What Have We Learned from the Civil Rights Movement?

By Joseph Luders

I came to the study of social movements in part because of the dramatic and heroic nature of the civil rights struggle. And yet, the attraction to this movement, or really the analysis of any single movement, comes with risks. One such risk is devising general propositions from a single case. Only by placing a movement into a larger theoretical setting and by comparing diverse movements side-by-side can we produce robust generalizations. Yet the civil rights movement possesses certain features that make it ideal for hypothesis testing. In particular, the movement operated for many years in different localities, using different strategies, and often pursuing different goals. Despite the limitations of single case studies, investigations of the civil rights movement have thus produced multiple insights, many of which continue to dominate social movement theory today.

Without a doubt, Doug McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency (1982) defined social movement theory for a generation. Drawing from Tilly (1978) and others, McAdam cogently articulated the political process theory and fundamentally defined the essential vocabulary for investigation based on the three theoretical pillars: political opportunities, indigenous organizations (which became “mobilizing structures”), and cognitive liberation (which, in a more complicated fashion, was displaced by the related concept of framing processes). From this perspective, the civil rights movement emerged from a favorable confluence of factors: gradually expanding political opportunities for African Americans in the South, preexisting community and organizational connections in black churches and colleges, and a broadening optimism that Jim Crow might be brought down. Further, the ensuing contentious interactions between civil rights protesters and their violent antagonists appears central to the enactment of landmark civil and voting rights legislation. McAdam’s analysis of the civil rights movement seemed to vindicate the causal relevance of each of these factors and firmly established political process theory.

Of course, the dominance of political process theory has not gone unchallenged. (Even among proponents of the political process approach, self-criticism and new concepts abound.) The latest salvo in this ongoing debate is Doron Shultziner’s thoughtful essay “The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott: Social Interaction and Humiliation in the Emergence of Social Movements.” Again, we find another challenge to the proposition that expanding political opportunities are necessary for movement emergence. Despite efforts to more carefully specify the analytical content of political opportunities (Meyer and Minkoff 2004; Tarrow 1994), others have criticized the political process approach for a profound structuralist bias (Jasper and Goodwin 1999; Morris 2000), often pointing to the centrality of identities, norms, agency, and local interpretive communities in giving rise to protest. Shultziner repeats some of these criticisms in highlighting the social psychological role of humiliation as a potent impetus to action. Rather than finding any broadening of opportunities, he observes that an upsurge of local outrage was the proximate trigger of the Montgomery bus boycott. He makes a strong case that, in this instance, changes in political opportunities were essentially irrelevant.

However, it is not entirely clear that political process theorists ever argued that movements emerge only amid expanding opportunities (Tilly 1999), but rather that these circumstances are simply favorable for mobilization. In the latter case, it is not that movements cannot sprout from hostile soil, but that there may be fewer seedlings.

As noted at the outset, the difficulty with single case studies is that they do not permit the effective testing of various plausible hypotheses. Although movements might emerge despite adverse political opportunities, it may also be true that there is greater movement mobilization during episodes of actual or perceived opportunities (Kurzman 1996). Without a broader census of overall movement activity, it is difficult to sort out the competing contentions.

Compared to the concept of political opportunity, which has taken more of a beating as an explanatory variable, the remaining factors mobilizing structures and framing processes have been pushed more visibly into the foreground. Few doubt that embeddedness in formal organizations and social network ties are hugely important in explanations of movement emergence. Even Shultziner, who concentrates on social-psychological dimensions of agitation, points to pre-existing organizations in the emergence of the Montgomery boycott, specifically the Women’s Political Caucus (WPC). Yet, oddly, Shultziner brushes aside the importance of such organizations for the initial mobilization evidently because there was no specific organizational or social network change that immediately preceded the onset of the Montgomery bus boycott. While the case is strong that a rising sense of outrage stemming from an actual increase in abusive behavior by bus drivers instigated the specific call for a boycott, it appears that, even at this incipient stage, the WPC and clerical associations were called upon to facilitate the boycott. Indeed, Jo Ann Robinson, the WPC president, used the arrest of Rosa Parks to set in motion a pre-planned boycott by duplicating and distributing more than 50,000 leaflets calling for the boycott. She further communicated with other WPC members as well as the leaders of other organizations to get the word out about the boycott. In other words, it is doubtful that the Montgomery bus boycott could have achieved widespread participation without the support of social networks and community organizations at the outset. While it certainly appears that heightened moral indignation encouraged greater mass participation, Shultziner seems too dismissive of the essential role that organizations and networks played in the early mobilization process. Without this infrastructure, the difference might have been between a transitory firecracker and a broader conflagration. Multiple studies of the civil rights movement likewise underscore the importance of organizations (Andrews 2004; Andrews and Biggs 1996; Morris 1984). Indeed, one of the most durable and least controversial findings of contemporary social movement theory is the centrality of social networks and pre-existing organizations to movement emergence.

