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.

Why? To be clear, as a historiographic device, the bus map didn’t teach me much I didn’t already know about the boycott campaign. The figure and its accompanying discussion of the specific system through which black riders were forced to board city buses from the rear, avoid the section reserved for white patrons in the front, and give up their seats in the non-reserved middle section to ensure that white riders did not stand while their black counterparts sat, will sound familiar even to those with a passing acquaintance with the bus boycott story. Visitors to Troy University’s Rosa Parks Library and Museum in downtown Montgomery can even board a replica city bus and observe directly the seating scheme that Shultziner highlights.

Rather, the signal achievement here is how the map is deployed to emphasize the precise institutional arrangements that defined how segregation played out in daily life. Shultziner argues that, in Montgomery, those daily lived experiences created strong feelings of abuse and humiliation. Further, as such practices intersected with structural shifts – associated with the changing composition of bus ridership as well as snowballing frustrations among bus drivers around labor practices and the recent Brown school desegregation ruling – such feelings intensified, providing a motivational basis for the bus boycott. Through this lens, Shultziner is able to isolate the “social psychological groundwork” for a sustained protest campaign to emerge in that specific place, time, and venue.

I emphasize the precision of Shultziner’s observations here, as his close attention to the interactive settings within which everyday practices occurred demonstrates the crucial linkage between structural arrangements and social-psychological motivations. This precise analytic entry also provides a sharp reminder that oppressive practices are constructed and often reworked by authorities and other power-holders – not deterministically, but rather based on how they make sense of their own surroundings. In the segregationist South, these (re)constructions constituted what historian Neil McMillen refers to as Jim Crow’s oft-shifting and place-specific “local rules.”

The fact that canonical accounts of the bus boycott have emerged absent any systematic research on the most visible enforcers of the system being challenged by boycotters – i.e., the bus drivers themselves – demonstrates how rarely we fully interrogate the local interactive settings within which grievances crystallize. As Oberschall advises in his essay, “we have to research and study the social psychology and the institutions not only of challengers but their adversaries – that is, both Jo Ann Robinson as well as Sheriff Jim Clark.” In an ongoing project, I have been working with Geoff Ward, Dan Kryder, and Peter Owens to understand varieties of adversary configurations, by modeling local networks of “anti-civil rights enforcement” across the South.

Another limitation of extant accounts of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is that they tend to focus on, well, Montgomery. The burgeoning local studies tradition in Civil Rights Movement historiography (exemplified by Emilye Crosby’s recent collection) has added much to our understanding of the dynamics of the Movement, demonstrating how local conditions shaped the contours of campaigns that emerged – often simultaneously – in multiple communities. In that sense, Shultziner’s careful deployment of Montgomery-specific archival materials aids his case. But the power of Shultziner’s analysis rests not on his close engagement with Montgomery as a single case, but on his insight that the city was also singular in terms of its system of bus segregation. Such use of comparative leverage to demonstrate distinctions across communities illustrates the greater promise of multi-case studies drawing on and deploying in tandem the deep contextual insights of local studies.

Considered more broadly, Shultziner’s approach represents, as Freeman and Oberschall both note in their essays, a refocusing on grievance-formation processes – but also more than that. By identifying the precise institutional arrangements that shape everyday experience, and then interrogating how those experiences differ across settings and vary over time, we gain a powerful basis for understanding why and how broad, often culturally-nebulous concepts like “threat” and “strain” are felt and forged in particular places and times, and how they serve as the motivational basis for specific organized challenges.

How might this perspective apply to other Civil Rights Movement cases? Take Greensboro, a city whose sit-in campaign Shultziner notes resides in “sharp contrast” with Montgomery’s bus boycott, initially involving students rather than adults and targeting full access to venues such as lunch counters rather than fairer treatment on public transportation. During the civil rights era, the Ku Klux Klan found Greensboro fertile recruiting ground. The resonance of militant resistance to civil rights gains, I have argued, was based in part upon how, to an exceptional degree, local black institutions of higher learning were able to close the racial education gap within the local workforce, intensifying the sense of perceived economic threat among white workers.

Such arrangements impacted the logic of civil rights mobilization as well. One of the city’s black colleges, North Carolina A&T, is of course well-known as ground zero for the 1960 sit-in movement. While the particular practices associated with segregated lunch counters in Greensboro did not appear to differ from those in other southern cities (hence, as Andrews observes, the ready diffusion of the campaign to so many other communities so quickly, unlike the more contained bus boycott tactic), the unique role played by A&T in the city meant that the orientation of local college students to commercial spaces was more distinctive, providing a ready impetus for the campaign to originate in downtown Greensboro. In short, the willingness of many white-owned Greensboro businesses to quietly employ skilled African-American workers in the 1950s, and the role played by A&T in incubating such relationships, likely sharpened the sense of grievance – and corresponding sense of efficacy around changing such arrangements – that many students would have felt when denied the right to enjoy a cup of coffee in downtown establishments.

Aldon Morris and many others have usefully highlighted A&T activists’ connections to politicized local churches and NAACP Youth Councils. While, as Luders wisely cautions, we don’t want to dismiss such organizational factors, we might also productively emphasize how those mobilization bases in Greensboro were activated in the context of the distinctive structural practices that undergirded the daily experiences of students, in contrast to the pronounced separation of many black campuses from corresponding local business communities across the South. Such explanations of course remain speculative in the absence of more rigorous research on cases like Greensboro. But they provide at least a glimpse of the broader promise associated with extending Shultziner’s emphasis on how lived experiences of segregation shaped the social psychological climate for the emergence of durable challenges to the status quo.


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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Origins of Social Movements

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