How Movements Succeed


Look over your shoulders, social justice advocates, and plan for the long term. 

Movements succeed when they manifest in law and policy. Demonstrations and measures of a shift in public opinion are benchmarks on the road, not evidence of the success of a movement.  Movements that succeed focus on organizing, advocacy, lobbying, and activism to reach policymakers.

But in addition, successful movements don't count their chickens too early or they are blindsided by the counterattack. When movements succeed in getting laws changed, the opponents of the movement use their power, which is still not sufficiently enfeebled, to create replacement structures. 

  • Jim Crow Laws along with new forms of violence and terrorism followed the abolition of slavery so as to effectively neutralize the work of blacks fighting for freedom with aid from abolitionists.  
  • Mass incarceration, using the cover of the war on drugs, following the Civil Rights Movement, severely mitigating the effect of black leaders’ success.

Black leaders like Dr. King who broadened the scope of their fight for social justice to include housing inequality, income inequality, and the war in Vietnam were prescient in the scope of their understanding of the range of racism and inequity....and they lost a large part of their following, perhaps because it was harder to see how the Vietnam war represented racism as well. (Rev. William Barber is trying the same broad approach, but focusing on poverty. We may be ready for it now.)


A movement for social justice in our society must not stop if we have successful legislation for police reform.  We must remain vigilant that the intent of these laws is carried out and not superseded by others that negate their impact. 


Anticipate the counter-attack in cleverly masked workarounds. Plan for it. Aim for policy and law-makers. Plan for the long haul and think like Dr. King, but be careful of the pacing when broadening the stated mission.  



Jon Saphier is the Founder and CEO of Research For Better Teaching, Inc.