From panthers to hashtags: the evolution of social activism


City Hall lit up in pink to defend women’s rights during the Women’s March on January 21, 2017.

The action of bringing about political or social change is not a new concept to this generation. Generation X, baby boomers and millennials have their own approaches and methods to activism. The way millennials advocate for change might be just as effective, maybe even more, than previous generations.

Baby boomers are the demographic group born post-World War II. Approximately 76 million American children were born during 1946 to 1964, according to population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau. Boomers grew up in a time of dramatic social transformation.

This change stamped the boomer generation with strong division between the advocates of change and the more conservative individuals. As the boomer generation saw increasing social and economic equality, they also came of age at a time when the nation was frequently torn by conflicting views on social justice, war and politics. This generation witnessed and participated in some of the greatest social revolutions in the nation’s history.

Boomers also helped produce change with the civil rights movement and put an end to the Vietnam War. Many American boomers were fighting in the war or organizing against it. The start of anti-war protests broke out as the risk of the draft into the war increased.

In their early adulthood, boomers practiced nonviolent protests during the civil rights movement, which was a vital factor in the success of the movement itself.

Baby boomers during the civil rights movement were well into their teens and early adult lives. The early and mid-boomers were experiencing their coming of age at the same time across the whole world. Overall, this generation amounted to a number of protesters that yearned for equality and peace.

However, when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and the Vietnam War ended, boomers, as a whole, moved on with their personal lives. While there has been some support from the boomer generation on social issues today, they haven’t reciprocated the sort of activism of the 1960s.

P. Shawn McGraw, history teacher and political science major at Westmoor High School in Daly City, Calif., developed an interest in activism early on in life due to her upbringing as a Gen Xer in Massachusetts, along with her mother’s political stance.

She stated that her mother used to make her wear embroidered patches to school that were deemed “unpopular” at the time, such as an Equal Rights Amendment badge. McGraw’s first march was a pro-choice march in Washington, D.C. in April 1989.

“Do I consider myself an activist?” McGraw asks. “Yes I do. I think by being a teacher, you’re helping to change their [students] minds and inspire people to get ‘in good trouble,’” a reference taken from civil rights activist John Lewis.

Current political activism has strong roots in Generation X’s culture. Born between 1960 and 1980 in the United States, Gen Xers laid out the political, social, creative and intellectual foundation which the millennials follow today.

Mainstream hip-hop emerged in the 1980s and early 1990s by inner-city African Americans and it was characterized by its diversity and influence. Hip-hop was used as a form of social protest during this era, which is not all that different today. Lyrical content from this era drew awareness for social issues such as violence, crime, religion, culture and the American economy.

Many hip-hop tracks of that time were in response to former President Ronald Reagan’s political economy and American capitalism. Public Enemy’s most influential song, “Fight the Power,” speaks up to the government and asserted that people in the ghetto have rights and freedom of speech as much as any American.

In addition to hip-hop as a form of civil protest, the Black Panther Party was an African-American revolutionary party founded in 1966 in Oakland, Calif. They were active in the late boomer and well into Generation X. The original purpose of the party was to patrol African-American neighborhoods to protect residents from police brutality, an issue that is still a problem today.

Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the two leading revolutionaries, helped form the black liberation group in order to confront corrupt systems of power and help build community.

The Black Panther Party came into the national spotlight in May 1967 when a small group of members and Seale marched fully-equipped with guns into the California state legislature in Sacramento. With the constitutional right to bear arms, based on the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Party marched as a protest against the awaiting Mulford Act, a bill that repealed a law allowing the public carrying of loaded firearms. The bill was created in response to the open carrying of Black Panther Party members who conducted armed patrols in Oakland neighborhoods.

The Black Panther Party viewed the legislation as a political maneuver to obstruct the organization’s efforts to combat police brutality in their communities.

Moreover, the Black Panther Party, along with challenging police brutality, launched more than 35 programs and supplied community help, such as education, transportation assistance, ambulance service and more. One of the most notable programs was the Free Breakfast for Children Program, which began in January 1969, that spread to major American cities with a Black Panther Party branch.

The Party recruited the largest number of members and made the greatest impacts in Oakland and San Francisco Bay Area. The Black Panther Party was dissolved in 1982, though they inspired and aided various groups and movements in the later generation.

Generation X is the “middle child” caught between the boomer and the millennial generation and is a relatively small demographic that tends to be forgotten. However, they have played a huge part in creating the activism we now know today.

Gen Xers and boomers alike have criticized that the present millennial generation often lacks interest in social issues and are not active enough.

Millennials, born in the years 1981 to 1999, have their own unique kind of social activism. Some may say they may even be redefining political movements. Millennials are the largest living generation in the United States, with an estimated 83.1 million, according to the United States Census Bureau, compared to the 76 million baby boomers.

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, millennials are more open to change than older generations. Millennials are the most likely of any generation to self-identify as liberal on the political spectrum and are more supportive of progressive social ideals than the prior generations.

“The millennials, I’m still trying to figure out,” McGraw says. “This generation could be more effective because of the internet and social media, which we [Generation X] did not have until recently. They could do a lot with social media to be activists and take it to the streets.”

Activism doesn’t look like what it used to, but millennials are essentially shaping what our nations will look like in the future. While some argue that posting on Facebook and tweeting on Twitter are not as powerful as protesting on the streets, it is evident that millennials are more efficient with their energy and aren’t limited to traditional forms of civic participation.

Millennials build movements online in order to take them to the streets with influence and purpose. Members of this generation sparked a series of movements centered on issues such as race, #BlackLivesMatter, feminism, #YesAllWomen, sexual orientation, #LoveWins, income equality, #FightFor15, and even opposition to the president of the U.S., #NotMyPresident.

Rihanna Martin, teen activist who is a part of various social movements and active in social issues, says the methods of the activism in this generation are different, especially with how pervasive technology has become.

“Social media definitely does play a significant role in activism,” Martin says. “Just look at the BLM [Black Lives Matter] movement.”

In 2013, social media also ignited the Black Lives Matter movement with the use of a mere hashtag. The BLM movement regularly holds protests against police brutality against black people and issues of racial profiling and racial inequality in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Martin says that the message within every generation is the same, however, fighting for equality among everyone as a whole.

“It has always been the same message for decades, through every generation,” Martin says. “But technology and social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook help get our voice across more effectively. We’re still marching and protesting like Martin Luther King and preaching like Malcolm X, getting our voice across through poems like Maya Angelou and Sojourner Truth.”

Calling these mere hashtags are denying the effects that these have played in stimulating various protests and marches such as the Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017, the largest single-day protest in United States history.

Millennials are the most diverse generation in the U.S. to date in terms of race, ethnicity and class. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA conducted a survey based on 141,189 full-time first-time students who entered 199 four-year U.S. institutions. The results of the survey confirmed that college students nowadays are much more politically engaged than ever before.

“The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015” states that “the vast majority (96.9 percent) of first-time, full-time students who entered college in the fall of 2015 spent their senior year of high school witnessing (and perhaps even participating in) increased activism among high school and college students.”

The boomer generation, Generation X, and the millennial generation have all taken part in a form of activism that is unique and different throughout the years. Activism is prominent in bringing about change and throughout history, we see how strong, effective and influential it has become in bringing about revolution.

In the age of technology, millennials are able to use technology to create and support various movements, graduating from posting to getting more involved in politics. This generation’s form of activism has ignited several marches, protests, and demonstrations in a time where change is drastically needed.