Tag Archives: civil rights movement

When Does Anger Lead to Protest?

By Francesca Polletta

The insight that reoriented the study of social movements in the late 1970s was that people knew when they were oppressed. The relevant question was not, what led people to feel discontented enough to protest? (This was the question animating strain theories of collective action.) Instead, it was, when did people see themselves as able to act effectively on their discontent? Hence the causal importance attributed to external resources (by resource mobilization theorists) and to political opportunities, indigenous resources, and cognitive liberation (by political process theorists).

Doron Shultziner argues that the earlier question was the right one after all—and he does so in the context of the case that was supposed to have laid to rest accounts of mobilization based on discontent. Not only does discontent matter, he maintains; it may be all that matters. In short, none of the factors that have been used to account for protest generally, and the Montgomery bus boycott in particular, explain the decision of so many people to stay off Montgomery’s buses. No one from the outside injected resources, financial or otherwise. There were no political opportunities. To the contrary, after Brown v. Board, things got worse, not better, as a backlash against school integration swelled the ranks of the notorious White Citizens Council and amplified everyday white aggressions. There were black leadership structures in Montgomery, and they did play a role in the protest, but only after it had gotten underway. As for cognitive liberation, it is hard to imagine what would have led black citizens of Montgomery to feel that political change was newly within reach.

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On Time, Agents, and Comparisons

By Burrel Vann Jr.

The Civil Rights Movement has been central to our understanding of social movements and critical for the development of social movement theory. We’ve amassed a rich history of the movement, with various scholars focusing on particular periods and places, instances of collective action, and both individual and structural precipitants and consequences of activism.

The focus on such an influential movement has been and will continue to be beneficial to our understanding of collective action processes insofar as researchers engage in intra- and inter-movement comparative work. Research that tracks one movement across time will highlight the long trajectories movements typically have (i.e., when movements begin and end); it can also tell us a great deal about changes in collective action processes at different stages, and how and when these are sparked. Additionally, work that compares findings from the Civil Rights Movement to the processes at work in other movements can demonstrate the generalizability of our theories.

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Origins of the Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement has inspired libraries of popular and scholarly books and articles. Its influence on the study of social movements and collective action processes is remarkable. Yet even something so thoroughly studied yields new insights to these processes. This dialogue is prompted by a recent article written by Doron Shultziner about the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. In his piece (Mobilization, June 2013) he distinguishes between factors that explain a movement’s emergence from those that explain its momentum – in particular, the important role of humiliation and shame in sparking the boycott.

In light of Shultziner’s arguments, we asked scholars and activists to reflect more generally on the origins of social movements. What do we now know about the origins of the Civil Rights Movement? What are the implications of that for other social movements, given that so many theories developed with that movement in mind? In what ways has scholarly focus on this particular movement highlighted or obscured collective-action processes at different stages and in different places?

We are posting 8 great contributions now and several more later this month. Many thanks to our all-star cast of contributors:

Kenneth (Andy) Andrews, UNC Chapel Hill (essay)
Kim Ebert, North Carolina State University (essay)
Jo Freeman, feminist scholar and activist (essay)
Joseph Luders, Yeshiva University (essay)
Anthony (Tony) Oberschall, UNC Chapel Hill (essay)
Deana Rohlinger, Florida State University (essay)
Doron Shultziner, independent scholar (essay)
John Skrentny, UC San Diego (essay)

As always, we invite you to join the dialogue by posting your reactions to these essays in the comments sections.

Editors in Chief,
Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, and Dan Myers

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Beyond the Repression-Dissent Nexus: Putting Violence in Its Place

By Dana M. Moss

Studies of mobilization have long been preoccupied with understanding the effects of repression on protest. However, as Mark Lichbach remarks, the search for models—whether linear, U-shaped, S-shaped, or otherwise—leaves scholars “forever correlating the total aggregate level of one output (government repression) with the total aggregate level of the other output (opposition activity)” (1987: 288). Furthermore, conceptual and analytical inconsistencies persist; aggregated event counts and indicators denoting low, moderate, and high levels of repression vary based on what type of crackdowns “count” as severe and have been accounted for in the media or NGO reports (Davenport 2007).

