The March on Washington, August, 1963

African-American citizens and a host of supporters made some of this country’s most important history fifty years ago in the mobilization that resulted in the March on Washington in August, 1963.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his most famous speech on the occasion, and many of us are remembering Dr. King’s legacy today on the fiftieth anniversary of this occasion.

The civil rights movement created deep and permanent changes in our country, and they were hard won. And what is clear today is the depth of change that was needed — not at the margin, not gradually, but at the core and rapidly. The attitudes and structures that constituted racial inequality and racism in this country in the 1950s and 1960s were a profound, coercive social reality. Only a concerted, courageous, and sustained social movement involving millions of people could have broken the roots of that system of thought and power. (Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer and Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 provide vivid narratives of the depth of these challenges and responses.)

It is hard to think of many historical social movements that had as much impact and success as the U.S. civil rights movement.  Its objective was not to change a temporary situation — a war, a military occupation, an egregious dictatorship, or a famine — but to create a thorough change in attitudes, ideas, and institutions; and to do that in a nation in which racism was organic.  Laws, public schools, housing, jobs, universities, hospitals, and transportation — all were racialized, all demanded change.  And then to create a movement that deliberately worked through nonviolent change — this was exceptional.

A rich tradition of leadership within the black community is one part of the story of success of this struggle for equality.  Of course many of the leaders and agents of change of that movement are now household names — Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy. But many other key figures are not so well remembered. One man in particular deserves recognition, Bayard Rustin.  Rustin was a civil rights activist throughout the 1940s and 1950s.  He was one of the earliest organizers of what became known as the Freedom Rides, and he served 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violation of segregation laws in transportation in 1947.  (He also was sentenced in 1944 to two years in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary for violations of the Selective Service Act as a Quaker pacifist and war resister.)

Rustin was the key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and he was an invaluable strategist for Dr. King.  But because of his open homosexuality he kept his visible role in the mobilization of the March on Washington to a minimum.  Numerous participants credit his organizational abilities and acute perception of what the moment required as crucial to the success of the March and what followed from it.  He went on to become an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian rights in the 1980s. Rustin is a great example of the persistence and courage shown by so many civil rights activists and leaders throughout America’s struggles.  (Here is some basic information about Rustin’s biography.  Here is a film based on Rustin’s life.)

Rustin stands out as a particularly vivid example of a kind of leader who was common throughout the early decades of the modern civil rights movement: articulate, smart, passionate, committed, and courageous in the face of prejudice and threat.  And there were hundreds of such men and women.  For example, Doug McAdam provides an appendix in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 listing well over 150 leaders from churches, NAACP local chapter, independents, and students who were important protest leaders during the late 1950s.  And the networks and organizational capabilities of these men and women translated into successful mobilizations throughout the South.

McAdam’s account of the rise of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s also gives particular emphasis to the organizations that existed within African-American society, and the millions of people who supported those organizations.  Particularly important were the churches, the local NAACP chapters, and the universities.  “Perhaps the most important resource supplied by these institutions was a potentially mobilizable body of participants.  By virtue of their integration into the most organized segments of the black community, the students, church members, and NAACP personnel were readily available for recruitment into the movement” (128).  The movement was successful in the face of often violent opposition, because hundreds of thousands of African-American people supported its efforts with courage and tenacity.

As we reflect on the legacy of the March on Washington, it is crucial to remember how steep the challenges were and how much we all owe to the activists and followers who joined with King and brought us closer to a society embodying racial justice and equality.  And as an observation about history, we can marvel at the magnitude of change that these men and women brought about.

Friedman on racial discrimination

It is interesting to re-read Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom some fifty years after its original publication. There are many aspects of the book that are likely to catch a contemporary reader’s attention, but mine was drawn to Friedman’s analysis of racial discrimination. In general, Friedman believes that capitalism is fundamentally good for promoting categorical equality.

It is a striking historical fact that the development of capitalism has been accompanied by a major reduction in the extent to which particular religious, racial, or social groups have operated under special handicaps in respect of their economic activities; have, as the saying goes, been discriminated against. (108)

More specifically, Friedman argues that racial discrimination in employment (and housing as well, it would seem) is essentially impossible within a market economy.

We have already seen how a free market separates economic efficiency from irrelevant characteristics. As noted in chapter i, the purchaser of bread does not know whether it was made from wheat grown by a white man or a Negro, by a Christian or a Jew. In consequence, the producer of wheat is in a position to use resources as effectively as he can, regardless of what the attitudes of the community may be toward the color, the religion, or other characteristics of the people he hires. (109)

So self interest on the part of employers will induce them to make hiring decisions that are category-blind: the most productive and least costly worker will be hired. A rational business or corporation has powerful incentives not to discriminate.

In fact, Friedman expresses skepticism about whether the concept of “discrimination” even makes sense within a market economy.

The man who exercises discrimination pays a price for doing so. He is, as it were, “buying” what he regards as a “product.” It is hard to see that discrimination can have any meaning other than a “taste” of others that one does not share. We do not regard it as “discrimination” — or at least not in the same invidious sense — if an individual is willing to pay a higher price to listen to one singer than to another, although we do if he is willing to pay a higher price to have services rendered to him by a person of one color than by a person of another. The difference between the two cases is that in the one case we share the taste, and in the other we do not. (110)

It is hard to square these observations with the rigid segregation and discrimination that was taking place at the same time in the Jim Crow South. For that matter, the facts of racial discrimination in housing and employment that have characterized American society since emancipation were perfectly visible in Friedman’s own city of Chicago in 1962. So all Friedman needed to do was to look around him on Chicago’s South Side.

