The Evolution of Activism: From the Streets to Social Media

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Activism in some form dates back to the beginning of politics. The United States itself was founded on the back of a series of protests that incited a rebellion and created a nation. Protesting or, more generally, activism are ancient practices that have persisted to the current day. However, while speaking out is nothing new, the platform people use has evolved from face to face, to written, to social media. Protests were once announced through picket lines; now they are championed through hashtags, while the same constant goal of seeking to correct an injustice has remained. Read on to see the history of protests in the United States, how they have changed, and if they have staying power in a rapid-fire digital age.

 A History of Discontent

The United States has been a hotbed for activism even before its inception. Multiple protests in a number of states set off the Revolutionary War and led to an American nation. Protests against the powers that be did not stop there, in fact, they continued on almost immediately starting with Shay’s Rebellion. In this case, farmers in Massachusetts organized and fought against the government over taxes and penalties for debt. Although the rebellion was quickly crushed, the threat it personified hastened the end of the Articles of Confederation and the creation of the Constitution.

Protests diversified as well, with a shift from farmers to the issues of slavery and labor rights. In 1831, Nat Turner launched his infamous slave rebellion which claimed the lives of 60 white people in Southampton County, Virginia. That rebellion, along with many other events, laid the groundwork for the ultimate litmus test on slavery, the Civil War.

Even after the Civil War, race remained a contentious issue, but the battle over labor also took center stage. One of the most infamous examples was the Pullman strike of 1884. This strike over declining wages involved a mass worker walkout, nearly crippling the nation’s rail industry. However, the strike ended when President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops in to help local security forces root out the protesters.

The next century had many of the same issues, with frequent protests over race or labor grievances. It also saw several other groups assert their rights as well. One such group was women seeking suffrage. While the seminal Seneca Falls Convention was held the century before, women still found themselves unable to vote at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, after trying a variety of tactics of varying effectiveness, highlighted most publicly by protests at the White House gates during WWI as well as women’s service during the war, the government eventually granted women the right to vote in 1920.

LGBT individuals also began asserting their rights publicly with a major turning point coming at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 where protesters clashed with police. Native American protestors particularly reemerged during this time too. In 1973, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota the American Indian Movement seized the town and engaged police and law enforcement in a 71-day standoff where no one was allowed to come or go. The area had been the site of one of the most gruesome massacres in history the century before, when in 1890 between 250 and 300 people, including many women and children were killed without reason.

The major movement of the 20th century, though, was the fight by Black Americans to receive the rights they were granted following the Civil War. Along with the right to vote and an end to segregation, among many other concerns, this movement was distinct in its scale and use of non-violent means. The civil rights effort also became tied to other concerns of the era, including the fight against poverty and protests over Vietnam. While the protests organized by Martin Luther King as well as many against the Vietnam War preached peace, they were often met with force. One of the most infamous examples is the killing of four Kent State students in 1970 by National Guard troops. The video below looks at one of the most prominent moments of activism the Civil Rights movement:

The activism that characterized the first 200 years of American history was a ground-up affair that was often very violent. In the beginning, violence was used as means for both sides, although even then the authorities often acted as instigators. But beginning in the 20th century and taking focus during Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement, the notion of non-violent resistance came to the forefront. While this certainly did not lead to the end of physical confrontations between protesters and those they protested against, it signaled a shift in the tactics used by protest groups. But with the rise of personal computers and the internet, protests have shifted again, with protestors moving from the physical world to the virtual.

Going Virtual

Unsurprisingly, as technology has permeated the world, activism has shifted from grassroots to the internet. Like other types of activism, the digital movement goes by a variety of names depending on the means used; perhaps the most all-encompassing is virtual activism. As the name implies, virtual activism uses a variety of digital mediums to get its message out including: the internet, cell phones, proxy servers, blogs, online petitioners, and most especially social media.