Because the question “does repression increase or decrease protest?” has dominated the research agenda, I suggest that we revisit our orienting questions. For example, what kinds of repression do activists perceive as severe? Which governmental agents, entities, and affiliates do the repressing, and what does this mean for the short-term outcomes of movement-government standoffs? Which social movements are most at risk for violent repression?  And how does the character of a regime shape its propensity for violence?  In an effort to expand our conceptualization of the repression-dissent nexus in potentially fruitful and specific ways, I outline several suggestions below. Continue reading

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Occupy, The Civil Rights Movement, and Decentralization

Over at orgtheory.net, Fabio Rojas recently asked a good question: why has Occupy not followed the tactical and organizational choices made by the Civil Rights Movement. As Fabio points out, they share ideological similarities, yet Occupy has largely been a decentralized movement while the Civil Rights Movement favored large organizations and clearly defined goals. It’s a post that’s worth reading and mulling over in its entirety, and it’s generated some interesting conversation. I did, however, want to raise one point with regard to this question, though, that hasn’t been brought up (at least at the time I’m writing this) on the thread, which is that Francesca Polletta covered some of this in her piece “How Participatory Democracy Became White.Continue reading

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What’s that I Hear Now? A Few Thoughts on Music and Social Movements

By William G. Roy

What’s that I hear now ringing in my ear
I’ve heard that sound before
What’s that I hear now ringing in my ear
I hear it more and more
It’s the sound of freedom calling
Ringing up to the sky
It’s the sound of the old ways falling
You can hear it if you try
You can hear it if you try

–Phil Ochs

Social movements are not just influenced by culture. Social movements have culture and they do culture. I want to think a bit about how they do culture. By doing culture, I mean the actions and relationships through which they engage in music, art, drama, poetry, literature, dance, etc. (Thus I am focusing more on the sociology of culture than cultural sociology). My book on the use of American folk music by activists in the 1930s and 40s People’s Songs Movement and in 1950s and 60s Civil Rights Movement distinguishes between the use of music as a medium of persuasion and music to cement movement solidarity (Roy 2010). It shows how the Civil Rights Movement used music more effectively than the People’s Songs movement because music became part of the collective action itself—the sit-ins, freedom rides, picketing, mass meetings, even passing time in jail. Activists in the Old Left such as Pete Seeger imagined singing unions and a singing movement, creating a vision, collecting songs, and training a younger generation. But the use of music as a medium of persuasion prevailed, treating music as an instrument of propaganda (cf. Lieberman 1995). For many historical and contextual reasons, the Civil Rights Movement was different: its institutional base was the Black church, where people frequently sang together; many leaders were trained at the Highlander School in Tennessee, where Pete Seeger and Ziphia Horton tutored song leaders in singable songs such as “We Shall Overcome”; many of the forms of collective action involved people congregated with time to fill. Thus many of the songs were light about persuading, educating, or radicalizing. Some were politically vague (“We Shall Overcome”) or even bereft of obvious political meaning (“Michael Rode the Boat Ashore”). Continue reading


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Simeon Booker on Choosing Tactics

Simeon Booker, the "dean of Washington's black press corps."

Simeon Booker, the “dean of Washington’s black press corps.”

If you’re teaching an undergraduate class about the Civil Rights Movement and want to provide a bite-sized example of a movement leader choosing between “insider” and “outsider” tactics, here’s a nice one. NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates interviews Simeon Booker, the first African-American reporter at The Washington Post and (multiple) award-winning writer for Jet and Ebony magazines, about his recently published memoir Shocking the Conscience. In particular, the NPR piece focuses on an event Booker describes in detail: a party, hosted by JFK at the White House in 1963, to which many of America’s black movers-and-shakers were invited. While the party was notable for the many black politicians, civil rights leaders, entertainers, journalists, and other figures who attended, it was also notable for who declined the invitation–the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. By that point, King had worked for years, unsuccessfully, to get Kennedy to send civil rights legislation to Congress. With the lunch counter sit-in tactic rapidly spreading, King made the choice to forgo another attempt at “insider” influence and instead focused his attentions on developing the next set of direct action tactics. Continue reading


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