Friedman draws a logical conclusion from his set of assumptions about markets and discrimination: fair employment practices legislation is wrong. “Such legislation clearly involves interference with the freedom of individuals to enter into voluntary contracts with one another…. Thus it is directly an interference with freedom of the kind that we would object to in most other contexts” (111).

So taking steps through legislation to reduce the harmful effects of racial discrimination in hiring (and presumably in housing) is an illegitimate use of the force of government, according to Friedman. In fact, he compares efforts to do so to the Hitler Nuremberg laws (111).

These are stunning conclusions, now that we have lived through the Civil Rights movement and have seen the coercive practices that provided the architecture of the American racial system. What it suggests is that Friedman saw the social reality around him through the spectacles of an idealized form of pure market society, in which transactions occur between purely rational individuals and lead collectively to beneficent outcomes. But that was not the reality of the United States, then or now.
We don’t need to assume that this particular economist was racist; one doesn’t know. In fact, Friedman asserts the opposite:

I believe strongly that the color of a man’s skin or the religion of his parents is, by itself, no reason to treat him differently; that a man should be judged by what he is and what he does and not by these external characteristics. I deplore what seem to me the prejudice and narrowness of outlook of those whose tastes differ from mine in this respect and I think the less of them for it. But in a society based on free discussion, the appropriate recourse is for me to seek to persuade them that their tastes are bad and that they should change their views and their behavior, not to use coercive power to enforce my tastes and my attitudes on others. (111)

(Is anti-racism just a “taste”?)

In fact, Friedman’s views throughout this chapter illustrate a different deficiency.  His analysis of racial discrimination is a striking example of the ways in which adherence to a theory can blind a person to the patent social realities around him or her. And once we see the realities of how racial discrimination and coercion worked in America, it is incumbent upon us as a society to put aside our stylized theories and attack the problem.

Here are a few earlier posts on the Jim Crow system (link, link).

The street and the ring

Loïc Wacquant offers a fascinating piece of urban ethnography in Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. It is his account of his three-year experience while a sociology graduate student at the University of Chicago of participating in the Woodlawn Boys and Girls Club, a boxing club for young men who are serious about the sport of boxing on the South Side of Chicago. Wacquant takes the “participant-observer” method seriously — he trains for a Chicago Golden Gloves match, while developing intense relationships with the young black men who do their training at the club and the older experts like DeeDee who coach them.

One thing that is interesting about the book is that it brings together two fairly separate subjects of sociological interest — the social lives of underclass black men, and the “sociology of the body” that focuses on the ways in which skill, dexterity, and persistence interweave with the sport of boxing.  There is an alliance  in both topics with the thinking of Bourdieu.

Here is something of the project of understanding marginalized black Chicago through participation:

Could I grasp and explain social relations in the black ghetto based on my embeddedness in that particular location? My long-term immersion in that little boxing gym and my intensive participation in the exchanges it supported day-to-day have allowed me — in my eyes at least, but the reader can judge for herself on the evidence — to reconstruct root and branch my understanding of what a ghetto is in general, and my analysis of the structure and functioning of Chicago’s black ghetto in post-Fordist and post-Keynesian America at the end of the twentieth century in particular, as well as to better discern what distinguishes this terra non grata from the neighborhoods of relegation of other advanced societies. (x-xi)

Here is how Wacquant thinks about the task of making sociological sense of the sport:

[A sociology of boxing] must instead grasp boxing through its least known and least spectacular side: the drab and obsessive routine of the gym workout, of the endless and thankless preparation, inseparably physical and moral, that preludes the all-too-brief appearances in the limelight, the minute and mundane rites of daily life in the gym that produce and reproduce the belief feeding this very peculiar corporeal, material, and symbolic economy that is the pugilistic world. (6)

And here is a bit of the sociology of the body that Wacquant offers — the phenomenology of being a boxer in training.

To work on the bag is to craft a product, as you would on a lathe, with the crude tools that are gloved as weapon, shield, and target. Finding your distance, breathing, feinting (with your eyes, your shoulders, your hands, your feet), sliding one step to the side to let the bag swing by, catching it again on the fly with a left hook right to the midsection. Not too high and not too wide, so the move can’t be seen coming. Double it up, to the head, with a short, sharp movement. Follow up with a straight right, taking care to turn the wrist over like a screwdriver in order to align your knuckles horizontally at the precise moment of impact. (237-238)

Wacquant finds that immersion in the fight club allowed entry into the social world of marginalized Chicago that is otherwise highly racialized: white observers do not cross easily into the world of marginalized black men.

Being the only white member in the club … could have constituted a serious obstacle to my integration and thus amputated my capacity to penetrate the social world of the boxer, if not for the conjugated action of three compensating factors. First of all, the egalitarian ethos and pronounced color-blindness of pugilistic culture are such that everyone is fully accepted into it so long as he submits to the common discipline and “pays his dues” in the ring. Next, my French nationality granted me a sort of statutory exteriority with respect to the structures of relations of exploitation, contempt, misunderstanding, and mutual mistrust that oppose blacks and whites in America…. Finally, my total “surrender” to the exigencies of the field, and especially the fact that I regularly put the gloves on with them, earned me the esteem of my club-mates, as attested by the term of address “brother Louis” and the collection of affectionate nicknames they bestowed upo me over the months: “Busy Louis,” my ring moniker, but also “Bad Dude,” “The French Bomber,” “The French Hammer” …, and “The Black Frenchman.” (10-11)

The gym is a haven for the young black men who work out there — a place where the dangers and disorder of the surrounding neighborhood are kept at bay.

