The movement has been called Moral Mondays. News accounts say it began in February when 17 people were arrested in Raleigh, North Carolina, while protesting the policies of a new Republican-led state legislature. At least 900 people have since been arrested during weekly protests over everything from the legislature's decision to cut teachers' pay and unemployment benefits to its rejection of expanded medical coverage for the poor and underinsured under Obamacare.
Much of the news coverage describes Moral Mondays as a spontaneous reaction to the legislature's decisions. But the coalition driving the protests actually formed years ago to be a force in North Carolina politics and "go where the sparks go," says the Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP and one of Moral Mondays' leaders.
"Seven years ago we started to prepare," Barber says. "We didn't know we were preparing for this moment. We didn't see this day coming."
Barber says the multiracial coalition behind Moral Mondays originally formed to push for increased voter registration, labor rights and more support for public education. It maintained its unity over the years because it knew other issues might arise and it wanted to be ready to hit the ground running.
"You have to do the hard work," he says. "You just don't helicopter in and make a speech. You have to build trust, talk with people and struggle with the issues."
The coalition is multiracial and multi-issue, crucial for any movement that wants to have broad appeal. It has the support of about 150 groups, including clergy, white college students and women's groups. Barber says he has received calls from people around the country who want to replicate Moral Mondays in other states.
He says the years of planning paid off when the Republican-led assembly provided the spark that helped Moral Mondays launch the "spontaneous" protests.
Barber's advice for movement builders: Don't wait for the right spark to organize. Do it now.
"No matter where you are now, now is the time to build coalitions," Barber says. "You do it now because when the moment comes, the only thing that will be able to save you is to be together."
2. Make policy, not noise
They gave the nation a nifty slogan: "We are the 99%.'' But they haven't been heard from much since. Remember Occupy Wall Street? In 2011, a group of protesters occupied a park in New York City's financial district to protest income inequality and the growing power of financial institutions.
Occupy Wall Street generated plenty of media coverage, but its largely faded from public attention. Yet the tea party, a conservative movement that arose in 2009 to protest government spending and debt, is still wielding influence in American public life.
Why does the tea party have more influence than Occupy Wall Street?
The tea party didn't just make noise; it put people in office, several political scientists and historians note.
"The tea party from the outset focused on winning elections and setting up a structure that could affect the political process," says Larry Schweikart, co-author of "A Patriot's History of the United States."
"The Occupy Wall Street group only wanted to raise hell."
Successful movements just don't take it to the streets. They elect candidates, pass laws, set up institutions to raise money, train people and produce leaders, observers say.
The March on Washington, for example, had the charisma of King. But it also had the organizational genius of Bayard Rustin, a man whose attention to detail was so keen that people wryly noted he knew precisely how many portable toilets 250,000 marchers needed.
"Occupy used a very smart tactic -- sit in parks where people could join the protests," says Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University in Washington and an expert on social movements.
"At the same time, it was just a tactic," says Kazin, author of "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation."