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Historic Movements for Social Justice on the Web

It was the last day of class, and spring was finally in the air. A warm breeze blew into Taylor C while David Karen, professor of sociology, stretched a cord the entire diameter of the room to connect a laptop computer to a TV. The TV would project his students’ final projects: websites for social change.

Movements for Social Justice in the U.S. stepped squarely into the 21st Century when Karen decided to add the actual building of websites to his traditional pedagogical tools. Not only would his students learn the theory and history of social movements in the U.S. past, they would don the personae of movement activists, and then use the World Wide Web to achieve their movements’ goals. At least, they would pretend to, and pretend hard.

During a semester of study—readings, movies, discussions, memos, papers—the students broke into groups and then picked the organizations their websites would embody. The ensuing presentations displayed a happy collision of history, technology and bright, creative minds.

“I think that the web project enabled the students to see social movements from the inside out in a way that would have been very difficult with traditional assignments,” Karen said. “Though there was probably some trepidation about creating a website from scratch, the software made it very easy for the students to approach the project.”

Karen learned of while at one of his favorite Saturday activities: “sitting in 90-degree heat and 90-percent humidity on a hard wooden bench in the middle of winter, trying to pay attention at the correct times to make sure I caught my son swim his races (total time of two minutes, maybe) during a three and a half-hour period.”

His son swam at a natatorium in Upper Merion Township, which is heavily Republican. “On my way back to my hard bench, I spotted another parent reading The Nation and thought he might be a kindred political spirit,” Karen said. He struck up a conversation with Bob Wegbreit, who was at that point one of the principals of, a company that provides web-building services to nonprofits. Karen told Wegbreit about his course, they exchanged emails and ideas, and came up with the website-building component for the course.

“I think the web project allowed students to use their sociological imaginations in a very concrete way. This project essentially asked the students—as historically-rooted movement activists—to appeal to potential recruits to get them involved in making history.”

Asking students to design websites for three social movements—the labor movement of the 30s, the civil rights movement, and the student/antiwar movement—required them to pick an organization, take on the role of organization leaders, and make complex and serious decisions about every aspect of the websites.

Erin Schifeling ’07, Jackie Fleming ’08 and Naomi Spector ’60.

After choosing the organizations, each group had to pick an exact moment in history, which would then drive the website content. For example, the Committee of Industrial Organizations website “occurs” in 1937, when the organization had enough of its own history after breaking with the American Federation of Labor. Likewise, the Students for a Democratic Society website “exists” in 1968—by 1969 the fledgling organization had dismantled. For the Montgomery Improvement Association—the organization staging the 1955-56 boycott of the bus system—students chose a kind of midpoint that would allow them to portray the momentum of the year-long action without revealing its outcome.

When Wegbreit unexpectedly left, Nora Alogna stepped in to provide technical and theoretical support. At one point, Alogna consulted with the students while she was visiting her husband in India; while they watched their computer screens, Alogna made “live” adjustments to the websites.

JoAnn Townsend ’07 (McBride Scholar) and Becky Rich ’06.

She also encouraged the students to think about forums and blogs as community-builders, and discussed the crucial importance of having a donation button on their sites. “It was so exciting,” she said after the last class presentations, which she attended. “The students totally got that you can create community with websites. They were so thoughtful about which photos to use, the language, the colors. They were just great.”

Karen adds that the students thought “it was great to be able to use the web to let people know how to be a conscientious objector in the 1960s, how to find out where the carpools were picking up in Montgomery, and what one’s rights as a worker were in the late 1930s.

“Personally, I think the web is a great outreach tool and a potentially useful mobilizing tool (as in mobilizing people for a demonstration).” He notes, however, that the web might not be the best tool for grass-roots organizing. “People need to make contact one with another in order to organize and create viable networks for longer term struggles,” he says, echoing long-held standards for organizing for social change that demand making “the house call.” As Cesar Chavez put it, “The main thing in convincing someone is to spend time with him [sic].”

Nonetheless, mobilization, information sharing, encouragement, resource generation and media attention are all enhanced by a web presence.

So what would that web presence have looked like for the three organizations?




