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10 Protest Movements That Changed America

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Does the Occupy Movement have legs as a catalyst for long-term political and social change? We compare OWS to the popular campaigns that altered this country's history.

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The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is in its sixth headline-grabbing week, and despite the early onset of winter, it doesn't seem as if protestors plan to pack up their tents any time soon.

Although many of us are scratching our heads trying to figure out what the protestors' endgame is, according to recent polls Americans have grown increasingly sympathetic toward the movement. Does that mean OWS has legs as a catalyst for long-term political and social change?

Taking a look at protest movements that have had a significant impact on America's landscape might help answer that question. A telling indicator -- or omen -- may be how many of these movements, some of which began centuries ago, are still going strong today.


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1. The Anti-Tax Movement
When: 1765-present

The Mission: Establish "fair" taxation
In the mid-1700s, the British Empire needed money to pay off its debt. Parliament tried to raise the funds by taxing Americans. Since the right to pay taxes was pretty much the only liberty the colonists enjoyed as British subjects, they organized to protest the unfair picking of their pockets.

As successful as the colonists were, it's been more than 235 years since the Boston Tea Party and Americans are still demanding tax reform. While we have representation, the concept of "fair" taxation is subjective and we can't seem to agree on a plan. On paper we may be "99 percent," but in fact we do not possess that level of solidarity.
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2. The American Revolution
When: 1775-1783
The Mission: "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness"
The colonists didn't begin the Revolutionary War with independence as their goal; in time, it became clear that was the only option. The march toward it began with a manifesto.

The Declaration of Independence wasn't an easy sell. There were British loyalists in the colonies, and not all members of the Second Continental Congress shared the same vision. It took a lot of compromising for the delegates to create a document the 13 colonies would ratify. If they hadn't, we wouldn't have a constitution that makes the other movements on this list possible (by granting us free speech) or necessary (by not granting us equality).

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3. The Abolition Movement
When: 1830's-1865 (with the passage of the 13th Amendment)
The Mission: To outlaw slavery
The federal government took steps in the late 1700s and early 1800s to limit slavery's expansion, but there wasn't a unified movement against its practice until the American Anti-Slavery Society was established in 1833. It was largely a religious and social movement.

At the time, even politicians who agreed with abolitionism were afraid to attach themselves to it. It was a politically divisive issue and the country was hanging together by a thread. Abraham Lincoln made his "House Divided" speech in 1858; he didn't issue the Emancipation Proclamation until 1863, two years into his presidency, after it was clear the house had collapsed.

On the verge of an election that will decide who resumes or assumes leadership of an increasingly disgruntled country, today's politicians seem similarly hesitant to support OWS.

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4. The States' Rights Movement
When: 2008-present
The Mission: To challenge the authority of the central government
We are in the midst of a modern States' Rights movement.

Need proof?

Twenty-eight states are challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. States are passing their own immigration laws. The Supreme Court is now deciding whether states can cut Medicaid services the federal government mandates they provide (because California cut them).

Although it's illegal under federal law, 16 states and Washington DC have approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes. In 2010 California tried to legalize marijuana use outright. And states are voting to recognize same-sex marriage even though the federal government doesn't.

Clearly, the federal government and we its people are experiencing some differences of opinion.
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5. The Women's Rights Movement
When:1848-present
The Mission: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." (Equal Rights Amendment)
Women first formally organized in 1848; in 1920 we got the right to vote. But the Women's Liberation Movement had its biggest impact in the 1960s and '70s, helping to shape legislation like the Civil Rights Act and Affirmative Action.

The 2010 Census told us that more women than men in the workforce hold a college degree. Still, a March 2011 government report revealed that women are earning about 75% of what men are. In June, a suit filed by 1.5 million women against Wal-Mart (WMT) alleging unfair pay practices was dismissed for not meeting class action standards, but the suit has been refiled.

The traditional workplace isn't the only venue where women's fight for equality continues. With only one mainstream female presidential candidate in 2012, we still have a long way to go, baby.
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6. The Temperance Movement
When: 1851-1933
The Mission: To prohibit the consumption of alcohol
The first Prohibition law was put on the books in 1851 by the state of Maine. When in 1920 the Volstead Act amended the Constitution for the 18th time and ushered in Prohibition, the manufacture and sale of alcohol was already banned in many states.