In this cutthroat neighborhood, where handguns and other weapons are commonplace and “everyone” — according to DeeDee, the club’s head trainer — is walking around with a can of Mace in their pocket for self-defense, purse-snatchings, muggings, battery, homicides, and lesser crimes of all kinds are part of the everyday routine and create a climate of pervasive fear, if not terror, that undermines interpersonal relationships and distorts all the activities of daily life. (22)

Here is a bit of ethnographic description that captures one incident on one day in September, 1990:

Today Tony called the gym from the hospital. Two members of a rival gang shot him on the street not far from here, on the other side of Cottage Grove. Luckily he saw them coming and took off running, but a bullet pierced his calf. He hobbled behind an abandoned building, pulled out his own gun from his gym bag, and opened fire on his two attackers, forcing them to retreat. He says he’d better get out of the hospital real quick because they’re probably out looking for him now. I ask DeeDee if they shot him in the leg as a warning. “Shiit, Louie.! They don’ shoot to injure no leg, they shoot to kill you. If Tony don’ have his gun with him and pull it, they’dave track him down an’ kill him, yeah: he be dead now.” (25)

This could be a scene in The Wire — for example, an ambush planned by two of Avon’s gang members but foiled by Omar:

Two things seem particularly noteworthy in reading Body and Soul. First, the experiences of the three years that Wacquant spent in the Woodlawn Boys and Girls Club clearly helped to develop his own knowledge of the social reality of marginalized Chicago. There is a world of difference between reading theoretical and empirical studies of urban life, and finding ways of seriously immersing oneself in an urban environment. Wacquant is a better urban sociologist and theorist for the experiences he describes here.

Second, it seems clear that some specific insights into daily life in marginalized black neighborhoods in Chicago emerge from this experience. The prevalence of violence on the street, the strategies people arrive at to avoid being victims of violence, the social distance that exists between 63rd Street and Michigan Avenue — these are all valuable insights that contribute to a better sociological understanding of the city.

Alford Young on race and sociology

Alford Young is professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and an expert on the life experience of inner-city African-American men. He is also chair of the department of sociology at Michigan. His 2006 book, The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances, is based on several dozen interviews in Chicago of young men in one of the most segregated parts of the city.

Professor Young’s research falls within “cultural sociology,” and is an effort to gain more nuanced understandings of the mentalities and thinking of one segment of America’s racialized society. Young is unambiguous in endorsing the value of qualitative methods in sociology, although he observes late in the interview that his conversations with young black men are always set in the context of a set of structures of race, economy, and opportunity that need to be investigated through other methods as well.

Young has some boundary-breaking ideas about how urban sociology can be pursued, and his research is an important contribution to contemporary sociology. Here is an earlier post on Young’s work; link.

This month Young agreed to participate with me in a wide-ranging discussion about the content and aims of his research and the ways that it relates to his own early experiences as an African-American young man growing up in East Harlem. The discussion ranges over a number of topics of interest to anyone wanting to understand contemporary sociology better. He talks about the methods and content of his research (wide-ranging, intensive conversations with young inner-city men); some of the surprises this research leads to; the importance of this kind of research as an antidote to the stereotypes that white Americans and commentators often share about inner-city youth; and the question of how these qualitative interviews contribute to a level of generalization about contemporary inner-city experience.

Another important thread in the conversation has to do with Young’s own childhood and adolescence in Harlem, and the ways in which his family’s status in the world of African-Americans professionals in New York intersected with his residential experience in one of the most segregated and impoverished parts of the city. This duality of experience gave Young a cultural fluency that allow him to navigate both worlds as a social science researcher.

Young also talks about the importance that specific role models played for him in the formation of his own career goals and intellectual values: exposure to African-American civil rights lawyers as a high school student and exposure to a charismatic African-American professor in college. The professor served as a mentor to Young, permitting him to gain an appetite for a career as a researcher and teacher in the university.

Young’s work focuses on the experience of young African-American men in segregated American cities. But the insights and approach are equally relevant to a very wide range of subjects, both domestically and internationally. How do Chinese migrant workers perceive the choices open to them and the working conditions they find in Chinese cities? What is the worldview of young immigrant men and women in Stockholm, and how does that fit into the outbreak of extended rioting there in the past month? How do homeless people in Boston or Chicago think about their situations and the choices available to them? Everywhere there are distinctive human communities and bodies of experience that are worth knowing more about, and almost always the preliminary stereotypes we have about those communities are wrong or seriously incomplete. So the kind of qualitative cultural sociology to which Al Young has contributed is an important addition to sociology that can be extended in many different ways.

Here is a link to the interview.


Urban futures

I recently spent a half day visiting Detroit with some very perceptive university colleagues. We visited the university’s center on Woodward Avenue, the Riverfront Conservancy, and the Madison Building — all places where exciting signs of change are underway. Along the way we heard a lot of enthusiasm about the progress Detroit is making: more professional jobs downtown, residential and commercial real estate at 95%+ occupancy, entrepreneurial companies, $75 million invested in a spectacular river walk along the Detroit River, some very talented high school students coming out of several of Detroit’s best high schools.

