Movement scholars have been attempting to make sense of the civil rights movement for many decades, and important studies were being carried out as the movement itself was still in its ascendency. With several decades of accumulated scholarship, studies of the black freedom struggle constitute defining contributions to our understanding of movement origins, participation, organizations and leadership, gender, collective identity and culture, repression, and movement consequences. Reflecting on this line of scholarship provides an excellent opportunity to gauge what we have learned and chart new directions.
I argue that movement scholars would benefit from paying closer attention to the recent work of historians. Over the past ten years, historians have developed a broad reinterpretation of the civil rights struggle that has revealed important but underappreciated dynamics. The “long civil rights movement” perspective sees the civil rights movement as one phase of a larger struggle for racial equality and civil and human rights (Hall 2005). Some of the insights of this perspective are anticipated by prior work of movement scholars. However, many patterns challenge dominant explanations or pose new puzzles for movement scholars in explaining black protest and social movements more broadly. For example, historians have traced the linkages between interracial unionism in the 1930s and subsequent civil rights activism (Gilmore 2008), located the civil rights movement within its broader Cold War context (Dudziak 2011), documented the scope of civil rights protest outside the US South (Sugrue 2008), uncovered the foundations of the black power movement in the Southern civil rights movement (Tyson 2001, Jeffries 2010) and examined the varied and complex responses of white Southerners to the struggle beyond the 1960s (Crespino 2009, Sokol 2007, Wright 2013). From the perspective of movement studies, this rich body of historical scholarship has much to offer. The theoretical and methodological tools of movement scholars could add considerably to our understanding of these dynamics as well.
Two themes have been central in scholarship on the civil rights movement’s origins. First, historians and social scientists have been especially focused on the issue of continuity (whether and how black protest was shaped by prior leadership, organization, cultural practices and ideas). Second, scholars have debated the extent to which the movement’s origins were largely indigenous or dependent on external facilitation, sponsorship, or exogenous opportunities. Recent work on the movement’s origins, including Shultziner’s (2013) study of the Montgomery bus boycott, indicates that some revisions are required to the standard sociological account including continuity and the indigenous basis of the civil rights movement.
Shultziner shows the centrality of everyday experiences with segregation. I draw two insights that build on this analysis. First, the Montgomery case provides a strong basis for rethinking the role of grievances in spurring protest. Shultziner emphasizes the social psychology of grievances, but even more fundamentally, he shows that conflict was rooted in structural changes that altered the everyday experience of segregation. These changes included shifts in the racial composition of bus ridership, the labor conditions of bus drivers, and their reaction to the Brown decision. Second, Shultziner’s study reveals just how unique Montgomery’s system of bus segregation was. This may help explain why the bus boycott tactic did not spread beyond a few cities. The relative absence of civil rights protest between 1956 and 1960 has always been an anomaly for accounts that emphasize the continuity of the civil rights movement; the potential for tactical diffusion may have been quite limited. The variability in bus segregation differs from lunch counters where segregation was institutionalized similarly throughout the South. This similarity may have facilitated the spread of protest to numerous cities with similar targets (Andrews and Biggs 2006).
Beyond Montgomery, historians have written dozens of community histories that – taken together – show the varied origins, trajectories, and consequences of local movements. Rather than viewing the civil rights struggle as a unitary movement, this work indicates that the civil rights movement was a “movement of movements” – compromised of many overlapping struggles by numerous organizations and leaders with diverse goals and purposes (Isaac 2008). Protest campaigns targeting local grievances were the central building block of the movement. In most cases, these campaigns emerged in specific communities that shaped their formation and durability. External factors mattered too – such as the initiatives of national movement leaders, the federal government, and global and international dynamics including the Cold War and de-colonization movements. Thus, explaining the origins of the civil rights movement is a dual task – accounting for the similarity and differences in mobilization across localities and how so many communities mobilized simultaneously. This co-occurrence of protest throughout the US South multiplied the local disruptions to daily life in ways that could propel broader changes, and it differentiates the peak of the movement from earlier periods when protest had more limited scope. In a current project, Sarah Gaby and I are using comparative and historical methods to understand how movement campaigns varied in their origins, dynamics, and consequences.
Recent historical work also provides an opportunity to rethink the movement’s impact and legacy. Movement scholars have examined the civil rights movement’s impact on federal policy adoption (Burstein 1985, Santoro 2008) and the basis of movement influence (Andrews 2004, Luders 2010). I argue that the movement’s legacy has been both over- and underestimated. By focusing on major legislative policies, the movement’s legacy is often overestimated – assuming that these policies were implemented in ways that secured racial equality and sometimes failing to consider the deep and enduring resistance the movement faced. By only considering these political consequences, we underestimate the movement’s legacy with respect to culture, work and the economy, and subsequent advocacy and activism. Historians have taken a broader review examining the impact of the civil rights struggle on whites’ racial and political identities (Minchin and Salmond 2011) and racial inequality in the labor force (Wright 2013). Engaging with this work is an opportunity to refine theories of movement consequences and our understanding of this important case.