And while the great social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s had clearly identified leaders who became iconic figures—King and Malcolm X for civil rights; Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden for the anti-war and student movements; Cesar Chavez for farmworkers; Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem for the feminist movement—today’s activism is largely leaderless, notes Kirsten John Foy, the founder of the Brooklyn-based activist group The Arc of Justice. Particularly within the Black Lives Matter network and the broader uprising against discriminatory policing, Foy says, “We have moved beyond this messianic notion of leadership, even in the black community. It has democratized the movement and it has reenergized the movement.”
In both decades, the fulcrum of change was the emergence of a vast new generation determined to question the rules and priorities that it inherited. Young people were hardly the only voices agitating for change during the 1960s, just as they are not the sole source of activism now. But in each case, the sheer bulk of the rising generation provided a critical mass for social movements.
At its peak in 1964, members of the Baby Boom represented 37 percent of America’s total population, according to Census figures provided by the demographer William Frey. Frey calculates that, at their peak in 2015, Millennials constituted a little less than one-fourth of the population. But Frey projects that, combined, Millennials and Gen Z will exceed two-fifths of the population from 2013 to 2035. They’ll fall only to slightly below that level through 2050. (Surprisingly, there were about 11 million more births during the Gen Z years than during the Millennial years.)
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In the ’60s, the huge pool of baby boomers receptive to change provided the infantry for the succession of protest movements. “The rise of organized movements among previously marginalized groups was indeed contagious in these years,” wrote the historian James T. Patterson in Grand Expectations, his sweeping history of America in the first decades after World War II. The visibility and impact of the early movements—those in support of civil rights and against the war—encouraged the development of those that came later: for environmental protection and rights for women, Chicanos and farmworkers, and, finally, the gay community. Each helped clear the path for the next.
Although today’s social movements have largely been viewed as independent, even isolated, efforts, a similar progression is visible over roughly the past decade.
- The Black Lives Matter movement coalesced in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting the African American teenager Trayvon Martin, and the movement took a huge leap forward in public consciousness following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
- Young people brought to the country illegally by their parents—the so-called Dreamers—have kept up a steady drumbeat of protest throughout the decade to achieve, and then protect, their legal status.
- The women’s marches against Donald Trump’s administration in January 2017 brought out massive crowds in cities across the country.
- The #MeToo movement that grew rapidly in fall 2017 after exposés on the sexual-harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men has forced sweeping changes in Hollywood, the restaurant and fashion industries, and other institutions.
- Students who survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, organized mass marches for gun control in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of other cities in March 2018.
- Protesters likewise turned out that June in Washington and cities across the country to oppose Trump’s family-separation policy at the southern border.