The most common reaction in the group to what we saw was a positive one. Detroit is better off than the media portrays it. There are powerful processes of renewal underway that will change the future of the city for all its inhabitants for the better. The reinfusion of businesses and middle-class residents will improve the tax base and the city’s fiscal sustainability. And somehow these benefits will trickle out to the neighborhoods.

Or not. Like others, several of us noticed that these developments in downtown Detroit (Campus Martius, the Woodward Corridor) have had very little effect on the neighborhoods where 80-90% of the city lives. The sports, arts, and dining destinations are great — but they don’t have much to do with Detroit’s blighted neighborhoods. Unemployed high school dropouts aren’t going to be offered jobs in the high tech startups.

So what is the future for the impoverished and undereducated youth of this city? The theory I was testing in my mind was Loic Wacqant’s concept in Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality of fundamental marginalization–a sub-population of people with no avenues of opportunity and no hope for the future (link). This view implies that the segregated urban enclaves of American cities like Chicago, Washington, or Detroit offer virtually no prospect of social mobility for the young men and women who grow up there. Is that too bleak? Does it overlook or underestimate pathways of mobility that can bring substantial improvement for life expectations for this community after all? Or is permanent impacted poverty and disaffection the more likely outcome?

I talked with two other participants in this visit who disagreed with the “permanent marginalization” view in interesting ways. Both of these people were African-American men who had grown up in metro Detroit. One, born in 1970, took issue with the youth-hopelessness part of the picture. His view is that Detroit is significantly different from Chicago (the city Wacquant studied most closely), because Detroit is a majority black city. So he thinks teenagers in Detroit have an optimism their counterparts in Chicago lack. He also thinks the lower residential density of Detroit is an advantage. Young people are less oppressed by racism because they are part of a population that governs the city. By contrast, he argues that the black population of Chicago looks at the city as a white city and they feel powerless. So urban despair is deeper in Chicago.

The other person in the conversation had what is in someways a view even bleaker than mine. He is a distinguished social scientist born in 1940. He too grew up in the Detroit metro area. He commented that the developers’ vision is really a picture of a white city. “This is a white vision of Detroit’s future.” He predicted that in 25 years the black population of Detroit will be largely gone, replaced by a more affluent white population. Wow!

One thing that came out of the evening is an intriguing idea: invite a group of Detroit 18-year-olds, some in high school and some dropouts, to have a conversation about the future of their neighborhoods and their city, and what they think about their own futures. These are the kinds of conversations Al Young reports in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances. This would shed some light on all the major theories of urban futures. And conversations like these would be an important reality check for people who think that there is a general process of improvement that is going to bring everyone up through some kind of hidden-hand process of market successes.

The “permanent marginalization” view is a dark one, but it is not passive. Rather, it undergirds the idea that the structures of race and segregation still present in our society have embodied enduring and intractable inequalities, and only deliberate, sustained, and committed efforts will allow us to resolve these problems. Our cities need structural change and substantial public investment, deliberately aimed at breaking the circles of poverty, race, inferior education, and disaffection, and sustained over decades rather than years.

The developments we looked at during our visit are certainly important steps forward for the city. And the business leaders who are stimulating these developments are committed to improving Detroit’s future. But I’m not yet convinced that these developments can lead by themselves to the transformation of the lives of the whole population of the city, black and white, without other initiatives that are directly aimed at breaking down the barriers of race and poverty that imprison so many of Detroit’s young people.

(“Imprison” is probably the right word in this context, given the epidemic of incarceration our cities have witnessed in the past thirty years. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness documents the harm done to urban communities by the mass incarceration of young black men.)

Urban marginality

If you live within the reach of a major American city — and most Americans do — then you know what “marginality” is. It is the sizable sub-population of metropolitan America of young men and women who have been locked out of what we think of as the indispensable mechanisms of social mobility: decent education, healthcare resources, job opportunities, and safe neighborhoods. It is the young people of inner-city Baltimore depicted by The Wire. (Take a look at Richard Florida’s detailed analysis of the spatial class structure of Detroit and a number of other cities; link.) The facts of compacted poverty and lack of opportunity, and the disaffection of young people that goes along with these absences, represent one of the most pressing social problems we face.

How should we go about studying and changing this appalling social reality? Alford Young’s The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances is one striking approach, using extended interviews to gain insight into the minds, worldviews, and social realities of some of these young people. (Here is an earlier discussion of Young’s work; link.) Another approach is the large body of mainstream poverty research in the social sciences and policy studies. (Here is a penetrating critique of some of the assumptions of this research by Alice O’Connor; Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History.) But an important and original voice on these issues is that of Loïc Wacquant, and particularly important is Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (2008).

Wacquant’s Ph.D. work was done at the University of Chicago (like Young’s), and he too immersed himself in the street-level realities of segregated, impoverished Chicago. Wacquant’s approach was a novel one: he took up boxing in an inner city boxing club to gain access to the ordinary lives of the young men of the neighborhoods. His ethnography of this experience was published in the fascinating book, Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer.

