Slacker’s Syllabus: 5 Radical Social Movements From History

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Social movements are growing in the U.S.

As fascism rose under former President Donald Trump, activists used his administration to spur discussions around white supremacy and decolonization.

But people became angrier after the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated systemic inequalities. Now, millions are demanding that we don’t simply return to the “before” times, but instead, create something better.

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Today’s movements aren’t new.

When looking at the modern movements for Black lives, climate justice, and housing justice, it’s important to recognize that every effort today is owed to earlier resistances.

While you can trace movements back centuries, you don’t even need to go that far to start.

These five radical movements from the ‘60s and ‘70s influence the organizing we see today.

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The Black Power Movement

Most people are familiar with Black people’s pursuit for justice through the Civil Rights Movement, which began in the 1950s.

But by the tail-end of the 1960s, political differences would lead civil rights organizers to create something new: the Black Power Movement.

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The Black Power Movement can be traced to the “March Against Fear.”

On June 5, 1966, James Meredith, the first Black student at the University of Mississippi, started a 220-mile trek from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi.

In less than a day, Meredith drew a crowd of supporters, reporters — and adversaries. On June 6, a white man shot Meredith in the head, neck, and back. So thousands of marchers, including civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), and Floyd McKissick, continued the trek in his place.

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Disillusioned by the notion of “redemptive suffering”, Ture, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, drifted from King’s non-violent tactics.

The March Against Fear solidified that. Ture was arrested in Greenwood, Mississippi. Upon his release, he led the crowd in chanting, “We want Black power!”

He didn’t create the phrase; a year earlier, the Alabama Lowndes County Freedom Organization had used the slogan “Black power for Black people.” But he did reignite it.

Meredith’s march marked a change: demands for civil rights had become demands for Black power.

[King’s] major assumption was that if you are nonviolent ... your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. ... He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.

The Black Power Movement ran from the late 1960s to the 1970s.

It focused on self-defense, self-sufficiency, economic empowerment, and developing both political and cultural institutions for Black people.

Notable groups included the Oakland-founded Black Panther Party, which developed a free breakfast program for kids, and the Nation of Islam, where Malcolm X got his start as a minister. His 1965 assassination prompted the beginning of the Black Arts Movement. Other notable figures include Assata Shakur, Mae Mallory, and Angela Davis.

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The Young Lords

Directly inspired by the Black Panther Party, José “Cha Cha” Jiménez established the Young Lords in 1968.

Originally started by Puerto Ricans, the Young Lords confronted racism, police brutality, and gentrification. They would attract members from other Latinx groups and have a large Afro-Latinx membership.

The Young Lords also had a firm anti-colonial and anti-imperialist stance, with demands for Puerto Rican independence and the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.

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The Young Lords took off after the formation of a New York chapter in 1969. Its founders included Denise Oliver-Velez, who was also a member of the Black Panther Party, Pablo Guzmán, and Felipe Luciano.

Well-versed in how to push the messaging of social causes, the New York chapter used radical action to confront the status quo. In December 1969, the Young Lords took over the First Spanish United Methodist Church in East Harlem for 11 days. They used the space to provide services to the community.

The Young Lords also worked with the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement (HRUM) to create a 10-point health program.

The Young Lords were integral to interracial organizing within the ‘60s and ‘70s.

In 1969, Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, created a “Rainbow Coalition”, which included various radical community groups like the Young Lords, the Brown Berets, and the Young Patriots.

José Jiménez would refer to the Rainbow Coalition as a “poor people’s army.” He told Southside Weekly, “We were already fighting for our rights in our neighborhoods, and we needed to form a united front.”

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Our mission was self-determination for our barrios and all oppressed nations.

José “Cha Cha” Jiménez

The American Indian Movement

Founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1968, the American Indian Movement fought for the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty.

It also wanted to revitalize traditional culture, namely spiritual practices, to help strengthen people to confront the United States, Canada, and other governments.

AIM’s founders included Dennis Banks, George Mitchell, Eddie Benton Banai, and Clyde Bellecourt.

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AIM’s tactics included many highly-publicized protests.

