#blacklivesmatter, #metoo, and March for Our Lives are recent examples of social movements pressing for social change within American society. Social movements are not new phenomena in our democracy. Our history is built on social movements, so it begs the question: Can these recent social movements learn from the past?

According to Austin McCoy, today’s social movements can learn a lot from past social movements. “I want to provoke people to try to make links between the successes and failures of past movements and popular mobilizations today.”

Dr. McCoy is a Michigan-Mellon fellow at the University of Michigan and has accepted an assistant professor position at Auburn University starting in fall 2018. He is a historian who focuses on political history in the United States especially after 1945, African American history after 1865, and more particularly, social and progressive movements in the Midwest after 1967.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


What is the focus of your recent book?

My current book project is "The Quest for Democracy: Black Power, New Left and Progressive Politics in the Post-Industrial Midwest". I analyze several progressive campaigns around urban development, policing, economic justice, as well as Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign as a national culmination of this politics, in various Midwestern cities and states such as Ohio, Chicago, and Detroit between 1967 and 1989.

The motivation for the book really comes out of my personal experience growing up in Mansfield, Ohio. It was a very industrial city, small city. Since 1971, it has lost around twelve large-scale manufacturers. Growing up, the political conversations always hovered around “will the jobs ever come back?” And it's something that we hear about today or even during the 2016 election around Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. As these conversations were coming up, I wondered how organizers in Ohio and other Midwestern locations responded to de-industrialization.

First, I started with analyzing the responses to industrial plant closures. Then I moved out to incorporate responses to the 1967 Detroit urban uprising and the police shootings of African Americans in Detroit in the early 1970s. Then to the end of the anti-war movement in Ohio and in Detroit during the early to mid-1970s. It's a pretty broad and encompassing text.


How does your scholarship relate to current issues or events?

I have a chapter in my book that analyzes the anti-police brutality movement in Detroit. It's about this clandestine unit in Detroit called "Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets" (STRESS). This unit was responsible for shooting and killing around 20 people in two years.

I didn't really know anything about this movement, but I discovered it when I was analyzing how activists responded to plant closings in Detroit. During my research, I started thinking, what else did these activists do, especially before this period in the late 1970's. That’s when I learned about this campaign.  

I start writing about this campaign and then a year later, there was the killing of Trayvon Martin and the development of the #blacklivesmatter movement. Then, there was killing of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Aura Rosser here in Ann Arbor, and people begin organizing around it. Before I knew it, I was not only participating in some of the local organizing here, I was helping to facilitate conversations about how activists have responded to police killings right in our moment, but then also in Detroit during the 1970's.

There are times when a particular event might happen where my work is fortunately — or in my case unfortunately — really relevant. Through my studies, I can bring something to the conversation, whether it is working with activists and organizers, giving a television interview about a particular police killing, or writing a blog comparing organizing around police killings in Detroit during the 1970's with some of the organizing today.


What are the key takeaways of your work?

The biggest take away — especially for those who are interested in politics, social movements, or organizing and consider themselves activists — is that people have to constantly organize and agitate for social change.

Second, I want readers and people who encounter my work to understand the importance of learning from both the successes and failures of organizing. People organize around a lot of various issues such as police brutality, the war, and economic justice. However, some are more successful than others while others fail.

In my book, I find that people were successful in organizing to stop the war, whether it's the Indochina Peace Campaign (IPC), or whether it was the campaign to end police killings in Detroit, when they had a broad coalition and used a diversity of tactics and strategies such as protest politics, electoral politics, and the courts. Social movements were actually successful. But then when it came to issues pertaining to economics, organizing was more difficult.

Lastly, it's also important to study how these movements continue to have an impact. Any efforts to try to change one situation, whether it's through politics or whether it's even try to change one's economic situation, can still have a positive impact long after its failure.

While the Ohio Public Interest Campaign did not succeed, these sorts of conversations continue to persist within the political environment. In 1988, the US Congress pass a national plant closure law called the "Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act", which forced businesses of a particular size to give advance notice.

Then in the most recent financial crisis between 2007 and 2009, you had employees from the finance industry who wanted to try to use the WARN Act to sue for severance. There are these reverberations that comes from failure. The aftermath of a failure that present activists use in order to organize for justice.

I want to provoke people to try to make links between the successes and failures of past movements and popular mobilizations today.

Are you interested in Dr. McCoy’s work? Visit his profile here.