There is a method for organizing and sustaining mass uprisings.
The method was used with great effect during the American civil rights movement of the early 1960’s by a little-known group called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”). SNCC, in fact, was the creative force behind the movement. They were the people who created the events to which the government and the other actors in the movement were obliged to adapt.
The method gave SNCC the ability to engage the participation of large numbers of people. The movement, indeed, was not a project of elites and powerful politicians, but a mass, national uprising of many thousands of ordinary people who were fed up with the shabby treatment of black people in many areas of the United States. The events were planned and executed by teenagers and cleaning women, gas station attendants and farm workers.
If you were around during this period you experienced a volume of activism unlike anything since in the United States. Some were big extravaganzas, perhaps featuring Martin Luther King, Jr., as the central figure. Others were small events on street corners or in public parks. There were protests, marches, demonstrations, sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters, school strikes and walkouts, and all sorts of disruptive actions coming from every corner of the nation.
Around mid-1963 the tables turned in favor of the pro-black activists, despite the weapons of oppression - bullets and bombings, police dogs, fire hoses, tear gas - used against them. The weapons failed. The media reported black students being enrolled in certain universities. More and more blacks were becoming voters, although decades of violence had previously prevented them from registering. Lunch counters, churches, and facilities of all sorts were desegregating.
Again, the volume of activism was impressive: the historian Taylor Branch examined a ten-week period in mid-1963 and counted 758 racial demonstrations in 186 cities involving 14,733 arrests. And the elevated levels of activism continued month after month, well into the year 1965.
It is our great fortune that this behemoth of an uprising left a large footprint in history, and thanks to Google and the internet, studying it has become easier. SNCC fingerprints are all over it. Research any major campaign during the civil rights uprising, or any minor one for that matter, and you will probably find SNCC as a key element in its instigation.
SNCC and their fellow rebels have sat for many interviews, written many books and articles, appeared in many videos. We have old newspaper articles, file notes from meetings, even records from Mississippi’s domestic intelligence agency, which was spying on the rebels.
In these histories SNCC rebels appear very consistent in describing what they did and why. They shared a common understanding of how to work with ordinary local people for recruiting, problem solving, decision making, etc. As you read and think about what they said and wrote on these topics, your summarizing, generalizing brain forms a perception of the inner workings of the uprising and this perception is tantamount to a theory of how to organize a mass uprising.
That is what these pages presents. It is a statement of the theory in the form of a field manual, perhaps the first of its kind. The next chapter in our manual is about recruiting the right people and starting to build a local activist organization. But first, a little history to add interest.
One hundred years ago, William Zebulon Foster was considered one of the very best labor organizers in the United States. He organized workers in the meat packing industry and then became a leader of the Great Steel Strike of 1919, which involved over 350,000 workers.
The steel strike failed for reasons beyond Foster’s control, but by the mid 1930’s he was at it again, even more ambitiously. In 1936 he published his pamphlet, “Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry.” The following year he published another pamphlet, “What Means a Strike in Steel,” which discussed strategy and tactics as well as organizing methods.
Because of the war and other factors, Foster’s dreams of industrial upheaval were not fulfilled. What is striking, though, is the similarity between Foster’s brand of organizing and SNCC’s. We are going to be throwing some of Foster’s points into our field manual to add emphasis.
One more thing….
In 1946, after a period of growth, the union share of the American workforce reached a peak of 37%. In subsequent years union density fell, reaching about 10% by the end of the century. Many union leaders and researchers have offered possible explanations for the decline, but one fact stands out: certain union locals have been doing very, very well.
Understanding why certain locals succeed while others wither into irrelevance would take us too far beyond the scope of this manual. Students interested in the topic might want to check out a book by Bronfenbrenner, et. al., Organizing to Win, published in 1998, and McAlevey, No Shortcuts, published in 2016.
It turns out that the organizing techniques used by the successful locals, as described by the above authors, look a lot like those used by SNCC. We are on the right track.