Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, part II

The Civil Rights Movement has inspired libraries of popular and scholarly books and articles. Its influence on the study of social movements and collective action processes is remarkable. Yet even something so thoroughly studied yields new insights to these processes. This dialogue is prompted by a recent article written by Doron Shultziner about the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. In his piece (Mobilization, June 2013) he distinguishes between factors that explain a movement’s emergence from those that explain its momentum – in particular, the important role of humiliation and shame in sparking the boycott.

In light of Shultziner’s arguments, we asked scholars and activists to reflect more generally on the origins of social movements. What do we now know about the origins of the Civil Rights Movement? What are the implications of that for other social movements, given that so many theories developed with that movement in mind? In what ways has scholarly focus on this particular movement highlighted or obscured collective-action processes at different stages and in different places?

Adding to last month’s 8 great essays, we are posting 4 new insightful contributions. Many thanks to our cast of contributors:

David Cunningham, Brandeis University (essay)
Felicia McGhee-Hilt, University of Tennessee – Chattanooga (essay)
Francesca Polletta, University of California – Irvine (essay)
Burrel Vann, Jr., University of California – Irvine (essay)

As always, we invite you to join the dialogue by posting your reactions to these essays in the comments sections.

Editors in Chief,
Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, and Dan Myers

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When Does Anger Lead to Protest?

By Francesca Polletta

The insight that reoriented the study of social movements in the late 1970s was that people knew when they were oppressed. The relevant question was not, what led people to feel discontented enough to protest? (This was the question animating strain theories of collective action.) Instead, it was, when did people see themselves as able to act effectively on their discontent? Hence the causal importance attributed to external resources (by resource mobilization theorists) and to political opportunities, indigenous resources, and cognitive liberation (by political process theorists).

Doron Shultziner argues that the earlier question was the right one after all—and he does so in the context of the case that was supposed to have laid to rest accounts of mobilization based on discontent. Not only does discontent matter, he maintains; it may be all that matters. In short, none of the factors that have been used to account for protest generally, and the Montgomery bus boycott in particular, explain the decision of so many people to stay off Montgomery’s buses. No one from the outside injected resources, financial or otherwise. There were no political opportunities. To the contrary, after Brown v. Board, things got worse, not better, as a backlash against school integration swelled the ranks of the notorious White Citizens Council and amplified everyday white aggressions. There were black leadership structures in Montgomery, and they did play a role in the protest, but only after it had gotten underway. As for cognitive liberation, it is hard to imagine what would have led black citizens of Montgomery to feel that political change was newly within reach.

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The Cosmopolitan Migrant

There is nothing like finding yourself unable to get out of bed, alone in a foreign country, to make you realize how vulnerable a migrant is. A flash of panic strikes through your mind. Then, some unexpected lucidity born out of the urgency of the situation reemerges to make you start listing your options.

My first thought is: ‘Make sure you have the phone and the charger next to you.’ If need be, with a phone, you can call an ambulance, your employer, or one of the couple of friends you have made in the short amount of time you have spent in your host country, which reassures me. Continue reading

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Understanding the Participatory Emotions of a Social Movement

By Felicia McGhee-Hilt

Ella. Lee. Pettway. Most people are not familiar with that name but she was one of the 50,000 foot soldiers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She is also my maternal grandmother.

I deliberated for quite some time about whether I should do a study on the Montgomery Bus Boycott because so much has already been done on it. However, while at the Alabama Department of Archives in Montgomery, I decided to look through old newspaper articles about the boycott. I viewed many pictures, but there was one picture on the front of the newspaper The Montgomery Advertiser that caught my eye. The picture consisted of black domestics walking to work. As I continued to view the picture, I realized that one of the women looked extremely familiar. It was my grandmother. With purse in hand, she was walking along with the many other people that day. It was then that I realized that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was still a ripe research topic.

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Local Rules: Institutional Bases for Challenging Segregation in the Civil Rights-Era South

By David Cunningham

Midway through his provocative article “The Social Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” Doron Shultziner presents bus map of the segregated seating pattern inside a typical city bus in 1950’s Montgomery. To me, this schematic was a revelation, encapsulating the promise of Shultziner’s award-winning paper.

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On Time, Agents, and Comparisons

By Burrel Vann Jr.

The Civil Rights Movement has been central to our understanding of social movements and critical for the development of social movement theory. We’ve amassed a rich history of the movement, with various scholars focusing on particular periods and places, instances of collective action, and both individual and structural precipitants and consequences of activism.

The focus on such an influential movement has been and will continue to be beneficial to our understanding of collective action processes insofar as researchers engage in intra- and inter-movement comparative work. Research that tracks one movement across time will highlight the long trajectories movements typically have (i.e., when movements begin and end); it can also tell us a great deal about changes in collective action processes at different stages, and how and when these are sparked. Additionally, work that compares findings from the Civil Rights Movement to the processes at work in other movements can demonstrate the generalizability of our theories.

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What do the ALS ice bucket challenge, Alberta oil, and Leonardo DiCaprio have in common?

10142156Hollywood star, Leonardo DiCaprio, was in Alberta for a new documentary about the environmental impacts of the oilsands (a.k.a. tar sands). He met with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations who have been protesting against developing the oilsands. DiCaprio is among a host of celebrities speaking out against the oilsands. Others include Desmond Tutu, Neil Young and James Cameron. They join other celebrities who have been vocal opponents of the Keystone pipeline including Mark Ruffalo, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Kevin Bacon.

Proponents of the oilsands and the pipeline, including the Prime Minister’s office, have dismissed celebrity involvement in Alberta’s oil industry. According to Yahoo Canada News, the Prime Minister’s Office has commented in the past about “the energy-demanding lifestyle often afforded to such celebrities” and Tim Moen, leader of the Libertarian Party of Canada, referred to it as celebrity cheap talk demonizing Alberta’s oilsands. Moen told Yahoo Canada News that “The people I take seriously are people who actually create solutions. People that find ways to get cheap clean energy into the hands of people who want it.”  Continue reading

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