Wacquant is French and comparativist; he is interested in investigating the experience of marginality in the United States and comparing it with equally marginalized neighborhoods in France, the banlieue of Paris. (Here is an earlier post on the banlieue and the sociological research of Didier Lapeyronnie’s Ghetto urbain; ségrégation, violence, pauvreté en France aujourd’hui.) In each instance modern cities are found to have large populations of apparently permanently marginalized under-class people. Here is how Wacquant frames the issue in “The Rise of Advanced Marginality: Notes on its Nature and Implications” (link) (1996):

The resurgence of extreme poverty and destitution, ethnoracial divisions (linked to the colonial past) and public violence, and their accumulation in the same distressed urban areas, suggest that the metropolis is the site and fount of novel forms of exclusionary social closure in advanced societies. (121)

But Wacquant’s summary finding is perhaps a surprising one: he finds that the “Black Belt” in Chicago and the “Red Belt” of Paris are substantially different social phenomena. Rather than a homogeneous social reality of “ghetto” extending from Chicago to London to Amsterdam to Paris, he finds a differentiated social reality:

A paired comparison between neighborhoods of relegation in Chicago’s ‘Black Belt’ and the Parisian ‘Red Belt’ shows that the declining French metropolitan periphery and the Afro-American ghetto remain two sharply distinct sociospatial constellations. And for good reason: they are heirs to different urban legacies, produced by different logics of segregation and aggregation, and inserted in different welfare state and market frameworks, all of which result in markedly higher levels of blight, segregation, isolation, and distress in the US ghetto. (122)

Wacquant introduces the idea of “advanced marginality” to describe the social reality of isolation and deprivation created by advanced capitalism in the rich cities of the North. Here are the criteria he offers for a social system embedding advanced marginality:

  • the growing internal heterogeneity and desocialization of labor,
  • the functional disconnection of neighborhood conditions from macro-economic trends;
  • territorial fixation and stigmatization; spatial alienation and the dissolution of place;
  • the loss of a viable hinterland; and
  • the symbolic fragmentation of marginalized population (121)

An element that Wacquant finds to be in common across advanced marginality in modern cities is what he calls “territorial fixation” — the confinement of the marginal in specific neighborhoods of the city.

Rather than being diffused throughout working class areas, advanced marginality tends to concentrate in well-identified, bounded, and increasingly isolated territories viewed by both outsiders and insiders as social purgatories, urban hellholes where only the refuse of society would accept to dwell. (125)

In Urban Outcasts Wacquant provides a much more developed comparative sociology of marginalized urban populations. It is significant that he begins his treatment of marginality with the topic of riot and uprising — a recurring social reality in the United States (Chicago, Watts, Detroit, …), London, Strasbourg, and Paris. This seems significant, because it seems like a logical correlate with the deprivation and stigmatization associated with advanced marginality.

Most of the disorders, big and small, that have shaken up the French working-class banlieues, the British inner city and adjacent barrios of North American have involved chiefly the youths of impoverished, segregated and often dilapidated urban neighbourhoods caught in a spiral of decline; they appear to have been fuelled by growing ethnoracial tensions in and around those areas. (20)

And Wacquant thinks these uprisings stem from three large social causes: mass unemployment, relegation to decaying neighbourhoods, and heightened stigmatization in daily life of the marginalized young people (25). He quotes a young man from Bristol:

I don’t have a job and I’ll never have one. Nobody wants to help us get out of this shit. If the government can spend so much money to build a nuclear submarine, why not for the inner cities? If fighting cops is the only way to get heard, then we’ll fight them. (31)

This is a superb piece of sociology, making use of multiple means of inquiry (ethnographic, comparison, statistical) to arrive at credible theories of the causes of urban marginality. And, contrary to the critique offered by O’Connor of mainstream poverty studies, there is not an ounce of “blaming the poor” in this study. Wacquant wants to understand the social processes that create and reproduce the urban spatial reality of marginality. And in doing this, he aims to provide some of the understanding we will need to begin to take this system apart.

Excerpt The Wire

Remembering the civil rights struggle

We celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on January 21. Here is a curated set of film clips that serve to recall the major challenges of inequality, segregation, and violence that faced the African American community in the Jim Crow racial system of the 1940s and 1950s.  These videos capture some of the signal moments in that struggle through the 1960s. Dr. King’s contribution to American history is truly pivotal in this “second American revolution”. 

Dr. King on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955

Little Rock Nine, 1957

 Freedom Riders, 1961 video

The integration of Ole Miss 1962

Voter registration in Mississippi, 1963

The March on Washington 1963

The Birmingham Church Bombing 1963


The murder of Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner 1964 [1:22]

Dr King in Selma, 1965


Dr King in Montgomery, 1965

Bloody Sunday, Selma 1965

Martin Luther King, I’m tired of violence, Yazoo, 1966

Martin Luther King, Montgomery to Memphis 1965 documentary
(with video of “I have a dream” speech” at the end)

Here is a Prezi version of this collection; link.

Deacons for Defense

Most of the story we remember of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s centers around the philosophy of non-violence espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the major civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the SCLC.  A few historians give emphasis to a very different part of the movement in the South, however — a movement that was based on armed self-defense by local people.  An earlier post discusses the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, another organization that featured armed self-defense against white violence as part of the struggle for political and civil rights.  Here I will reflect on the Deacons for Defense and Lance Hill’s history of this movement The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement.

First, the silence surrounding armed self-defense.  The primary narratives of the Civil Rights movement do not give attention to the Deacons or the LCFO in the early years of the movement (the early 1960s).  Taylor Branch gives great attention to the civil rights struggles in Mississippi in Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63, including the extensive occurrence of Klan violence against civil rights workers and activists.  But the Deacons for Defense are not mentioned at any point.  There are occasional references to readiness for armed resistance to white violence; for example, following the cold-blooded murder of civil rights activist Herbert Lee, Branch notes that SNCC activist Bob Moses was uncomfortable with the guns stockpiled by E. W. Steptoe in Mississippi.

