want to see in their society and democracy, if only enough of them come together and work to make it happen.

In 1968 that conviction led to seismic shifts in race and gender relations, party politics, and American identity – shifts that still shape the nation’s perspectives and policies. It’s too soon to be sure, but I can easily imagine future generations saying the same of today’s burgeoning movements. 

Give me a call in 50 years. 

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