Saturday, June 10, 2023

Aldon Morris on the Civil Rights movement


Aldon Morris's Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (1984) is a highly valuable treatment of the US civil rights movement of the 1950s through early 1960s. The book is a work of history and sociology, and it is deeply informed by the sociology of social movements. (It is significant that Morris and Doug McAdam were fellow graduate students in sociology at SUNY-Stony Brook. McAdam's dissertation and its 1982 published version, Political Process, are cited in the book. It is also interesting that sociologist Charles Perrow was one of Morris's graduate advisors at Stony Brook. Perrow's emphasis on how organizations work seems to have been a useful influence for Morris.)

Here is how Morris formulates the theoretical perspective that underlies his treatment of the US civil rights movement. It is a perspective on mass mobilization and social movements that gives full attention to the ordinary human beings who were the subject of racial oppression; and it emphasizes the essential role played in mobilization by effective local and regional organizations.

In the present inquiry an indigenous perspective is used to study how the modern civil rights movement actually worked. The assumption is that mass protest is a product of the organizing efforts of activists functioning through a well-developed indigenous base. A well-developed indigenous base includes the institutions, organizations, leaders, communication networks, money, and organized masses within a dominated group. Such a base also encompasses cultural elements -- music, oratory, and so on -- of a dominated group that play a direct role in the organization and mobilization of protest.... A central concern of the indigenous perspective is to examine the ways in which organizers transform indigenous resources into power resources and marshals them in conflict situations to accomplish political ends. (xii)

As this passage makes clear, Morris places organizations and an energized mass population of black Southerners at the center of his analysis. He provides information about the SCLC, NAACP, CORE, SNCC, HFS, SCEF, and FOR -- the strategies and levers of power available to each of them, and the complicated relationships that existed among them. (Full names and dates of the organizations are provided below.)

And, significantly, Morris goes into a reasonable amount of detail describing the strategies of protest organizations and their mass followers in different locations: Baton Rouge, Birmingham, Montgomery, Nashville, Shreveport, Greensboro, Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Georgia. The Birmingham experience is described in particular detail. This use of multiple case studies is important, because it establishes that Morris is not aiming merely to provide an explanatory template of mobilization; instead, he wants to use the research tools of the historian to see how mobilization unfolded in specific times and places. And this means documenting the organizations, leaders, and strategies that were present in different places.

One relative blindspot in Origins is its inclination to be urban-centered. The bulk of the protests and activism described in the book take place in cities across the South. But the struggle for racial equality -- including especially voting rights -- had an important reality in the rural South. Morris refers briefly to the circumstances of rural black people in the Jim Crow South that made mass mobilization extremely difficult in rural locations: 

The rural setting was hardly ideal for organized, sustained collective action by blacks. In the rural milieu blacks experienced grinding poverty that closely tied them to the land and to the white man. Whites usually arranged the economy so that blacks always owed them money and were forever dependent on them for food and shelter. Outnumbered, defenseless, and with no hope of protection from the law, blacks usually avoided overt conflict with whites simply to stay alive. On the rural plantations, furthermore, blacks seldom experienced themselves as a tightly knit, cohesive group, because they were widely dispersed across the countryside. The sociologist E. Franklin Frazier described rural black communities as follows (78):

"The cabins are scattered in the open country so that the development of village communities has been impossible. Consequently, communication between rural families as well as the development of rural institutions has been limited by the wide dispersion of the population."