Steptoe continued to let Moses stay with him in his house across the highway from the Hurst home, but Moses felt uncomfortable there because of the guns. The Steptoe farm always had been a minor arsenal, and Steptoe had a reputation as a magician who knew how to conceal an extra pistol or two. Now, after the Lee murder, Moses kept finding new guns under pillows and in bedside tables. The atmosphere was thick with the anticipation of a frontier shoot-out. Moses, not wishing to impose his own nonviolence on Steptoe, nor to have his own presence ignite the violence, retreated briefly to McComb. The aftershock of the Lee murder was pervasive there too, and it added to the tension that was building over the continued jailing of the four young sit-in students. (511) 

But there is no discussion of the self-defense movement in Mississippi and the ideas that underlay the philosophy of self-defense that were the core of the Deacons for Defense. One possible reason for this has to do with how the narrative was framed at the time.  The mainstream civil rights movement itself did not approve of the self-defense movement, and its leaders shaped the narrative towards moral protest and the philosophy of non-violence.

Another possible reason for neglect of the self-defense organizations that emerged in the South early 1960s is the idea that these organizations were harmful to the progress of the struggle for political and civil rights, and that violent conflicts between police, national guard, klansmen, and deacons were likely to lead to a bloodbath throughout the black population.  (This is roughly the view that Doug McAdam offered when I asked him why there was no discussion of these movements in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition.) The idea here is that the balance of power so greatly favored the forces of white supremacy that armed self-defense was likely to produce horrible retaliation.

Lance Hill’s view is different from both of these.  He believes that the Deacons had a measurable and positive effect on the struggle to break open the system of white supremacy in Mississippi and Louisiana, and that, absent this force, there is a likelihood that Jim Crow would have prevailed.

Real victories for the civil rights movement at the local level were scarce in the Deep South and virtually nonexistent in Louisiana up through 1964. Severe repression by local authorities and the Klan, combined with economic pressure by white business elites, made it difficult to end segregation and discrimination even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But at the beginning of 1965 the Deacons and the Jonesboro movement stood posed to accomplish something that no other local or national organization had done before in the Deep South: force a segregationist governor to directly intervene to the benefit of the civil rights movement. (63)

Hill refers to the “myth of nonviolence” in his conclusion. His point isn’t that the strategies of nonviolence that were pursued by the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC were inherently ineffective; instead, his view is that they were fundamentally incomplete.  If the reality of armed self-defense didn’t exist, then the moral authority of protest and civil disobedience would have been insufficient to change the political and economic realities of the Jim Crow South. 

Nonviolence as the motive force for change became a reassuring myth of American moral redemption — a myth that assuaged white guilt by suggesting that racism was not intractable and deeply embedded in American life, that racial segregation and discrimination were handily overcome by orderly, polite protest and a generous American conscience, and that the pluralistic system for resolving conflicts between competing interests had prevailed. The system had worked and the nation was redeemed. 

It was a comforting but vacant fiction. In the end, segregation yielded to force as much as it did to moral suasion. Violence in the form of street riots and armed self-defense played a fundamental role in uprooting segregation and economic and political discrimination from 1963 to 1965. Only after the threat of black violence emerged did civil rights legislation move to the forefront of the national agenda. Only after the Deacons appeared were the civil rights laws effectively enforced and the obstructions of terrorists and complicit local law enforcement agencies neutralized. (259)

Lance Hill’s work is the primary source that other scholars use when writing about the Deacons; but what is at issue here is precisely the validity of Hill’s overall judgment about the critical role played by this movement.  Other careful historians have come to the opposite conclusion — that the force of the civil rights movement came from its effectiveness as a mass movement grounded in local mobilization and led by leaders committed to nonviolence. So how would we try to sort out the actual impact of the Deacons and other such movements?

The answer, it would seem, is that we need further detailed historical research by other historians to uncover more of this hidden story.  Annelieke Dirks makes an important contribution to this part of the story in “Between Threat and Reality: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Emergence of Armed Self-Defense in Clarksdale and Natchez, Mississippi, 1960-1965” (link). Dirks focuses the account on local mobilization in Mississippi, which provides a vantage point from which to assess the relative importance of national leaders’ commitment to nonviolence and local use of armed self-defense. Here is how Dirks puts the approach:

In what follows, I focus on how local branches of the NAACP in Mississippi used a combination of nonviolent protest, economic pressure, radical speech, and armed self-defense to further their political goals and defend their communities during the height of the modern civil rights movement, between 1960 and 1965. Two different towns, Clarksdale in the Delta in the Northwest and Natchez in the Southwest, and two different NAACP branches receive detailed attention. I show that the emergence and usage of informal and formal forms of armed self-defense in these towns was not just a question of violent or non- violent ideology within the civil rights movement, and that self-defense was not embraced only by organizations like SNCC or CORE. Ultimately the feasibility of armed self-defense was related to economic, political, social, and per- sonal factors in local communities, and its use was also considered or employed by NAACP chapters. By demonstrating this, I hope to counter the portrayal of the NAACP as a moderate, middle-class, and nonviolent civil rights organization, as well as stress the complex and localized dynamics of the modern civil rights movement. (75-76)

And Dirks argues that the armed self-defense posture of activists in these parts of Mississippi made a material difference to the outcomes:

