The literature on social movements in North American history is vast. I will focus here on US history and the twentieth century.
The first issues in this literature concern the very definition of a social movement—as opposed to a political party, or movement committed to armed struggle, or some other formation—and the distinction between ‘new’ and ‘old’ movements. Dieter Rucht argues that one characteristic of a new social movement is its middle-class character, but I am not sure this holds for the most paradigmatic US movement groups. The class dimensions of African American struggle and of white reprisals have not received enough consideration. But they have appeared persistently in the literature, starting with the fascinating combination of first-person reflections and scholarly analysis in radical historian Howard Zinn’s, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon, 1965). Civil rights historian Charles Payne added depth to Zinn’s account with I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (2nd edition, Berkeley: University of California, 2007), which opens with a breathtaking litany of economic and violent reprisals visited upon southern African Americans. I considered these issues, vis-à-vis public benefits to alleviate hunger and how they were manipulated by southern whites, in the essay, ‘Food as a Civil Right: Hunger, Work, and Welfare in the South after the Civil Rights Act’, in the journal Labor 1–2 (2015), pp. 135–158. I do not know of good secondary literature on the class dimensions of women’s status, but a key primary document that questions whether even white women married to middle-class men can themselves be considered ‘middle class’ is Zillah Eisenstein (ed.), Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (New York: Monthly Review, 1979).
In the United States, the language of ‘social movement’ was rarely used prior to the late 1960s or to refer to labour organizations or reform within political parties. However, ‘New Left’ historians who identified with the movements of their era came to interpret earlier movements in social movement terms and wrote about them thus in the scholarship published in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. One of the most significant works in this vein is Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), a book that has inspired generations of budding activists who studied US history at the college level—despite the existence of powerful alternative interpretations of populism as a dangerous movement (Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Knopf, 1955)), or, more recently, a fundamentally racist one (Stephen Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000)).
One of the distinctive features of social movement history in the United States is the place of formal law as a factor enabling, disabling, constraining and otherwise shaping virtually every aspect of activist effort. Particularly in the middle-to-late twentieth century, the most elite legal forums were seen as places where poor and marginalized people could receive succour and support—although these same legal arenas were the centres of anti-labour and anti-civil rights action in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The positive case for law (in the form of stories of legal victories that were also significant social movement victories) appears in Mark Tushnet, The NAACP’s Legal Strategy Against Segregated Education, 1925–1950 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987) and eadem, Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936–1961 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). Concerning the women’s movement(s), more measured interpretations, which nonetheless centre the formal, legal dimensions of social movement struggle, appear in Linda Kerber’s award-winning volume, No Constitutional Right to be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (New York: Hill & Wang, 1998) and law professor Serena Mayeri’s excellent study, Reasoning from Race: Law and the Civil Rights Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011)—as well as in the classic from the ‘new social movement’ era, Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America 1848–1869 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978). Multiple interpretations of law (in this case, statutory law, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or ADA) appear in Anita Silvers and Leslie Frances (eds), Americans with Disabilities Exploring the Implications of the Law for Individuals and Institutions (New York: Routledge, 2000), and Samuel Bagenstos, Law and the Contradictions of the Disability Rights Movement (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), which illuminates weaknesses of the ADA and holds the disability movement itself responsible for generating these. The scholarship on the LGBTQA movement has generally focused less on courtroom or statutory law than have the literatures of other movements, but significant works have recently pursued what historian Marc Stein has called ‘queer legal history’ and meditated deeply upon the effects of law upon the queer movement and vice versa. Readers may be interested in Stein’s own work, Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold to Roe (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), as well as Margot Canaday’s The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010) and my review essay, ‘Queer Legal History: A Field Grows Up and Comes Out’, Law and Social Inquiry 2 (Spring, 2011), pp. 537–559.