1970—2020: How US Social Activism Has Changed Throughout The Decades

It has been 40 years since the 1970s came to an end. All of the disco, hippy-loving, Vietnam-hating, forever dancing people now are getting on in age and their time of protesting and purpose-driven moral marches are now distant memories. However, if you were to open up an American History textbook today, you would still see the 1970s as the beacon of social activism. The need to learn from history and educate yourself on when to stand up for what you believe to be right hasn’t vanished, but rather stays alive through writings, footage, stories, and history lessons. Clearly, it’s not the rebellious tendency as much as the rebel’s “target” that has shifted throughout the decades. The 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s each had their own social movements that are either continuations of those same 1970s values, or perhaps completely new movements all together. Sit back, and travel through 50 years of activism; I’m going to break it down for you:

The 1970s were a time of conservatism and were ripe to find plenty of people rebelling against the norms of the time.

A group of people march with anti-war signs reading, “End The War In Vietnam”. Courtesy of Dissent Magazine.
Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment march down Pennsylvania Avenue, Aug. 26, 1977. Courtesy of FindingDulcinea.

This starts off our journey through American social activism history with what was, arguably, the start of it all. The 1970s were a time of conservatism and were ripe to invite people on the other side to happily rebel against the norms of the time. There was a “silent minority” full of disenfranchised citizens “sick of what they interpreted as spoiled hippies and whining protestors, tired of an interfering government that—in their view—coddled poor people and black people at taxpayer expense” according to History.com. These people fought against what the norm was back then, which was the Environmental Movement, Women’s Movement, and the Anti-War Movement. However these three movements became the model for decades to come. The Environmental Movement had Americans celebrating the first Earth Day in 1970. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act that same year. The Women’s Movement caused Congress to draft the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that allowed women to not be discriminated against in their basic rights as citizens based on their sex. The Anti-War Movement and The Watergate Scandal caused many Americans, pro- or anti-war, to believe in a “New Right” that questioned conservatism and traditional family roles, and the behavior of President Richard Nixon made many people’s faith quiver in taking for granted the expected good intentions of the federal government.

These “people were getting sick, deathly sick, long before the disease even had a name”.

This shows a crowd waiting for Ronald Reagan to appear at one of his rallys, 1986. Courtesy of Fortune.
AIDS activist group ACT UP organized numerous protests on Wall Street in the 1980s. The group’s tactics helped speed the process of finding an effective treatment for AIDS. Courtesy of NPR.

With the 1970s bringing about major social change, conservatism rose enormously in the 1980s. The “New Right” turned into the “Christian Right” which upheld the opposite beliefs of its predecessors. Instead of supporting social actions within the Women’s Movement or the Anti-War Movement, these tired-of-marching-and-activism Americans supported a new leader…Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan brought upon new hope for white middle class Americans with his Reaganomics that were based around increased national might in a dangerous world (military spending over domestic social program spending.) The 1980s also saw the rise of the Gay Rights Movement and the birth of the AIDS pandemic. Victims of the HIV virus and its associated disease were neglected and ignored due to the fear of a new illness specifically targeting a minority. These “people were getting sick, deathly sick, long before the disease even had a name”. Many people just called it “gay cancer”, according to a CNN article about AIDS in the 80s. Equal rights defenders and pro-gay freedom fighters were furious with the lack of knowledge and investment targeting AIDS from the federal and local government, and thus marches on Washington were plentiful and gay leaders such as Harvey Milk—a pioneer on this path to make it possible to elect openly gay officials—were some of the decade’s most noteworthy activists.

However because of the new found “internet”, new social movements were being born.

A political cartoon depicting CEOs of corporations leading globalization while leaving the rest flying off with nothing. Courtesy of INSTANTREVIEWALERT.
An anti-globalization march in the early 1990s. Courtesy of IncludingSocialMovements.

The 1990s is regarded as an era of peace. The Cold War was ending and many social movements were dying out as an era of prosperity seemed to resurface. Jobs were created, technology prospered, inflation fell, and poverty was reduced. With the explosive capabilities of the “internet,” new social movements were being born and now that had a cheap, powerful mode of communicating their message to the world. One huge “revolution” and movement throughout the American public was the Digital Revolution. This movement in itself wasn’t a social movement but rather the starting point for new ideas, concepts, and thoughts that developed and attracted wide support because of the unifying reach of the internet. Not only did this idea happen domestically, but throughout the world, sparking globalization and what would become a future movement against which to rebel. America stepped away from isolationism and looked to trading with other countries which brought upon “the flow of capital to emerging markets that multiplied sixfold in just over six years—a remarkable increase, driven by the search for ever higher returns.” This enormous increase in capital in corporations brought upon a boost in a corporate society but also brought upon opposers to large industries, called anti-globalization. The population was initially for the globalization of ideas, but the end of the 1990s brought more social unrest and uneven wealth distribution as these large, multinational corporations attained unregulated political power and influence—more so than the common voting public.