That didn't mean people weren't drinking. People were drinking so much that in 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt traded in the Volstead Act for the Beer and Wine Revenue Act.

These days we're experiencing an anti-temperance movement of sorts, too. Proponents of legalizing marijuana point to the failure of the War on Drugs, on which we spend billions of dollars annually. Californians claim making marijuana legal would raise millions of dollars in needed tax revenue (not so, experts say) -- an idea they may have recycled from President Roosevelt.
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7. The Labor Movement
When: 1930s
The Mission: Fair workplace practices and protections
The Labor movement has seen many waves. The policies that shaped the workplaces we know and sometimes love to hate were largely put in place during the Depression.

In 1933, President Roosevelt implemented recovery legislation designed to improve the prospects of workers; the Supreme Court overturned it. It wasn't until 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act created a minimum wage, a 40-hour work week and other familiar practices.

The legislation was prompted by protests like the "sit-down" strikes that took place in Flint, Michigan in 1936-37. Thousands of members of the United Auto Workers union showed up for work at General Motors (GM) plants then literally sat down on the job.

Unions played a vital role in advancing workers' rights during the Depression, but they've taken a beating recently; opinion polls prove it. Still, it's not surprising unions rallied behind OWS.
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8. The Civil Rights Movement
When: 1955-1968
The Mission: Equal rights for African Americans and the end of segregation
In 1954, the Supreme Court decided segregation was unconstitutional. It took bus boycotts, sit-ins and freedom marches to effect real change. It took the leadership of individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy; the bravery of women like Rosa Parks; and the coming together of a nation. In 1963, an estimated 250,000 people joined the March on Washington.

These actions led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, affirmative action and other legislation created to ensure racial equality.

President Obama said that "education is the civil rights issue of our time." With so much focus on the lack of funding for education programs, the high cost of attending college and student loans jobless graduates can't pay back, maybe education and the wealth gap aren't that far apart.
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9. The Anti-War Movement
When: 1965-1973
The Mission: To end the Vietnam War and raise the social consciousness
All American wars have had their opposition, but none so much as the Vietnam War, a military action begun in 1965 to thwart the spread of communism.

At its heart, the movement was about social awareness. It based its ideologies on the Port Huron Statement, written in 1962 by Students for a Democratic Society; it was critical of America in terms of racism, uneven wealth distribution and misuse of natural resources, among other things.

The movement staged sit-ins, strikes, protests, and in October 1969, a 500,000-person march on Washington. When in 1971 the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, a report that detailed unflattering truths about our involvement in Vietnam, a turning point was reached.

President Richard Nixon brought the last soldiers home in 1973. The war was over, but the "hippie" counterculture that grew out of it was here to stay.
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10. The Environmental Movement
When: 1950s-present
The Mission: To preserve our natural resources and the sanctity of our planet
Thanks to nuclear proliferation and the increasing use of pesticides, the environmental movement was off to a strong start in the 1950s. In 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act was signed, and it's been full steam ahead ever since.

Although it's taken some time, Americans have warmed to the idea of saving the planet. We just can't seem to figure out a way to do it that's business friendly. The 2010 BP (BP) oil spill underscored the risks of off-shore drilling, but the industry is vital to the Gulf's economy. On the other hand, Toyota (TM) isn't complaining about its Prius sales.

The recent failure of Solyndra, a solar energy company that received federal loans, renewed the debate about how big a part the government should play in promoting earth-friendly policies as opposed to letting the market decide. After 50 years, it's still not so easy being green.
More from Minyanville on the Occupy Movement:

Interview: The Magazine Editor Who Launched the Occupy Movement on "Soft Regime Change" in America

Interview: The Economist Who Discovered "the 99%" on Income Inequality and Why the Government Should Step In

Interview: Occupy Wall Street's David Graeber on Why the Movement Matters

Occupy Wall Street and the End of Money as We Know It

The Occupy Wall Street Index: Nine Companies the Protesters Love to Hate

Bail Out Wall Street but Ignore Main Street? The Three Biggest Grievances of the American Public

What the World Will Look Like If Occupy Wall Street Wins


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