Two books on the US Civil Rights Movement

In Origin of the Civil Rights Movement, sociologist Aldon Morris methodically undermines theories that the US Civil Rights Movement was a spontaneous, unplanned outpouring of discontent, opened by changes in underlying social conditions, swept forward by charismatic leaders in the moment, and funded by privileged classes (Piven/Cloward; Weber; Oberschall).

You probably knew by now that Rosa Parks was no simple old lady yearning to rest her feet after a long day of work – she was a longtime civil rights activist. You may have known – I didn’t – that she had been the secretary of the local NAACP chapter for a dozen years and a founder of the Youth Council which brought direct action to the otherwise legally-focused and bureaucratic organization. The bus boycott was so “spontaneous” that organizers happened to have 35,000 mimeographed flyers with boycott instructions ready to go the day after Parks was arrested.

The famous Montgomery bus boycott was preceded by a similar boycott several years earlier in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the black community organized a complete private carpool replacement ride system, free to riders so as not to violate taxi regulations, funded by donations from local churchgoers. In Montgomery, the replacement ride system was designed by letter carriers who knew every street in the city.

The Civil Rights Movement was powered, coordinated, and very largely funded by local networks of black churches. Practices and tactics were transferred by networks of ministers, and activists who connected at social justice retreat centers.

Charismatic leadership was an important aspect of the Civil Rights Movement, not because these leaders sprouted from the medium of chaos at a time of ferment, but because the Black church already had a cultural pattern of charismatic leadership, and these existing leaders already had the ability to engage and mobilize their communities.

Morris identifies exceptions to the “pattern” of charismatic leadership, including Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, and Bayard Rustin; he observes the facts that women were kept out of the highest ranks and away from public visibility; and that Rustin operated behind the scenes because he was gay; but Morris doesn’t connect enough of the dots regarding leadership that actually happened but wasn’t visible because it didn’t fit the model of charismatic masculine leadership.

The forces that triggered the events of the 50s and early 60s weren’t unpredictable like earthquakes. The 50s racist terror campaigns were unleashed in response to the Brown case – the NAACP had been working for years taking school desegregation through the courts, and the repression was intended to punish the community and prevent more integration. The direct action of the 50s and 60s filled a void created by concerted government attacks against the NAACP, which was banned in Alabama for nine years and hamstrung in many other southern states.

Morris shows how the civil rights movement built upon existing social structures, and grew when people organized and took leadership. Yes, and… a belief that movements by “the masses” emerge “spontaneously” is reminiscent of ideas about the primitive and emotional nature of “lower orders”, that is to say, a reflection of the stereotypes held by the supposedly sophisticated and rational theorists. Morris doesn’t go there, but academics flocked there in the decade after “Origins” was published in 84. Perhaps feminist/postcolonial discourse was hampered by lots of big words and bad writing, but it had a point.

I really liked this book not because of the theoretical arguments but because of the history. Aldon Morris gets behind the hagiography to the stories of how African-Americans organized to take down segregation. My favorite story in the book was about Septima Clark and the citizenship schools. Literacy tests were a major barrier preventing black people from registering to vote. So the former schoolteacher, who lost her job because of her NAACP affiliation after teaching for 40 years, organized schools to teach adults to read, starting on Johns Island, South Carolina.

After discussing the opportunity at a Highlander School retreat, Clark, Esau Jenkins, and Myles Horton looked into why adult education efforts had not yet been successful. Turns out that the classes were held in elementary school classrooms, taught by elementary school teachers. Adults felt humiliated sitting at tiny desks, resented the approach of teachers used to dealing with children, and were uninterested in reading elementary school primers. The civil rights activists trained literate adults to teach, taught using material interesting to grownups, like the Sears catalog and the state constitution, and held classes in beauty shops, which were already community gathering places, and weren’t vulnerable to white economic reprisal since beauticians didn’t depend on whites for their business.

SCLC and SNCC, alternate ways of organizing

Aldon Morris’ book on SCLC references Stanford professor Clayborne Carson’s work on SNCC, telling the story of the two civil rights groups’ different approaches from a perspective closer to SCLC. Carson’s In Struggle traces the evolution of SNCC from its emergence in nonviolent organizing to help coordinate student lunch counter desegregation protests, to organizing freedom rides and voter registration drives in the south, through its evolution to a more ideological and pro-violent but less powerful faction.