The protection of the Deacons gave the civil rights campaign in Natchez a much needed boost because the Deacons also organized internal movement discipline. While the boycott in Clarksdale was enforced through calling out names of violators during mass meetings, the Deacons organized vigilante groups of Black women—and some men—who attacked shoppers and destroyed their groceries. These female vigilantes also beat up domestic workers who gave information to their white employers. This internal disciplining made the boycott almost completely effective. In December 1965, after just four months of boycotting and broad-scale community organizing, city govern- ment and local businessmen decided to give in and agreed to all of the demands of the Black community. Evers called it “the greatest concession” of the civil rights movement, and he was right as far as Mississippi was concerned. While the movement in Clarksdale quietly phased out and needed federal intervention to open voter registration to African Americans, Natchez had managed to exert enough—armed—pressure on the white power structure to create a total collapse of Jim Crow. “The Natchez campaign was the single greatest community victory for the civil rights movement in Mississippi, though historians have never given it the credit it deserves,” asserts Lance Hill. “The organizers united and inspired a community to courageous action . . . and secured dramatic legal and economic reforms. In comparison, the projects in McComb, Clarksdale and Jackson failed to win any significant demands and frequently left the black community demoralized and in disarray.” (91)

 There is a clear logic to the idea that the non-violent movement needed support from men and women who were willing to face armed attackers with their own guns, and Hill offers a number of strong examples of incidents where klan and police thugs were forced to back off. But the question of whether, all things considered, we need to reassess the way the civil rights movement succeeded in cracking Jim Crow really needs more detailed and careful research, to follow on upon the groundbreaking case that Lance Hill has made.

Voter registration, Mississippi, 1960

One of the most important and hard-fought dimensions of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s was the issue of voting rights. The Jim Crow South had made democratic participation almost impossible for black citizens throughout the first half of the century in spite of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1868 and 1870. Intimidation and discriminatory voter registration requirements made it all but impossible for African Americans to exercise the right to vote.

Here is a summary of methods of disenfranchisement used during the Jim Crow period up through 1965 (link), provided on the excellent website maintained by Elizabeth Anderson and Jeffrey Jones at the University of Michigan. Here is a good description of the use of “literacy tests” in Mississippi in 1965, provided by the website for Civil Rights Movement Veterans. And here is an example of one such literacy test (link).

Bob Moses was a key leader in the NAACP’s voter registration efforts in Mississippi in 1960.  Here is one of his own experiences during this campaign:

We planned to make another registration attempt on the 19th of August…. This was the day then that Curtis Dawson and Preacher Knox and I were to go down and try to register. This was the day that Curtis Dawson drove to Steptoe’s, picked me up and drove down to Liberty and we were to meet Knox on the courthouse lawn, and instead we were to walk through the town and on the way back were accosted by Billy Jack Caston and some other boys. I was severely beaten. I remember very sharply that I didn’t want to go immediately back into McComb because my shirt was very bloody and I figured that if we went back in we would probably be fighting everybody. So instead, we went back out to Steptoe’s where we washed down before we came back into McComb. (The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 171)

So what would Bob Moses and other black applicants have found when (or if) they were permitted to attempt to register to vote in Mississippi? Here is a copy of the voter registration form that was in use in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s. (The copy was provided to students in my class by John Hardy, a participant in the Freedom Rides and the voter registration drives of 1961 and 1962. Thank you, John, for the document and for your eloquent lecture on the period.)



The document is worth reading in its entirety. It makes it plain that the purpose was to intimidate people from exercising their rights of political participation and to provide a basis for excluding them from voter registration if they did make the effort to register.  The form is highly complicated, requiring a series of answers to questions about prior residence and employment.  It then requires the applicant to provide an interpretation of the meaning of an assigned clause in the Mississippi Constitution.  The Registrar had the ability to rule that the explanation applicants provided of the required clause was not a “reasonable interpretation” and therefore disallow their application for registration.  Likewise, the Registrar could disallow the response offered to question 20: “a statement setting forth your understanding of the duties and obligations of citizenship under a constitutional form of government.” And, finally, the applicant is forced to endorse clause 209 of the Mississippi Constitution: “Separate schools shall be maintained for children of the white and colored races.” This registration form is dated 1955. But the US Supreme Court had already ruled a year earlier in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schooling was unconstitutional.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was intended to make these sorts of practices illegal (link).  The Act specifically prohibited the imposition of any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure … to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

This history of deliberate and violent efforts to prevent African-Americans from voting during the Jim Crow period of American history makes current efforts to tighten voter registration and voting highly suspect to many in the African-American community today.  Voter suppression efforts in a number of states look like a highly reactionary step backwards into a dark period in our history, when powerful individuals, groups, and government agencies vigorously attempted to prevent the black population from exercising their democratic rights. (Here is an ACLU report on voter suppression efforts this year.) It is good to know that several of those efforts have been put on hold by Federal courts, but the effort itself is insidious and shameful, given our history around this issue.

Here are Bob Moses and E.W. Steptoe talking about their registration efforts in Mississippi.


Social sciences and the Civil Rights movement

The American Civil Rights movement was (and is) a complex, extended series of events, actions, and interactions in the United States between roughly 1950 and 1970.  (It of course has roots that extend backwards in time through the Civil War and centuries of slavery, and it has consequences that reverberate in American society to the present day.)  There are a variety of causes we can point to as explanations of various important events — the Montgomery bus boycott, the Voting Rights Act, the murder of Emmett Till. And there are signal individuals whose actions played pivotal roles in the period — Orval Faubus, Stokely Carmichael, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr. So telling this story requires a complex blend of narrative organization, inferences about personal motives, and reconstruction of existing social relations and structures in various places in the country.  It is perhaps significant that many of the histories of this movement have chosen to focus their stories around the biographies and careers of significant individuals — for example, Taylor Branch’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63). 

