Category Archives: Origins of Social Movements

On the Origins and Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

By Kenneth (Andy) Andrews

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). Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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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). Continue reading

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Comments on Shultziner and Social Movement Theory

By Anthony Oberschall

I am puzzled by Doron Shultziner’s “reconsideration” of social movement theory’s apparent failure to account for the social-psychological antecedents of collective action (e.g., shame and humiliation preceding the Montgomery bus boycott). For 50 years of research and writing, I (and many others) have distinguished the social-psychological roots of collective action – briefly termed discontent and grievances – from framing, mobilization, and opportunity. All four require independent, though overlapping, explanations (see Oberschall 1993:16-19 on “the origin of social movements”).

Shultziner puts the accent on shame and humiliation in person-to person-interaction experiences as the emotion motivating protest: bus drivers on segregated buses persistently, frequently, and intensely abused black riders in Montgomery. It is not surprising that strong emotions in many situations motivate many types of actions in both institutional and in loosely structured contexts. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Slippery as an Old Banana: Pinning Down Explanations for Social Movement Emergence and Momentum

By Deana Rohlinger

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Doron Shultziner’s article, “The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” provides an important reminder that relational dynamics matter. Whether studying a particular movement or a campaign rolled out in a specific community, we learn a lot about the emergence and course of social movements by studying the perspectives of different kinds of players, who also have a direct or indirect stake in the political game.

Some students of social movements may not find this welcome news. Studying interactions among groups of actors is messy work. Continue reading

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Civil Rights, White Supremacist, and Racially Conservative Movements

By Kim Ebert

One of the most significant achievements of the Civil Rights Movement is the steady decline in overt racism and de jure discrimination. This accomplishment is among the reasons why scholars of social movements are encouraged to continue to study and learn from the origins, maintenance, and consequences of the Civil Rights Movement. The decline in explicit racism also has generated considerable research on the somewhat puzzling persistence of the white supremacist movement within a social and political environment that ostensibly is hostile to such blatant forms of racism. Yet while the scholarship on social movements has offered great insight and clarity on the dynamics of racism and racial inequality, this tendency to focus on the extremities of racial-political activities – the Civil Rights and white supremacist movements – has unintentionally obscured the transformation of racism and the new ways prejudice and privilege manifest in social movements.

While scholars within the field of racial and ethnic relations have investigated the post-civil rights shift in racial ideologies, comparatively little research has been done on a corresponding transformation in racial-political organizing of racial conservatives that act to protect white interests. Continue reading

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