People Power: A Force for Change

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

—Victor Hugo

People-led social movements have transformed authoritarian societies globally and brought freedom and human rights to millions around the world in the last century.

Here are a few examples:


The Velvet Revolution was a non-violent popular uprising against one-party rule of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1989. Popular demonstrations led to the end of 41 years of one-party rule and the establishment of a parliamentary republic.


The Indian Independence Movement was a call for independence from Britain after more than 250 years of colonial administration, first by the British East India Company and then by the government of Britain. The last decades of the struggle until independence in 1949 were guided by Mahatma Gandhi’s policy of nonviolence and civil resistance. He led nationwide campaigns, including the famed March to the Sea to protest the salt tax, to raise awareness and pride about Indian heritage and traditions.


In September 1980 workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland established the first trade union, Solidarity, in a Warsaw Pact country that was not controlled by a communist party. Within a year its membership reached 10 million, constituting a third of the total working-age population of Poland. Solidarity’s influence and principles spread throughout the countries of the Eastern bloc, culminating in the first free elections in any Soviet bloc country, held in Poland in June 1989, and the weakening and dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991. 


The People Power Revolution in the Philippines, following the assassination of Filipino senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino in 1983, was a sustained campaign of civil resistance against the authoritarian regime of President Ferdinand Marcos. The nonviolent revolution led to the departure of Marcos and the restoration of democracy and fundamental rights in the Philippines.


The anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa was an uprising against the strict racial separation that disenfranchised the majority of South Africa’s population. South Africa’s policies also ignited international opposition, resulting in one of the most influential global social movements of the twentieth century. South Africa’s leading anti-apartheid activist, Nelson Mandela, was released from prison after 27 years amid growing domestic and international pressure. In 1993, Mandela and President F. W. de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to apartheid and laying the foundation for multiracial general elections.


The Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s and ‘60s was a broad-based movement to end racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans and to secure legal recognition and protection of the citizenship rights guaranteed in federal law. Northern clergy and white supporters joined African American leaders in campaigns of civil resistance and nonviolent protests, leading to landmark legislation and enforcement of federal civil rights laws.

“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”

—Mahatma Gandhi

“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”

—Nelson Mandela

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.