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Working the 5-95 Split
The sociologists and historians tell us that only rarely does a social
movement involve more than 5% of the affected population in
- Fewer than 7% of the American colonists actively took part in the
revolution against the British.
- In 70 years of struggle, the largest Woman Suffrage protest was 8000
marchers in Washington, DC in 1913.
- The Selma Voting Rights struggle of 1965 was one of the largest
Freedom Movement campaigns of the 1960s. But if you add up all those who
marched, picketed, sat-in, went to jail, tried to register to vote, or
just attended a mass meeting, it totaled less than 10% of Dallas
County's Black population.
BUT these struggles by a small activist cores succeeded because
they won the political support of the great majority. Going back to the
Selma Movement, while less than 10% of Blacks directly and actively
participated in the Voting Rights campaign, the overwhelming majority
supported those that did take action, and they honored the economic
boycott that was a significant element in the eventual victory.
During the long student strike for Third World Studies at San Francisco
State in 1968, we never had more than 1% of the student body attending
planning meetings, passing out leaflets, organizing actions, or doing
the other work necessary to call and maintain a strike. And no more than
2000 — well under 10% — walked the
picket lines, attended the rallies, or marched on the Administration
Building. But a clear majority of all the students honored the strike by
not attending class. That mass support was not an accident, it was the
product of years — repeat, YEARS — of
patient education, consistent organizing, and a long series of
escalating protests all designed to educate and build mass support.
The key point is that the 5% who are activists achieve victories by
winning political support among the 95% who are not activists (and never
will be activists). We don't have to start out with majority popular
support, but we DO have to end up that way. If we don't end up with the
support of a majority of the population, we won't accomplish anything of
significance. Which means that our strategies and tactics must be shaped
towards the goal of winning support among the 95% who are NOT activists.
That is the criteria by which we have to evaluate our strategies and
Tactics that alienate, or frighten, the people whose support we need to
win are counter-productive. What people fear, they come to hate, what
they come to hate, they oppose. Tactics that treat the people we need to
educate as if they were enemies turns them into enemies in fact.
Kwame Ture (Stokeley Carmichael) of SNCC once observed that, "All
real education is political. All politics is not necessarily
educational, but good politics always is. You can have no serious
organizing without serious education. And always, the people will teach
you as much as you teach them."
Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2011.