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Deeper Roots of Social Justice Advocacy

Yet the roots of intellectual advocacy for social justice as well as its links to higher education actually run much deeper in North America than this account of the emergence of social justice studies since the 1960s suggests. The Society of Friends (the Quakers) and the Mennonites protested against America’s “original sin” of slavery as early as 1688; however, organized efforts to rally public opinion against slavery did not emerge until the 1830s. Using the “mass” media of the day, the abolition movement established a template for social movements in America; it also served as a springboard for the women’s suffrage and temperance movements.

Although it is largely forgotten today, the religious “moral awakening” that provided much of the momentum for abolition also inspired educational fervor. This educational awakening led to the founding of colleges in the newly settled states in the Midwest prior to the Civil War to advance learning and spread the gospel, and in some cases the social gospel, to African Americans, women, American Indians, and the poor.14 Many of these colleges later abandoned their fervor for social justice but residues of these early visions can sometimes still be found in their mission statements. In the late nineteenth century, the social gospel movement—the social reformist efforts of liberal Protestant sects that sought to improve life on earth as opposed to promising the disadvantaged that they would reap their rewards in heaven—expanded its agendas to redress broader social and economic injustices. The social gospel movement also played significant roles in the development of the social sciences in America, especially sociology and historical economics.15

Concepts of labor justice emerged in the 1840s in France and England, contesting “wage slavery.” The injustices of unequal relations between owners of capital and workers, and the distribution of income and wealth within emerging capitalist institutions, were called into question by communists, socialists, and social democrats, as well as by many religious leaders who also questioned the increasing role that materialism, money, and market relations played in people’s lives. The trade union movement was a response to these concerns: seeking to reverse growing concentrations of wealth and power whether by revolution or reform.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, muckraking journalism applied the journalistic imperative to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”—sometimes with more ardor than accuracy. Muckrakers sensationalized the social ills that capitalism and modern urban life spawned by exposing threats to public health resulting from unsanitary food processing, exploitation of child labor, dangerous working conditions, urban corruption, and the criminal practices of the “robber barons” of the Gilded Age.

Global struggles for social justice and human rights gained public visibility internationally in the years after World War II, in struggles against colonialism and neocolonialism. These struggles are ongoing, as many of the industrial ills that plagued the United States a century ago have been exported to the developing world, where wages are very low, and unions and government regulation of workplace safety nonexistent. Issues of environmental justice, including global warming, are also, by definition, international struggles.

In all of these movements, media and communication—books, newspapers, leaflets, speeches, sermons, manifestos, slogans, and, more recently, electronic media (Internet, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter)—have played crucial roles in organizing social justice movements and rallying mass support for social change. Media exposure is an essential constituent of all successful social movements; in the United States, for example, muckraking and the progressive reaction to it resulted in antitrust legislation, workplace regulations, food safety inspections, and social welfare programs. Media coverage can also, of course, undermine as well as advance social movements.

In reaction to the successes of campaigns for social reform, corporations organized trade organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers to lobby on behalf of their interests. The public relations industry was born to manage public perceptions of corporations and to frame public issues and legislative agendas in ways that advance corporate interests. By the late twentieth century, media institutions and practices had become so central to the operations of global capitalism that debates about media control, access, policy, law, and representational powers are now primary sites of struggles for social justice.

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