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Ask Cokie: The History Of Grass-Roots Activism


The activism of students in Parkland, Fla., following the school shooting there has many of you asking questions about the effectiveness of grass-roots political campaigns. We can glean one answer from how President John F. Kennedy responded to civil rights demonstrations back in 1963.


JOHN F KENNEDY: The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.

MARTIN: In that address to the nation, Kennedy called for passage of what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, landmark legislation produced by a groundswell of public pressure. So let's ask Cokie about the history of grass-roots activism. Cokie Roberts joins us regularly to talk about how government and politics work, and she joins us now.

Hey, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel, good to talk to you.

MARTIN: Nice to hear your voice. So our first question comes from Twitter. It's from Darren Sowards, who writes, did the Social Security Act begin as a grass-roots campaign?

ROBERTS: Basically, yes. The Great Depression sent people into poverty, and programs like Huey Long's share the wealth became a movement. There were clubs all over the country with millions of members calling for government retirement payments. It took FDR for Social Security to get passed in 1935. But still, it's one of the most active movements in Washington. You want to see citizens make a difference? You just try to cut Social Security.

MARTIN: Right.


MARTIN: OK, another question from another listener, this one with a kind of a practical bent.

SARAH PLUMITALLO: My name is Sarah Plumitallo, and I'm from Fredericksburg, Va. Is there a threshold at which grass-roots activism overwhelms lobbying in terms of manpower, such as phone banking, showing up in offices, letter writing, et cetera, not just money and funds raised?

MARTIN: Cokie?

ROBERTS: Well, of course, that activism is a form of lobbying when there's a particular piece of legislation the activists want to see passed. And you have organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, where despite the clout of the liquor and restaurant industries, those grass-roots lobbyists were able to convince Congress, and eventually, the Reagan administration, to mandate that every state raise the drinking age to 21 or face a cut in highway funds.

MARTIN: OK, here's our next question about a fairly important decision by the Supreme Court and its impact on activism.

DAVID WESTMARK: Hi. This is David Westmark in St. Petersburg, Fla. Has a Citizens United SCOTUS decision emasculated grass-roots activism? If so, in what ways, and how much? If not, why not?

MARTIN: We should just note here, he's referring to the high court's 5-4 decision eight years ago that said it's OK for corporations and labor unions to spend as much as they want, basically, to convince people to vote for or against their candidate.

ROBERTS: Well, members of Congress are reporting more activism in the years since Donald Trump took office than at any time in recent history. And it turns out that the people are wise to call on their members of Congress. A study by the Congressional Management Foundation revealed that Congressional staffers say that individual communication from a constituent can have a lot of influence over how a lawmaker votes, particularly if the constituent can show how the measure affects the district or the state.

MARTIN: All right. Lastly, a question about why some groups are more effective than others.

TANNA AUDREY BUZZARD: I'm Tanna Audrey Buzzard from Shelbina, Mo. It seems to me that these young people are definitely having some impact. We see the business boycotts, and the legislation in Florida has been impacted, but not so much, in fact, as from the Women's March and the Me Too movement. What's the difference?

MARTIN: Cokie?

ROBERTS: Well, first, we aren't sure what eventual impact these young people will have. But they are asking for specific legislation - changes in the gun laws. Women, this year, are not doing that, but I think you are seeing their activism realized in the huge number of women running for office at all levels of government. And you can make a case that that's the best kind of activism.

MARTIN: Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work. Tweet us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.