The first page of the CIO website (the “splash page”) is simple: the organization’s logo and the opportunity for visitors to choose to view the site in English, Deutsch, Polski, Italiano, Svenska (Swedish) and Suomi (Finnish), mirroring the ethnic make-up of the various industries represented by the CIO. Further into the site, students created a Calendar of Events: “Italian Dinner! Polish Picnic! Finnish Happy Hour!”

“Come join together with local Finnish copper and iron workers. Speak fingliska and hear about the Finnish struggle against the capitalist pigs! Location: Auntie Auni’s Pub, 62 Front Street, Detroit, MI.”    

From their readings, the group had learned that the neighborhood picnic is a traditional organizing tool. Picnics and gatherings around culturally-specific food were especially significant for the CIO, since, as student Tiffany Reed put it, “It was very important that the workers had a chance to speak the same language so that they could share their stories.”

When Karen asked what the group thought about possibly hiding some of the calendar information that revealed actions the organization planned to pull off, the response was that yes, they had thought to hide some information somehow, that is, make it only available via a membership password.

The group chose black and white photos for authenticity, and a Rubber Strike photo in particular since that was the organization’s first success.

Included in the CIO site are photos and write-ups of the organization’s leaders. Links to local union reps were provided, but since these reps did organizing in actual factories, their photos were not included so that they would not be recognized by the bosses. As well, the group created rank and file member profiles with pseudonyms: “to protect our workers,” they explained.

“Why have member profiles at all?” asked Karen.

The group responded that they wanted to show the human worker side of the movement. They wanted potential members to see themselves on the site, and to keep the rank and file in the forefront. The profiles are a mixture of fact and fiction, but the group was careful to leave the contributions of movement women behind the scenes, because that is how it would have been in 1937.

The site includes maps and made-up addresses, which Karen noted should not have zip codes, since there were none then. The site also makes broad and deep links among other organizations and union history.




One of the overarching goals of the group that took on the Montgomery Improvement Association was to build an online community that closely matched the real community that bonded to such great effect during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956-57.

With straightforward intensity, the website presents itself not only as a source of information (via local and national news articles) and encouragement (whole speeches are posted), but also as a locus of immediate action. Visitors are able to sign up for the carpool that moved thousands of citizens around the city of Montgomery during the boycott that ended segregation on public transit in Alabama. 

In order to facilitate carpool sign up, the students examined old maps and tried to figure out the approximate true locations of the carpool stops and labyrinthine routes that were employed to keep people moving to work, church, and MIA meetings. When Karen questioned whether or not the maps would make the carpoolers vulnerable to hostile whites, the group demonstrated its “Login” page, which requires membership for access to the carpool information.

The group was adamant that their site not adopt a tone of fear or subterfuge, but rather that it promoted optimism and focus (eyes on the prize). Toward that end, they wrote a mission statement, which appears on the site’s “About Us” page:

“We are committed to the boycott of the Montgomery bus system until the rights of Negro citizens are legally respected and enforced. We are committed to using non-violent means to bring justice, freedom, and democracy to Negro citizens through solidarity and faith in God and ourselves.” The decision to employ the word “God” was critical, the group thought, since so much of the action involved religious leaders and the local community of churches.




Beginning with a rousing rendition of The Times, They Are A-Changin’ accompanied by student Amy Scott on the guitar, the SDS group laid claim to the ethic of form mirroring content: they designed their site to present information in a non-hierarchical, chaotic fashion. Bad press, good press, documents on U.S. imperialism, but no leader bios, and no celebrities. The site also includes myriad intellectual and scholarly pieces examining war, which the group thought appropriate to its audience of students.

Using the pronouns “we” and “us” throughout their presentation, Scott admitted that “the hardest part was capturing the feeling you had at that time.” Heads nodded around the room at this, and yet on viewing all three websites, it seemed clear that the students had achieved what Karen had hoped for: “I had hoped the website component would help students learn to assess precisely what it means to have web-based technology as a resource within a social movement. I think they hit the mark.”



With required reading of three textbooks and more than 120 articles, plus viewing of 20 films and the choice of one biography (picked from a list of more than 60), students in David Karen’s Movements for Social Justice in the U.S. were immersed in the rich, colorful and inspiring history of social activism in America. Selected course materials listed below.

