Why does social change happen when it does? Societies have a particular order, but at certain moments in time, this order becomes susceptible to change. Sometimes the moments are small, the catalyst a seemingly ordinary person. Other times they are big, led by a groundswell of momentum. Either way, certain important historical events have been inspired by specific moments in history.
Some changes come fast, and some come incrementally. But all change comes from moments that act as a catalyst for change as the universe bends toward justice. Whether it was the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, or resistance against apartheid, strength and dedication marked these efforts and inspired change throughout the world.
Rosa Parks & the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955)
The Montgomery Bus Boycott began after the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white male passenger. The next day, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr called for a citywide bus boycott to protest racial segregation in the bus system. African Americans boycotted the buses and would either walk or share rides to their destinations.
The boycott lasted for 381 days, ending in June 1956, when a federal court ruled that the laws that kept buses segregated were unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled against the Montgomery bus system, and the buses became desegregated. The boycott was one of the first movements to bring about social change.
Ruby Bridges and the McDonough Three (1960)
These four girls were the first African American students to integrate white elementary schools in New Orleans, Louisiana. Tessie Provost, Leona Tate, and Gail Etienne arrived at McDonough No. 19, an all-white segregated school on November 14, 1960. On the same day, Ruby Bridges integrated another New Orleans, William Frantz Elementary.
Although school segregation had been illegal since 1956, many areas were slow to change. Due to public protests, the girls were accompanied by Federal Marshalls throughout the entire year. As they moved through the school system, they continued to integrate schools.
March on Washington (1963)
Attended by an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people, the 1963 March on Washington was the largest political rally for human rights in the U.S. The march was organized to protest for jobs for African Americans and was the site of Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, given from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This march is credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
National Organization for Women (1966)
Founded on June 30, 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed by a group of activists led by Betty Friedan with the goal of ending sex discrimination. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, the women brainstormed an action plan to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employers from discriminating against employees based on race, sex, color, nationality, and religion. Today, the organization is the largest organization using grassroots efforts to push for social change.
Stonewall Riots (June 28, 1969)
Although not the beginning of the gay rights movement, the Stonewall Riots were a turning point for LGBT+ political activism. It began with a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. The police entered the bar, roughed up the patrons, and arrested 13 people for bootlegged liquor (the bar was a private bottle club) and for violating the state’s gender-appropriate clothing statute.
Fed up with social discrimination and constant police harassment, angry neighborhood residents and patrons gathered outside the bar rather than dispersing. As the crowd became agitated and the police began manhandling people into police vans, a lesbian shouted at the crowd to act, inciting a riot and protests that lasted five days. This was the catalyst for the formation of numerous gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender civil rights organizations.
Candy Lightner: Stood up against Drunk Driving (1980)
When a repeat DWU offender hit and killed her 13-year-old daughter Cari, Candy Lightner founded the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) on March 7, 1980. Prior to the founding of MADD, there were very few legal consequences for driving under the influence of alcohol. The organization changed how Americans thought about drunk driving and successfully tightened DUI/DWI laws throughout the country.
Nelson Mandela Released from Prison (1990)
Mandela devoted his life to eradicating apartheid in South Africa, a policy that kept white and black South Africans apart and deprived black citizens the right to vote. In 1964 he was put in prison for his aggressive opposition to the racist policy and imprisoned for 26 years. He was released in 1990 and elected president of the Black African Congress. He won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end apartheid in 1993.
Lilly Ledbetter: Fought for Equal Pay (2009)
Just prior to her retirement from Goodyear after 19 years, Lilly Ledbetter learned that she had been earning thousands less per month than her male counterparts. She successfully sued the company, but the judgment was reversed on appeal. The Supreme Court upheld the appeal on the grounds that she did not file her suit within 180 days from the date of the policy that led to her reduced paycheck. In response, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 that changed federal law to better protect women in the workplace.
Malala Yousafzai: Fights for Better Education for Women (2012)
Known around the world simply as Malala, the Pakistani native is an activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. She learned about the importance of education from her father, who taught at a girls’ school. When her town was taken over by the Taliban in 2008, they banned girls from going to school. Malala publicly denounced the policy and was shot in the head for voicing her beliefs. After recovering, Malala and her family moved to the United Kingdom, where she started the Malala Fund, a charity devoted to ensuring all girls have the chance to get an education.