A History of Social Movements in the U.S.

A collection of links and resources relating to the history of social justice movements in the United States.

The American Revolution

It’s easy to forget just how revolutionary the American Revolution was. The war and the events that precipitated it represented not simply a battle between colony and Crown, but the will of common people to establish a more fair and equal, democratic society. Of course, the Founding Fathers were not without their faults—both personal and ideological—but the spirit of resistance on which they built our nation has allowed for and inspired many American social movements since.

The Black Freedom Struggle

Since 1619, when the first slaves were brought from Africa to the Virginia colony, Black people in this country have been fighting for their freedom. In the 1830s, the Abolitionist Movement grew out of the belief that African-Americans should be treated as human beings and not as property. The movement drew support  both from slaves and white settlers, like the Quakers. Its leaders were women, like the famous underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, and men, like William Lloyd Garrison, whose abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator” helped spread abolitionist ideas across the Northern states. Although the 13th amendment deemed slavery unconstitutional in 1865, the struggle was far from over. Freedom fighters organized to end Jim Crow in the 1950s and 1960s, have struggled for a more fair and equitable political and economic system, and continue to fight against the harmful effects of mass incarceration and police brutality today. Below are some of the highlights of this long and growing history:

The Women's Rights Movement

The history of the Women’s Rights Movement is often traced back to 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, where feminist pioneers issued the Declaration of Sentiments. It began: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” Thirty years later in 1878, Susan B. Anthony wrote and submitted an amendment to the United States Constitution that would grant women the right to vote. It was ratified in 1920. In the years that followed the passage of the 19th amendment, women continued to work steadily to achieve equal treatment in daily life. Their work accelerated in the 1960s when the “Second Wave” of the Women’s Movement took shape, spurred by feminist scholars like Betty Friedan and radical groups like the National Organization of Women (NOW). Since the 1960s, women’s movements have continued to take on a range of issues, from reproductive rights to workplace equality to combatting sexual harassment and assault.

The Labor Movement

Health and safety regulations, child labor laws, the minimum wage, and the eight-hour workday are all things we take for granted now, but that would never have existed if not for the efforts of organized workers. The American Labor Movement reached its apex in the 1930s and 1940s: the CIO was created and union membership shot up from nearly zero to over 35% of the labor force by the end of the Second World War. The United States got its first Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, in 1933, and the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, guaranteeing a minimum wage, overtime pay, and protections for child laborers. But the Labor Movement stretches far beyond the achievements made in its heyday. American workers have successfully demonstrated the strength in numbers since the 18th century and continue to do so today as they fight for a fair minimum wage, family benefits, and safer working conditions.

The Environmental Movement

When Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962, it exposed the dangerous environmental effects of pesticides, particularly DDT. It also reignited the Environmental Movement more than any single book since David Thoreau’s Walden. The 1960s and 1970s saw unprecedented pushes for legislation to protect the environment, inspired by the actions of everyday people. Since then, the need for a strong environmental movement has only grown. And as climate change accelerates, more heroes emerge, including the indigenous people and their allies have won significant victories against corporations in Canada, the United States, and around the world.