In 1969, AIM collaborated with other Native American groups to occupy Alcatraz Island. The 19-month occupation sought to remind the world that American Indians were still alive and fighting for their rights.

AIM also organized the “Trail of Broken Treaties” march on Washington, D.C., in 1972. The group would end up occupying the office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1973, AIM helped take over Wounded Knee.

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Women were fundamental to AIM’s success.

Women not only participated in direct actions like the occupation of Alcatraz, but also provided vital support behind the scenes. Per MNOpedia, notable women of AIM include Pat Bellanger, who was nicknamed “Grandma Aim,” Sarah Bad Heart, and Anna Mae Aquash.

Still, women were often excluded from leadership. In 1974, Janet McCloud, Madonna Gilbert Thunder Hawk, and hundreds of other women from 30 tribal commissions formed Women of All Red Nations in response to their exclusion. The group also emphasized interracial solidarity.

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It’s like the fingers of your hand; if you fight with one at a time, they’ll cut you down. If you meet them with one mighty fist, they can’t beat you. This fist is all of us — women, Indians, Blacks, sexual minorities, Chicanos, Asian Americans — all of us!

The Chicano Movement

In 1930, when the U.S. Census introduced Mexican American as its own race, many community leaders pushed back until the classification was changed to white.

That desire to assimilate was driven by attempts to earn civil rights. But by the mid-1960s, Mexican Americans would abandon assimilation efforts in favor of the more radical Chicano Movement.

Often used as a slur, activists reclaimed “chicano” as a show of unity and shared identity.

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Farming and labor rights were central to the Chicano Movement.

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The Chicano Movement’s exact origins are hard to nail down. Many, however, point to the work of César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962.

In 1965, the NFWA joined Filipino Americans organized by Larry Itliong and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in the Delano Grape Strike. Workers demanded the formation of a union, fair wages, and benefits like medical care and retirement funds. It lasted five years.

In the third year, Chávez, frustrated at the lack of progress, embarked on a hunger strike.

We are not afraid nor do we cringe from the confrontation. We welcome it! We have planned for it! We know that our cause is just, that history is a story of social revolution, and that the poor shall inherit the land.

Meanwhile, youth were growing the Chicano Movement in the cities.

In 1966, teenagers David Sanchez and Carlos Montes founded the Brown Berets — originally known as the Young Chicanos for Community Action — in Monterey Park, California.

The organization was also active in Los Angeles’s Eastside neighborhoods. They took on police brutality, racism, and educational reform with calls for bilingual services, improved school conditions, and the inclusion of Chicano studies.

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The Asian American Movement

Asian activists were consistently involved in other radical movements —either at the forefront, as with the Delano Grape Strike, or as allies, like Yuri Kochiyama, who was a friend of Malcolm X. But by the end of the 1960s, Asian activists were searching for a way to unify their struggles like the Black Power Movement and the Chicano Movement had done for their communities.

In that time it was common to identify by ethnic roots. Activists, however, didn’t want to draw on a term like “Oriental” due to its colonialist connotations.

Enter a new alternative: Asian American.

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Where did the term Asian American come from?

In 1968, two grad students at the University of California at Berkeley, Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, created a student organization to increase the visibility of Asian activists. They called themselves the Asian American Political Alliance.

As Time noted, Asian American didn’t just become an umbrella term: “By uniting those subgroups linguistically, it also helped unite activists in their fight for greater equality.” Other branches of the AAPA would form at Yale and Columbia.

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The AAPA identified as an anti-imperialist organization — but they weren’t the only ones.

In 1969, I Wor Kuen, a Marxist organization, formed in New York City. The name came from a peasant group that fought in China during the beginning of the Boxer Rebellion.

Like the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, I Wor Keun organized community programs, like childcare, draft counseling services, and even had its own newsletter, Getting Together.

Nationwide, Asian activists also fought to end the Vietnam War, offer reparations for Japanese Americans forced into interment camps, and reform education to include Asian American studies.

We figured that if we rallied behind our own banner, behind an Asian American banner, we would have an effect on the larger public. We could extend the influence beyond ourselves, to other Asian Americans.