Why Some Movements Work and Others Wilt

John Blake
August 19, 2013

It is "not just the big moments - the charismatic leader and the thrilling speech - that make a movement work", John Blake writes for CNN. Looking at the 1963 March on Washington and other movements, he says that there are four rules to be remembered, if you want to make a movement work and be successful.

Nan Grogan Orrock defied her family's wishes by sneaking away to join the 1963 March on Washington. But don't ask her about Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. She doesn't remember it.

She was struck by something else.

Orrock was stunned by the marchers. They nonchalantly told her they had been fired from their jobs, forced from their homes and beaten and jailed for joining the movement.

A white student at a women's college in Virginia, Orrock had ignored the movement until then; she'd been taught by her fellow Southerners that civil rights were "somebody else's business that had nothing to do with me."

"The highlight of the day was not his speech," says Orrock, now a Democratic senator in the Georgia legislature. "My mind was on fire from all that I was seeing and hearing. I realized that I was in the presence of great courage. I resolved that day that I was going to be a part of this."

When the country commemorates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28, some will ask if the nation needs another civil rights movement today. Here's another question: What makes a movement work in the first place? Why do some movements like the struggle for civil rights take off while others like Occupy Wall Street wilt?

Orrock's story suggests that it's not just the big moments - the charismatic leader and the thrilling speech - that make a movement work. There are those tiny moments, such as ordinary people sharing their stories of quiet courage with outsiders, that are just as crucial. What are the ingredients that any successful movement needs?

There is a secret sauce for the weak to beat the strong, say those who have studied and participated in successful nonviolent social movements. The lessons from the March on Washington and other movements throughout history offer clues. If you want to take on the forces of power and privilege known in some circles as "The Man," they say, you must remember four rules:

1. Don't get seduced by spontaneity [...]

2. Make policy, not noise [...]

3. Redefine the meaning of punishment [...]

4. Divide the elites [...]


To read the whole article on CNN.com, please click here.

Photo by jasonepowell.


PN Member Nan Orrock has been serving in the Georgia state legislature since 1987. She is also the President of the Women Legislators’ Lobby (WiLL), a US network of women state legislators launched by Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) in 1991.

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