However, some of the most difficult developments in the struggle for equality in the South took place in rural counties (for example, Lowndes County, Alabama). This is especially true in the struggle for the right to vote, and the persistent campaigns of voter registration organized by SNCC, CORE, and other organizations were a highly important step in the progress of the movement. Here is how Hasan Kwame Jeffries describes Lowndes County in Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt:

Jim Crow was a grim reality in Lowndes County, Alabama, at the beginning of 1965. African Americans attended separate and unequal schools, lived in dilapidated and deteriorating housing, and toiled as underpaid and overworked domestics and farm laborers. They were also completely shut out of the political process.  There were five thousand African Americans of voting age in the overwhelmingly black rural county, but not a single one was registered. (Introduction)

Origins gives almost no attention to these rural voter registration drives, but they were an important part of the history of the movement. Bob Moses is mentioned once, but no detail is offered for the nuts and bolts of mobilization under these special circumstances. (It is true that much of that activism occurred after the end of Morris's narrative, which is confined to 1953-1963. The SNCC Freedom Summer initiative took place in 1964.)

The special strengths of Morris's book are its detailed focus on the workings of the major civil rights organizations during this crucial period of US history; his emphasis on the essential role played in the movement by masses of highly committed ordinary people in supporting mass meetings, boycotts, demonstrations, marches, and strikes; and the strategic and facilitating role played by the Black church in almost all of these episodes of contention. The book also does an excellent job of allowing the reader to see how the struggle for equality played out somewhat differently in different locations. Different local organizations, different leaders, and different circumstances for ordinary local people led to a fascinating degree of local variation. This use of detailed cases throughout the book offsets the inclination to subsume "struggles for Civil Rights in the South" under a single template of homogeneous processes and outcomes. There were deep similarities, of course, in the experience of the Jim Crow regime across the whole region; but there were also important local differences in the way that struggles for equality were constructed and carried out. Morris also documents the ways in which experiences in one city influenced strategies and outcomes in other cities -- for example, the successful bus boycott in Baton Rouge was influential on leaders and organizations in Montgomery when the struggle to reform the bus system came to a head in Montgomery.

Is Origins chiefly a theoretical exercise, illustrating a sociological theory of social movements? Or is it a work of historical research, making use of sociological ideas but fundamentally dependent on reaching an understanding of what the facts were about successes and failures in different parts of the South? In my view, this is what differentiates Morris's book from McAdam's Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. Morris's book is seriously committed to uncovering the important historical details, whereas McAdam's book is an exposition of "latest thinking" on the sociology of social movements, with illustrations drawn from the history of the Civil Rights movement. McAdam's book is historical sociology; Morris's book is sociologically informed history. Both approaches are valuable. But ideally, interested readers would read both books, and keep track of both theoretical insights about mechanisms and important but contingent features of the historical experience of places as diverse as Nashville and Baton Rouge. Each work is a perfect companion to the other for anyone interested in understanding better the course of the movement for racial equality in the United States.

And for the reader in 2023, Morris's account of the full-scale effort by southern legislatures, governors, and business groups to destroy the NAACP (26-39) and to refuse compliance with Federal court mandates is disturbingly familiar from today's headlines. Today's southern governors and legislatures are highly focused on reducing voting rights for African-Americans (gerrymandering, long lines for voting, voter ID rules, limitations on absentee ballots ...). And the war on "critical race theory" and the 1619 project sounds very much like the organized resistance to desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s.


Here is a list of the primary organizations that Morris discusses:

Southern Christian Leadership Congress (SCLC, 1957)

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, 1910)

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE, 1942)

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, 1960)

Highlander Folk School (HFS, 1932)

Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF, 1938)

Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR, 1915) 

Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA, 1955)

Inter Civic Council  (ICC, 1956)

Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR, 1956)

1 comment:

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

On Morris & McAdam: Difficult times bring forth the best and worst of the angels of our nature. It is also interesting that another blog today talks about Kierkegaard and the value he placed on despair. Sort of like claiming that if all we ever knew was the best of times, we would likely be a weaker species than we are. Some of us;some of our parents and families know this, first hand. Other people can't boil an egg without messing it up. I have decried philosophers I have viewed as sufferers. Although I may still characterize those thinkers as such, I am forced to recognize the merits of suffering, sub specie aeternitatus...Nagel's " view from nowhere". Good blog, as usual.