  • Bread and Roses (film).
  • California Red: A Life in the American Communist Party by Dorothy Ray Healey and Maurice Isserman (U/IL P 1993). Dorothy Healey was a leader of the C.P. in Los Angeles from the l940s through the l960s.
  • Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa by Jacques E. Levy and Cesar Chavez (Norton 1975). Autobiography of Cesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers union that inspired the lettuce and grape boycotts of the past.
  • Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby (U/NC Press 2006). A case study of radical democratic humanism.
  • Everyone Was Brave by William O’Neil (Times Books 1972). This is a collective biography of the leading suffragists during the early 1900s.
  • Eyes on The Prize: Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (film).
  • Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement by Mary King (William Morrow & Co. 1988). Mary King was a white civil rights activist in the South. Her autobiography describes the difficult role of whites, and women, in the civil rights movement.
  • Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker (film).
  • Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement by William D. Miller (Marquette UP 2005). This biography not only recounts Day’s life, but also describes the movement and its impact on the country.
  • How Can I Keep From Singing? by David King Dunaway (Da Capo Press 1990). A biography of Pete Seeger, the folk-singer who has participated in the major social justice movements since the 1940s.
  • Hull House: The House that Jane Built (film).
  • In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck (Penguin Classics 1992). This novel is about the attempts of the Communist Party to organize migrant farmworkers in California during the Depression.
  • Labor’s Untold Story by Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais (United Electrical Radio & Machine Workers of America 1955).
  • Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy by Sanford D. Horwitt (Vintage 1992). Alinsky is the “founding father” of modern community organizing.
  • Letters from Mississippi by Elizabeth Martinez (Zephyr Press 2002). Excerpts from letters written by white student volunteers during the Southern civil rights movement of the 1960s.
  • Norma Rae (film).
  • Organize! by Wyndham Mortimer (Beacon Press 1971). Mortimer was a leader of the famous “sit-down” strikes of 1937.
  • The Other America by Michael Harrington (Scribner 1997). Exposed the depths of poverty in the early 1960s and inspired the various war-on-poverty programs.
  • Paul Robeson by Martin Duberman (New Press 1995). A All-American athlete, a graduate of Columbia Law School, a linguist, a folklorist, a singer of international fame, a star of opera, films, and Broadway musicals, he was discriminated against for being a Black and a radical.
  • A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present by Howard Zinn (Harper Perennial 2003).
  • Poor People’s Movements by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (Vintage 1978).
  • Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1933–1983 by Lawrence S. Wittner (Temple UP 1984). This is the story of people who, during World War II and the Cold War, organized for peace and disarmament.
  • Reunion: A Memoir by Tom Hayden (Crowell-Collier MacMillan 1989). Hayden became a founder of SDS and a leader in the antiwar movement of the l960s and a defendant in the Chicago 7 trial.
  • Salt of the Earth (film).
  • Social Movements of the 1960s: Searching for Democracy by Stewart Burns (Twayne Publishers 1990).
  • This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer by Kay Mills (Plume Books 1994). Hamer became a leading figure in the Southern civil rights movement during the l960s.
  • To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells by Linda O. McMurry (Oxford UP 1999). Wells, an African American woman who lived from 1862 to 1931, was a pioneer in the cause of women and civil rights.
  • The Trouble With Harry Hay—Founder of the Modern Gay Movement by Stuart Timmons (Alyson Pub 1990). He formed the Mattachine Society in the 1950s and is considered the “father” of the modern gay rights movement.
  • Union Maids (film).
  • Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets (Dramatists Play Service Inc. 1998).
  • W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race and W.E.B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality by David Levering Lewis (Owl Books 1994). A two-volume biography of DuBois, a major figure in the civil rights movement from the l920s through the l950s.
  • We Are Your Sons by Robert and Michael Meeropol (Ballantine 1976). The Meeropols are the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who died in the electric chair in the l950s for having spied for the Soviet Union.
  • Willmar Eight (film).
  • Woody Guthrie by Joe Klein (Delta 1999). A good biography of Guthrie, and a good introduction to the culture of the Left, the impact of McCarthyism on the lives of radicals, and the revival of folk music in the 1960s.


Return to August 2006 highlights





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