Also, there has been added research on emphasis on the role of emotion and culture (Goodwin and Jasper 2004; Goodwin, Jasper, and Polletta 2001), which cannot be entirely conflated with the interpretive elements of framing processes. In my view, greater attention to the interpretive, narrative, and social psychological dimensions of collective action have enriched our analyses of the civil rights struggle and others (Polletta 2006). Whereas political process approaches initially sought to restore rationality to movement activity, the activation of emotion is now accepted as crucial. Of course, tensions persist in the marriage between thick descriptions of participants’ interpretations and the broader search for regularities in social movement emergence, development, and outcomes. But, in this tension, there is a welcome and lively debate.

More attention of late has been devoted to movement impacts. Here, a focus on the civil rights movement has been instructive as well, and perhaps less contested, even though there is always something more complicated and elusive about impacts than meets the eye (Amenta 2008; Burstein et al. 1995; Giugni 1999). What types of impacts are to be considered? Are they intended or unintended? Direct or indirect? And so on. Certainly, McAdam’s (1989) research on the biographical impact of Freedom Summer participants demonstrates how profound movement activism can be. On winning new advantages from targets, studies diverge somewhat on the precise mechanisms by which gains are achieved, but most concur with the proposition that targets respond to the inducements that movements generate, at least sometimes (Andrews 2004; Gamson 1975). Research on the civil rights movement has also clarified the responses of economic actors to mobilization (Luders 2006). In addition, a focus on the civil rights movement has underscored the importance of dramatic counter-movement interactions and media attention for outcomes (Garrow 1978; McAdam 1982).

Research on the civil rights movement has several additional lessons about movement outcomes. In particular, any explanation of movement outcome must carefully consider the different costs for targets and third parties of acceding to movement demands. As much as we refer to “the movement” in the singular, it is actually more accurate to think of movements as diverse constellations of individuals and organizations with differing strategies and goals. With respect to winning legislative gains, attention to the civil rights movement can be informative, but problematic as well because of features peculiar to the civil rights struggle. For instance, broad public support already existed for the movement’s principal demands, and the cost for implementing these changes could be largely confined to a single region of the United States. Also, all too often, social movement theorists flatten the complexity of the legislative process to the neglect of conventional lobbying, electoral calculations of targeted lawmakers, and the centrality of pivotal legislators. It would be a mistake, for instance, to assume that the Birmingham protests in 1963 led in some automatic fashion to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Indeed, there are multiple routes to different political outcomes, but the explanation of these outcomes necessarily involves attention to differing combinations of public opinion, mass attentiveness, and the movement’s electoral leverage relative to that of opponents (Luders 2010).

For activists, the civil rights movement teaches at least four valuable lessons. First, it is imperative to harness pre-existing organizations and social networks for mobilization. Second, movement targets must be carefully selected to concentrate on those which are most vulnerable to the kinds of disruptions produced by your movement. Third and relatedly, tactics must be chosen that maximize the cost of disruption imposed upon the targets as it is these disruption costs that principally motivate concessions. And, finally, it is often essential to construct formal organizations and build coalitions to wield the electoral clout necessary to achieve durable legislative victories. (A consideration of the separate fates of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party points to this critical difference.)

Though the development of an all-encompassing, invariant theory of movement mobilization and outcomes is hopeless, studies of the civil rights movement have defined a fertile research agenda and revealed certain recurrent patterns, and many of these patterns have bearing on other movements as well, particularly in democratic polities. Instead of yielding to the view that every movement is distinctive, the search for regularities and recurrent causal processes in collective struggles and outcomes continues.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Origins of Social Movements

One response to “What Have We Learned from the Civil Rights Movement?

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