Every election season we are reminded about how important it is to exercise our right to vote. We are told to hold our breaths and pick between two parties that don’t represent our interest. We are told that voting is the way to change things. We are told that the Democratic Party is the party that represents poor and working people. We are told that without FDR in the 1930s, there would never have been union rights, social security, unemployment and more. We are told that without President Lyndon Johnson, the segregation laws in the Jim Crow south would never have been overturned, that black people would have never won the right to vote, and that there would be no Medicare. It is true that these were victories won while these administrations were in office. But they were not won through the ballot box.
It is only when masses of people took to the streets through strikes, sit-ins, protests, boycotts, and more that any significant social change was won. These struggles made it impossible for business as usual to go on. Only when police methods could not stop the movements and politicians couldn’t derail the movements, did the government have no choice but to give in to some of the demands. It isn’t the ballot box that makes history – but masses of people, leading their own struggles.
The Gains of the Working Class in the 1930s
In the 1930s, half of the workforce lost their jobs in the Great Depression. Businesses and the government did nothing to help them. People organized mass actions against evictions imposed by the banks. By 1932, 130 self-help organizations were formed by working people in over 35 states, with over 300,000 members. In 1934, over 1.5 million workers from various industries went out on strike. Huge strikes erupted in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo. In 1936, workers at General Motors in Flint, Michigan conducted a “sit down” strike, locking themselves in the factory for 44 days to protect their jobs and win better wages. Thousands of workers took part, and over 150,000 supporters came to the plant to show solidarity with those locked inside. The strike spread to other plants, and the bosses had no choice but to meet many of their demands. In 1937 there were 477 sit down strikes in factories across the U.S.
It was only under these conditions, when the level of struggles in the working class were heading in the direction of revolution, that Roosevelt began to make some concessions to the fights taking place across the country. In a 1936 speech, Roosevelt made this clear:
“In the spring of 1933 we faced a crisis which was the ugly fruit of twelve years of neglect of the causes of economic and social unrest. It was a crisis made to order for all those who would overthrow our form of government…We met that emergency with emergency action…We were against revolution. Therefore we waged war against those conditions which make revolutions – against the inequalities and resentments which breed them.”
It was only in response to massive struggles that Roosevelt rolled out New Deal legislation with Social Security, unemployment benefits, and the right to organize on the job. None of these things were given – they were won through class struggle.
The Victories of the Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s–1970s was one of the most significant social movements in U.S. history, involving millions of people. The Civil Rights Movement was launched in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and followed in 1957, by the fight to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. In 1960, after a few courageous black students sat in at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina, the student movement spread. Within two weeks there were demonstrations in 15 cities in five southern states. Then in 1961, the Freedom Rides challenged the federal government to defend the right of all citizens to ride on interstate transit. The movement spread with voter registration drives and community organizing on multiple issues. In 1963, there were 1,412 demonstrations in the first three months of the year. The March on Washington that summer brought one quarter of a million people to the capital. Thousands of activists gained valuable experience and a new order was born.
At every turn, the strategy of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration was to direct the movement out of the streets and into the Democratic Party, ending the marches, the protests, and the sit-ins. The Civil Rights legislation ending segregation, legal discrimination, and protecting the right to vote was not handed to these activists by president Lyndon Johnson, it was forced on his administration.
The history of the 1930s and the 1960s shows that it was not the politicians but only mass movements that have won the real changes that have been made in the past.