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Does Activism Change History?

And will the George Floyd protests cause meaningful change?

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  • Activism is the practice of emphasizing direct action in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue. [Merriam-Webster]
  • Activism attempts to intervene in support or against specific social, political, economic, or environmental reforms. [University of California
  • Activists can advocate for opinions that differ from your own and is not always political. 

Activism can take many forms, including:

  • Writing letters to newspapers or elected officials,
  • Protesting or rallies,
  • Strikes or hunger strikes,
  • Sit-ins,
  • Creating art or music,
  • Vigils,
  • Computer hacking (hacktivism),
  • Making economic choices aligned to beliefs (economic activism or brandivism),
  • Running or contributing to political campaigns.

Check out ten ways you can be involved in activism from ADL.




CIVICS: Being an activist or participating in activism is a form of civic engagement. A healthy democracy requires civic engagement from informed citizens.

SOCIAL: Activism can be healing and energizing for communities as they come together to demand change. Historically, activists use literature and education to get the word out about the desired cause. Now, activists use social media to quickly facilitate civic action.


But can activism truly change history?


The Civil Rights Movement of

1950s and 1960s

In the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement was focused on equal rights under the law. The Civil Rights Movement changed history by ending the legal acceptance of segregation in the U.S. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is recognized as a cornerstone of the movement. [HISTORY]


A key to its success was leadership. Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as a national icon that rallied the general public around the movement.




The National Rifle Association (NRA) was formed in 1871 around "defending and expanding the gun rights of gun owners in the United States." [NRA] The NRA continues to change history by effectively controlling federal legislation on gun ownership from being passed.


A key to their success has been its focus on grassroots organizing and emboldening their grassroots bases through community events.




2017 saw the worldwide birth of the #metoo movement, where women were empowered to speak up about sexual harassment in society. [The Chicago Tribune] The #metoo movement has changed history by redefining what is considered acceptable workplace behavior. [Vox]


A key to their success continues to be amplifying lived experiences to advocate for a shift in social norms and behaviors.


Occupy Wall Street 

In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement had hundreds of protestors physically occupying Wall Street in NYC.


The protestors rallied against the influence of corporate money in politics, but participants also voiced frustration about what they saw as corporate greed and financial and social inequality in the U.S. [The Atlantic]


The movement was unable to make meaningful change.


The issue? Many argue that the group had no clear leadership and fought for too many social changes.



Anti-War movements

Multiple generations have promoted in some form an anti-war sentiment. Most notably, the anti-war protests of 1960 and 1970 protested against the Vietnam War. [HISTORY]


While the United States did not expand efforts in Vietnam in large part to the protests, there have been multiple wars immediately following the loss in Vietnam including the Korean War and the ongoing "war on terrorism." [Khan Academy]


  • Jun. 2020: The cry for justice has reached countries across the world, as communities protested in solidarity with not only the Black American community but also global communities of color. [Associated Press]
  • May 2020: Protests across the country erupted against police brutality towards Black communities and in support of the #blacklivesmatter movement. [National Geographic] It sparked over George Floyd's death, a Black American that was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for over 8 minutes. [The New York Times]
  • Aug. 2018: Greta Thunberg mobilized hundreds of thousands of students worldwide around #FridaysForFuture to walk out of schools in protest of the response to climate change. [Reuters]
  • Feb. 2018: Parkland Flordia high school students devastated by gun violence rallied hundreds of thousands of students through the March For Our Lives movement to protest gun violence and demand gun reform (). [TIME]
  • Oct. 2017: Actress Alyssa Milano reignites "Me Too" with the tweet "If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet," and it quickly turned into a movement. [The Chicago Tribune]
  • Jan. 2017: The day after President Trump's inauguration, The Women's March drew more than 3 million protestors around the country to demand gender equality. [HISTORY]
  • Aug. 2016: Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem in support of the #blacklivesmatter movement and to call attention to police brutality and racial injustice in America. [Aljazeera]


  • How can you use failed social movements, like Occupy Wall Street, as a case study to ensure your cause leads to meaningful change?
  • How the media portrays social movements, specifically protests, directly relates to the success of the movement. Read more from NiemanLab.
  • Social media appears to be at the core of activism today. [Pew Research Center] What are the benefits and potential pitfalls of using social platforms to support movements?
  • How can we move past marching in the streets to creating systemic change that moves us towards a better union? 
  • Read a piece on "The Renaissance of Student Activism" from The Atlantic and how many feel the future promised to them has been taken away.
Key Vocabulary