The SCLC relied on charismatic leadership, with Martin Luther King at the head of the movement. By contrast, SNCC strongly distrusted this model of charismatic leadership. Born out of spontaneous student protests, SNCC maintained a distrust of hierarchy and insisted on freedom of individual thought and action. They provided training and resources for organizers who went out into the field; and considered themselves successful when the outcome of an organizing effort was an institution – school, economic development, political party, that took root on its own. However, SNCC also resisted central organization, to the point that disorganization made it less effective.

At times the organizations and different approaches worked in tandem, at other times in tension. Carson describes episodes where King’s charisma excited people in a region, and SNCC organizers followed up to register voters. Morris’ recounts an unsuccessful boycotts initiative in Albany, Georgia organized by SNCC. The Morris account contends that the SNCC organizers did not enough research about how much targeted businesses depended on black customers, so they underestimated their leverage in negotiations. Also, SNCC had not lined up financial support to bail protesters from jail. They called on SCLC and Martin Luther King for fundraising help, but were very leery that SCLC would get the credit. Tensions between the groups contributed to the civil rights groups negotiating a bad deal with the white leadership, who quickly reneged.

According to Carson, the strength of the SNCC approach was that by including ordinary people in decision-making, local leaders emerged to play longstanding roles in their communities. In one of the most moving stories told by the book, John Hullett and Charles Smith helped organize voting in the deeply racist Lowndes County in the face of violent opposition. In 1970 Hullett was elected sherriff, a year later Smith became county commissioners. In 1978 they ran a slate of 8 black candidates who swept their races, long after the early SNCC organizers lost patience and became radicalized with the slow pace of change.

SNCC’s philosophical individualism helped it resist the pernicious influence of mid-century US anti-communist paranoia. SNCC was notable among left organizations because it didn’t banish communists, despite the constant red-baiting and fears of communist infiltration in the media, government, and legal system.

The two books differ in their portrayal of the role of media strategy in the civil rights movement. Morris focuses on the ways that the SCLC’s organizing efforts achieved local goals with mass mobilization of local people and local resources. It debunks myths that most financial resources and substantial organizational resources for the civil rights movement came from outside help. It de-emphasizes the idea that triggering racist violence was a media strategy intended to shock and appeal to the sympathies of white voters. In particular, Morris contends that Birmingham was chosen as the location for major protests because of the strong local mobilization center led by Rev. Shuttlesworth, not because Bull Connor was liable to be vicious on camera.

By contrast, in describing SNCC’s activism, Carson emphasizes the role of media strategy and appeals to the federal government. Particularly in its voter registration work, SNCC chose places with a high risk of racist violence, banking that media coverage would bring national attention to the violence, and the Johnson and Kennedy administrations would feel compelled to bring federal law enforcement to the rescue.

Before reading Carson’s book, I didn’t know that the Freedom Ride left with 13 activists on board and 3 journalists. The Freedom Rides were were strongly focused on gaining public awareness, and shocking the broad American public with portrayals of racist violence. At the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, as the pictures are shown again, the civil rights organizers’ media strategy is successfully communicating to yet another generation.

Carson’s book illustrates the tensions with the strategy designed to trigger federal action, and the fitful and compromising actions of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. SNCC organizers lost patience with the liberal establishment, and turned to further radicalization. The voting rights acts and civil rights acts, which are taught as the culmination of civil rights struggle – were anti-climactic to SNCC.

Carson does a good job describing the debates and conflicts within SNCC, and the constant evolution as events happened and people’s ideas changed. Carson portrays the transition to the separatist, violent black power era as a decline for SNCC. “Black power” was a slogan that caught on, but it wasn’t accompanied by organized actions or coherent ideology. In Carson’s telling, SNCC turned to extreme rhetoric and ideological infighting after its organizing capability had diminished. Carson does a good job of showing that the excessive attention to the group’s violent rhetoric and thuggish behavior from media and law enforcement came when the “leaders” actually didn’t have many followers anymore.

Even in books that focuses more on method than hagiography, the work of the civil rights organizers is moving and inspiring. Or perhaps especially – I find it more inspiring to learn how change was brought about by people doing things, than by tales of saints being saintly. Plus it’s breathtaking to consider how much risk people took in challenging white supremacy; risk of physical violence, and risk to livelihood.

If you already have a strong background in the history of the US civil rights movement, you know the information and you may know these books. If your knowledge of the civil rights movement comes from headlines and hagiography, I recommend both books.

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