“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”

– George w. bush
U.S. Soldiers assigned to Bandit Troop, 1st Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment and deployed in support of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve await aerial extraction via CH-47 Chinook during an aerial response force live-fire training exercise in Iraq. Courtesy of Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Courtesy of History.com

With the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Americans began to question national security and come together as a country, if against the rest of the world and the dangers that it housed. The 2000s included a country-wide movement against terror and a devastating recession. Once 9/11 had happened, every American— regardless of religion, political affiliation, gender, and sexual orientation was bonded together over the security of their country and the wellbeing of their fellow Americans. This led to a neverending “War On Terror,” a nationalist military movement for sure, yet it also became a social movement because of the backing from so many Americans. President George W. Bush said:“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” After five years fighting on Dec. 30, 2006, and after being sentenced to death by hanging for war crimes and crimes against humanity, Saddam Hussein was executed in Baghdad—and with him one of the many enemies of the American war on Terror. On May 2, 2011 Osama bin Laden is killed by U.S. Special Forces during a raid at an Abbottabad, Pakistan compound. Although Osama bin Laden was killed in the 2010’s the social movement against him started and became the primary force of social activism in the first decade of the new millennium. With our primary foe down, Americans were soon back to fighting against the government and each other and throwing blame for the Recession of 2008. This crisis led to increases in home mortgage foreclosures worldwide, mistrust in business and government, and caused millions of people to lose their life savings, their jobs, and their homes. It’s generally considered to be the longest period of economic decline since the Great Depression.

The decade began amid the chaotic wake of a global financial crisis, and ended with the impeachment of a U.S. president.

Ten-year-old Robert Dunn uses a megaphone to address hundreds of demonstrators during a protest against police brutality and the death of Freddie Gray outside the Baltimore Police Western District station April 22, 2015. 
Courtesy of History.com
Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles on Nov. 12. Courtesy of Washington Post.

The growing use of social media fuelled mass protest movements, bringing millions of people together around the globe in pursuit of common objectives. The decade began amid the chaotic wake of a global financial crisis, and ended with the impeachment of a U.S. president. Key major social movements in the 2010s were the #BlackLivesMatter initiatives to raise awareness for the seemingly blind stance of the justice system toward people of color. This movement began when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a “hooded” black teen walking through Zimmerman’s neighborhood,” and was then acquitted on the grounds of “self defence,” though Trayvon Martin was unarmed. This movement drew inspiration from the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and spread quickly and rapidly through social media. This use of catchy hashtags to get everyone in on the conversation would soon cement the growing role of social media in modern-day activist movements. It allowed for the #MeToo Movement to sprout in late 2017 with the countless sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, who for years had paid off accusers of sexual assault. Building a large support group and community on social media, women were emblazoned to take on the perpetrators of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. Other victims came forward and presented cases against a long list of important figures including Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.

Whatever you believe, you must stand up for what you think is right.

As I publish this article only days before I graduate and enter this world of rebels, activists, and freedom fighters, I look forward to the start of a new decade. What social movements will rise in these 10, 20, 30 years? What will I do to help or stop them? Will they be remakes of the Anti-War Movements? Will they add more power to the Women’s Rights Movements? All I know for sure is that although each social movement and activist march looks different between the decades, they are all fighting for something in which they truly believe. Even here at SAS, Executive Service Council Clubs such as SAGE (Sexual Abuse & Gender Equality), GIN (Global Issues Network), and SAGA (Sexuality And Gender Acceptance) are strong examples of global movements that garner local momentum in the 2020s.

Are you up for the good fight? Check out @sas.servicecouncil on Instagram for new clubs and updates from our own ESC clubs and organizations. Whatever you believe, sometimes you may need to stand up and speak out for it. Do not be a bystander. Give yourself a reason to live, a legacy. Or more frankly: Just care.

This is my last article for The Eye. Thank you for listening to my countless words on social justice, art, and gay-ness. Thank you, Shack and SAS, for the opportunities to be myself and stand up for what I think is worth fighting for.

Signing off.

You know you love me,

XOXO Gossip Gay ❤

Author: Will Staley

Will Staley is currently a senior and this is his second year working for the Eye. This is also his second year living in Singapore, having moved from St. Louis, Missouri USA. Will enjoys photography and has a photography website (willstaleyphotography.com). He hopes to pursue photography and journalism for his college and career, while being involved in his passion of politics and humanitarian work. He can be contacted at staley774011@sas.edu.sg.

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