While this type of activism has only recently come to the forefront, it has been around for several decades. It was not until the 1990s, though, that it started gaining traction through new platforms like the launch of MoveOn.org and the use of email by protesters to organize during protests in Seattle against the WTO in 1999. Virtual activism continued and increased during the decade of the 2000s with protests against immigration policies, terrorist groups, education cuts, and authoritarianism.

This type of activism really hit the mainstream in 2011 with the Arab Spring. In this case, protesters used social media to coordinate demonstrations, denounce authority figures, and circumvent government influence. In more recent years, protests and movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter have continued to articulate their concerns over the internet expanding the medium as a tool. The following video looks at the potential of virtual activism:


For all of the internet and social media’s ability to reach unprecedented audiences and provide up to the minute information, one question continues to linger: is this form of activism actually effective, or is it quickly forgotten from one day to the next? Online activism certainly has its limitations, which generally can be divided into two groups: first are the technical limitations like access to the internet, computer literacy, and government censorship, to name a few. An example of this is Iran’s censorship of the internet following riots stemming from an election in 2009 dubbed the Green Revolution.

The second type of limitation is highlighted well by another Law Street Media explainer about Hashtag Activism: can it be effective without a physical presence? As the piece explains, the main criticism of this new age of activism is that it lacks traditional aspects such as a leader and the requirement that people put themselves in literal harm’s way, so it may not carry the same weight as traditional forms of protest. This argument certainly has some substance to it, but even some of the hardest fought-for gains have lost their impact over the years despite being earned the old fashion way. From successful movements like the abortion and voting rights efforts, countervailing forces have removed many gains. Whether or not that is a good thing depends on your views, but the point is that traditional protests can also struggle to become or remain effective as well.

The accompanying video looks at how social media can play a role in activism:


When people look at protests or activism, everyone wants to point to the seminal moments–when someone stood up to armed police officers or stared down a tank. However, these moments are few and far between. In the meantime, there is a lot of suffering that goes unreported, speeches that go unheard, and a great amount of effort that ultimately may not lead to anything. In some cases even when circumstances appear to change, another incident shows they have not or previous gains are repealed or reduced.

While the manner of protests may have changed, the nature of them has not. At the core of each is a feeling by a person, a group or even a nation of an injustice that simply must be corrected. This started with people in the streets, continued through television and has now arrived in individual homes and workspaces via the internet and social media. Does this change in medium make these movements any less effective or any less righteous? Ultimately, it seems like only time will tell.

Until that time, however, what is vital is maintaining a spirit of questioning, of dissenting when something is wrong. Dissent is not always bad–it often moves the conversation, opens minds and paves the way for action. After all, it was Shay’s Rebellion that prompted Thomas Jefferson to write his friend James Madison saying, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”


History: Shay’s Rebellion

History Matters: The Nat Turner Rebellion

Encyclopedia of Chicago: Pullman Strike

History: Seneca Falls Convention Begins

Civil Rights: Stonewall Riots

The Atlantic: Occupy Wounded Knee

Britannica: American Civil Rights Movement

New York Times: 4 Kent State Students Killed by Troops

Reset: Digital and Online Activism

Mashable: History of Internet Activism

TeleSur: What Became of Occupy Wall Street

Think Progress: Forty-two years after Roe v. Wade, The Sad State of Abortion Rights in the United States

Early America: Jefferson Letters to Madison

History Channel: The Fight for Women’s Suffrage

Encyclopedia of the Great Plains: Wounded Knee Massacre

Law Street Media: Hashtag Activism: Is It #Effective?


Michael Sliwinski
Michael Sliwinski (@MoneyMike4289) is a 2011 graduate of Ohio University in Athens with a Bachelor’s in History, as well as a 2014 graduate of the University of Georgia with a Master’s in International Policy. In his free time he enjoys writing, reading, and outdoor activites, particularly basketball. Contact Michael at staff@LawStreetMedia.com.



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