Grievance and Organization

By Jo Freeman

When I read the social movements literature in grad school in the late 1960s, I noticed that almost all of it looked for psychological causes. There was little attention to the role of organization. By then, I had been deeply involved in two major social movements – the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the Civil Rights Movement (in the North and South). I knew that in the South the official line was that all this trouble was caused by us damned outside agitators. If we’d just get out of town, race relations would return to their normal, comfortable, state. White Southerners completely discounted grievances as a reason for disorder.

I also knew that it was impossible for an organizer, no matter how dedicated, to compel people to endure major personal sacrifice for a cause where there was no history of bad experiences. I knew because I had tried. Indeed, SCLC, the organization for which I worked in the South, had tried to create another “Selma” a couple times in the fall of 1965 – first around the issue of school desegregation in Georgia, and then around the issue of the double-standard of justice after the killers of Viola Liuzzo and Jonathan Daniels were quickly acquitted by all-white, all-male juries. I found the white South’s dedication to denial to be downright funny at times; their determination to believe that everything was just fine between the races appeared to approach the level of a self-inflicted mental illness.

Shultziner does an excellent job of identifying and documenting why the black folk of Montgomery had such a strong sense of grievance in 1955. It’s what the literature of my younger days called “strain.” What he doesn’t say is that this sense of grievance is the precondition for a movement – but it still has to be organized. It was this latter fact that I and many of the social movement scholars who came after me tried to point out in our work. While few of the scholars who wrote about organization were actual participants in the social movements of the 1960s, all of us had lived through them, and knew something about all the work that preceded “surges,” the highly public, mass activity that gets labeled as a movement.

When I wrote “On the Origins of Social Movements” in 1971, I took grievances for granted and tried to ascertain how those translated into an actual organized movement. The scholars who came after me, many of whom Shultziner cites, also focused on how movements were organized because they saw something missing from the literature which played up social-psychological factors. Apparently that trend has run its course, and movement scholars are returning to older paradigms and seeking to blend them with later ones.

It should be obvious that movements don’t happen by themselves. There must be grievances and organization. Indeed, the Women’s Political Council had been preparing for a bus boycott for at least a year before it actually happened. Its head, Jo Ann Robinson, had been angry at how bus drivers treated Negroes since one attacked her verbally in 1949. The NAACP, of which Rosa Parks was the branch secretary, was also looking for a good case to take to court. Shultziner explains why it took so long to translate anger into action by pointing out that bad treatment had gotten considerably worse during the previous two years. But I think there are a couple other factors that we should throw into the hopper.

Shultziner says the white drivers responded in part to Brown’s declaration that school segregation was unconstitutional. Black attitudes were also affected, but differently. Blacks had been told all their lives that they had to be kept away from whites because they were inferior. The US Supreme Court said the South got it backward, that a sense of inferiority was created by segregation. This provided what political scientists call “elite legitimation” of what Negroes wanted to believe, but could not articulate publicly without being attacked. In May of 1954, the Supreme Court opened the door to defying segregation in all its forms.

This mostly affected educated elites. But it was the masses that made the boycott more than a court case, a demonstration of determination that inspired people all over the country. Robinson and E. D. Nixon (head of the NAACP chapter) planned to boycott the busses for a day. It was the masses of working people, especially women, who kept it up for 13 months – until legal segregation was ended with a nod from the Supreme Court. I think what motivated them to do this, what caused the bus boycott to begin when it did and not end quickly, was the murder of Emmitt Till. His horrid death, at the hands of two white men who thought they had right to torture a 14-year-old black boy for being fresh with a white woman, their trial and acquittal, dominated the press for many weeks in the fall of 1955. Rosa Parks said Till was on her mind when she refused to give up her seat on December 1. A lot of those middle-aged black women whose “feets was hurtin” could see that happening to their own sons.

Shultziner also asks why the movement ended with the boycott. Well, it didn’t end; it just took a less public form, mostly doing voter registration. But the highly public part ended. If you do a quick read of civil rights history, you will see that civil rights “surges” only happen once in a given location, at least in the South. The reason for that is retaliation. All of the people publicly involved with the Montgomery bus boycott were fired, bombed, physically attacked, and eventually persuaded to leave town. In June of 1956, while the boycott was in progress and the cases were winding their way through the courts, Alabama’s Attorney General got a state court to ban the state NAACP. It would be eight years before it could again operate legally in Alabama. In 1957, the Alabama legislature passed a series of laws to reinforce segregation in various ways. One sought to abolish all counties with black majorities by dividing them up among neighboring white counties. In many ways, the state of Alabama responded to the Montgomery bus boycott with the same fierce resistance that the South in general showed to the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling. Don’t underestimate repression as a way to kill movements. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s very effective.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Origins of Social Movements

One response to “Grievance and Organization

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