The Movement for African-American Civil Rights: Both a Model and a Contrast

By John D. Skrentny

The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on the place of the Civil Rights Movement in social movement theory. Because it was a complex, momentous, constitutional moment in the American history of justice, law, politics, and nation-building, it is not surprising that we are still learning about the movement. Though it was in many ways a model for other movements, I argue here that using it as a comparison case with other movements provides insights into important differences between movements.

One area where we are still learning regards the origins of the movement. A case in point is the subject of this symposium, Doron Shultziner’s recent article in Mobilization, which provocatively puts social psychology at the center of our understanding of the origins of the Civil Rights Movement. For Shultziner, the psychological experience of “humiliation” provided a key motivation for the movement. Notably, constitutional scholar Bruce Ackerman (2014) has independently placed what he calls “institutionalized humiliation” at the center of his understanding of the legal response to the movement. Civil rights laws, in his view, were designed to prevent these everyday humiliations from marking the African-American experience.

I would add that humiliation remains relevant to today’s understanding of civil rights law and the African American experience. As I describe elsewhere (Skrentny 2014), African Americans and other people of color are routinely placed in racialized jobs, providing them with opportunities, to be sure, but marginalized and typecast. Employer practices of this “racial realism” make race a qualification for jobs. For example, African American police officers sued the New York City government for placing them—based on their race—in dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The officers argued that whatever the benefits of African-American officers policing African-American neighborhoods, it was wrong for the city to limit their opportunities (they lost; Skrentny 2014). Similarly, Sharon Collins’s (1997) work captures many experiences of the humiliation with black executives when they realize they are frozen out of the main profit centers of their firms and placed in public relations or human resources jobs where employers believe they can be more useful.

Let’s talk about comparisons. A focus on the Civil Rights Movements as a model for understanding movements, I would argue, can highlight important and sociologically significant differences between movements. Why is this so? One answer has to do with historical sequencing. A standard idea in political sociology—the “policy feedback” or “policy legacy”—is that policies remake politics. But it is also the case that social movements remake politics, changing the playing field, and the appropriate strategies, for contemporary or later movements. This is a major theme in my (2002; 2006) work. I show that the Civil Rights Movement created policy repertoires and institutions that would benefit and shape the strategies of movements for the rights of Latinos, Asian Americans, women of all backgrounds, the disabled, and others.

For example, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which stated that programs or institutions receiving federal funds could not discriminate on the basis of race, national origin or religion, took decades to pass but became a quick and easy model for legislators to extend rights to other groups. Title VI provided a model for Congress to quietly extend rights to women in education (via Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972), the disabled (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) and even an administrative memo in 1970 declared that schools receiving funds must accommodate children with limited English proficiency. The politics of all of these laws, and the movement activity required to win them, were totally different than what preceded Title VI.

Finally, I will end with some consideration of the movement for rights for gays and lesbians. The comparison with the Civil Rights Movement highlights great differences in strategies. It is important to note that, despite the rapid development of rights for a wide variety disadvantaged groups in decades following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, rights for gays and lesbians were a clear stopping point. While members of Congress submitted sexual orientation anti-discrimination bills in the early 1970s, these were almost embarrassed gestures, with hardly even a floor speech to defend them, let alone the success enjoyed by similar efforts for Latinos, immigrants, women, and the disabled (Skrentny 2002). Given the intense, morality-infused resistance to gay rights, the smart strategy would have seemed to focus on the smallest, least offensive, and thus politically easiest efforts to win nondiscrimination rights. After all, this is how the black civil rights movement started—a hard-fought but nevertheless tiny gesture: an executive order from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to ban racial discrimination in war industries. The Civil Rights Movement then worked its way through the courts and with more executive orders until the watershed 1964 act.

What is fascinating about the comparison with the movement for rights for gays and lesbians is that it has not focused on executive orders or even anti-discrimination rights in employment. Instead, it has focused on marriage equality—presumably an issue that strikes at the very heart of the moralistic resistance to gay rights—and yet has scored major victories, and with increasing momentum. Had the gay and lesbian rights movement followed the playbook of the Civil Rights Movement, they would have perhaps won nondiscrimination rights by federal contractors earlier than they did (this just occurred on July 21, 2014), and actual legislation banning employment discrimination is still likely a long way away.


Ackerman, Bruce. 2014. We the People, Volume 3: The Civil Rights Revolution. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Collins, Sharon. 1997. Black Corporate Executives: The Making and Breaking of a Black Middle Class. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Skrentny, John D. 2014. After Civil Rights: Racial Realism in the New American Workplace. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Skrentny, John D. 2006. “Policy-Elite Perceptions and Social Movement Success: Understanding Variations in Group Inclusion in Affirmative Action.” American Journal of Sociology 111: 1762-1815.

Skrentny, John D. 2002. The Minority Rights Revolution. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Origins of Social Movements

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