My question here is a limited one: what role can the social sciences play in constructing a history of the Civil Rights movement that contributes to better explanations and better understanding of the period?

Here are several areas of research in the social sciences that seem to be especially valuable for interpreting the history of the Civil Rights struggle in the United States.

Doug McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition is an outstanding example of the results of research that have proceeded from the point of view of the methods and theories of sociology. McAdam works within the framework of the sociology of social movements, and his key question is this: what factors encouraged or inhibited social mobilization of the victims of segregation in the 1950s and 1960s?  He offers a “political process” theory of social mobilization:

I will argue that the emergence of widespread protest activity is the result of a combination of expanding political opportunities and indigenous organization, as mediated through a crucial process of collective attribution. Over time, these same factors continue to shape the development of insurgency in consort with one additional factor: the shifting social-control response of other groups to the movement. (2)

McAdam doesn’t proceed in a hypothetico-deductive way, assuming that a theory will permit the researcher to deduce the twists and turns of the history. Rather, he looks at resource-mobilization theory as a reasonably well-grounded account of causal factors that underlie mobilizations of groups in response to their grievances, and he looks to identify the historical conditions that were present that can be teased out as important historical causes of the growth of the movement.  In language he eventually develops further with Tarrow and Tilly, he identifies causal mechanisms that either inhibited or accelerated mobilization (Dynamics of Contention).

Quantitative sociologists have made a different kind of contribution to our understanding of various aspects of racial politics in the United States.  One very good example is the work of Douglas Massey, who has provided throughout a long career a careful quantitative assessment of racial inequality and segregation.  Massey and Denton’s American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass  (1993) is a key contribution, as well as Massey’s later Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System (link). This work is important because it helps to provide a better understanding of the structure of racial inequality in the United States — the structural conditions within which collective efforts for oppression and emancipation played out.  More descriptive approaches to the situation of race in the post-war period have proven useful as well — for example, Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy Volume 1.

Comparative sociologists also have important contributions to make in the study of the Jim Crow period and the Civil Rights movement.  These researchers have often highlighted the key role played by power and exploitation in many social orders, and the ways in which rulers and ruled have sought to improve their situations within the context of those social relations.  Michael Mann’s writings stand out here, and particularly his study of ethnic cleansing within contemporary societies in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. Mann’s analysis of Bosnia and other recent examples provides a model for seeking to delineate and explain the strategic and collective behaviors of people on both sides of the Jim Crow line. And he offers a good example of the ways in which it is possible to combine large structural factors (segregation, exploitation) with local-level behavioral factors (resistance, mobilization).

Another important area of the social sciences that is relevant to explanation and interpretation of the Civil Rights movement is social psychology.  This is the individual side of the study of collective behavior: what motivates people to act as they do in a racialized or unequal society? How do participants in such a society frame the social relations they perceive around themselves? Is there a psychology of domination and resistance that is socially imbued in members of a given society? Measuring racial attitudes and dispositions to behavior is one aspect of this field of study — for example, as summarized in work by Dambrun, Villate, and Richetan here. But social psychologists have also given very fruitful attention to the ways in which racial attitudes and schemata are reproduced in young people — the more developmental side of racial thinking. And some social psychologists like Elizabeth Cole have emphasized the idea of “intersectionality” as a way of understanding people’s political and social identities (link). (There is a good discussion of this approach in Michele Tracy Berger and Kathleen Guidroz, eds., The Intersectional Approach: Transforming the Academy through Race, Class, and Gender.)

This work is important for historians because it provides a more nuanced and empirically grounded set of theories about motivation and identity when it comes to contested social relations like race and gender.  This means that the historian has more ability to interpret the behavior of the participants who emerge in the historical record and whose behavior is sometimes surprising. The concept of intersectionality is particularly useful; since African American women had identities that were both racial and gendered, it is less surprising to find that their behavior did not always correspond to a simple script.

Another area of social science research that is relevant to understanding the Civil Rights era is political science.  Civil Rights struggles generally originated in particular places; but they were often aimed at legislation and constitutional interpretation. So it is valuable to have some research on the institutions and processes of the Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court (as well as state government) in order to be able to piece together the complicated back-and-forth between mobilization and legislation. Abigail Thernstrom’s Whose Votes Count?: Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights provides some of this analysis with respect the the Voting Rights Act of 1965. John Griffin and Brian Newman’s Minority Report: Evaluating Political Equality in America is a representative study of the role of race in electoral politics. Dennis Chong’s Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement is a rational-choice analysis of collective action in the Civil Rights movement.

What these areas of research seem to have in common is that they shed light on some of the mechanisms that may have been in play during the complex history of the Civil Rights movement. Some of these mechanisms are at the local population level — the factors that allowed Montgomery’s African American population to sustain a successful bus boycott. Others are at the individual level — the features of identity and motivation that were present in white and black participants. And yet others are couched at a higher level of organization — the mechanisms of the Congress and Supreme Court, the economic effects of segregation. None of these authors imply that we can replace detailed historical research with theoretical social science applications. But they do support the idea that the findings of the social sciences can shed light on social mechanisms and processes that are not necessarily perfectly evident in the historical sequences under study, and they support the idea that historians can gain a lot by immersing themselves in these adjacent areas of social-science research.

(Here is a nice review article by Aldon Morris, “A retrospective on the Civil Rights Movement: Political and Intellectual Landmarks” in Annual Review of Sociology, 1999.)

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