Rethinking the Movement

Rethinking the Movement

As any casual observer of mega-bookstore shelves knows, the history of the modern civil rights movement is a well-studied field.


As any casual observer of mega-bookstore shelves knows, the history of the modern civil rights movement is a well-studied field. Over the past decades it has attracted a sizable army of historians, sociologists and other scholars who continue to produce an apparently endless stream of innovative monographs,

biographies and overviews that chronicle and analyze the struggle to overturn Jim Crow. Movement participants too have filled many thousands of pages with their recollections of the history they made, while documentary filmmakers have put to excellent use the dramatic footage of racial violence that cast the struggle in an often appropriately manichean light.

On a popular level, the civil rights movement has been absorbed into–indeed, appropriated by–our political culture; its story is commemorated with a national holiday and venerated in proliferating historical museums and exhibits, as well as primary and secondary school curriculums. Politicians of all stripes pay ritual homage to the movement’s goals of equality and dignity, bending them to fit their particular agendas. If the Founding Fathers and the Civil War exert a greater hold on the national imagination, no other social movement in American history–neither abolitionism, feminism, socialism or communism, nor trade unionism–even approximates the attention the civil rights movement has received.

J. Mills Thornton’s contribution to our understanding of the modern civil rights movement is substantial, if idiosyncratic, and does much to dispel simplistic views that dominate public discourse. A historian at the University of Michigan and the author of a previous book, on slavery and politics in Alabama, he does far more than simply revisit the familiar stories of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, the 1963 desegregation demonstrations in Birmingham and the 1965 voting rights struggles in Selma; rather, he situates each of these crises in deep local context, constructing a narrative around the evolving strategies of hundreds of black community leaders and activists, machine and antimachine white politicians, white federal judges, white racial moderates and business progressives, and blatant white supremacists. But unlike so many studies, Thornton’s is less a morality tale (though his sympathies obviously lie with the effort to end segregation and racial violence) or romantic celebration than a tenacious inquiry into the timing and local variations of the movement. Why, he asks, “did the civil rights movement manifest itself as mass direct-action campaigns in certain Southern cities and towns, and not in others in which social conditions were apparently so closely comparable?” Why “did the direct-action campaigns happen in these places when they did, rather than earlier or later in the period?”

Setting the stage for the new movement were the broader transformations of Southern and American society. In recent years, historians have argued that US competition with the Soviet Union for the allegiance of decolonizing nations during the cold war fostered a domestic environment more receptive to a movement against black subordination. Thornton focuses closer to home, emphasizing the collapse of the sharecropping regime, new economic prosperity for some, increased urbanization and rising educational levels among blacks. In a city like Birmingham, for instance, a growing number of black professionals, expanded access to credit and rising income levels in the post-World War II years seemed to portend a “brightening future” for some African-Americans. But these broad social, economic and political forces, which presumably affected blacks all across the South (or at least much of the urban South), cannot account for the uneven timing and character of local responses.

This is the problem that most animates Thornton. Just as “local politics was essential to the creation of Southern segregation, so local politics was the crucial factor in creating the circumstances that ended it.” He takes as his task the exploration of the connection between “intensely local concerns of municipal politics,” which he delineates in rich detail, and the “vast national and international changes in race relations” occurring in the 1950s and ’60s, to which he devotes noticeably less attention. Through a careful reconstruction of political and community dynamics preceding, accom-panying and following the direct-action protests in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, Thornton arrives at his answer: Municipal politics mattered as much as, or more than, national-level events or organizations in determining the nature of the local movements. This puts him at odds with Taylor Branch, whose narrative in Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 is largely driven by nationally known figures, with local activists playing but cameo parts; for Thornton, the period between the crises in Birmingham and Selma were hardly “the King Years.” And while journalist Diane McWhorter covers some of the same thematic and geographic ground in her Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, Thornton is far more systematic in his dissection of political dynamics at the municipal level and less obviously in awe of movement principals.

For direct-action campaigns to emerge, prospective black activists had to believe that change was, in fact, possible, and that the risks involved, often considerable, were worth taking. It was “local perceptions, assumptions, and interests,” Thornton argues, that produced this crucial sense of the “immediate malleability of their world” and the “tractability of the system.” Despite marked differences in the three communities he studies, they all shared one thing: a sense among African-Americans of gradual progress and guarded optimism about race relations and black opportunities.

On the eve of the bus boycott of 1955-56, the firm grip that the city’s Democratic machine had long maintained on Montgomery had noticeably begun to weaken. Black expectations had gradually been rising with small improvements, including the unprecedented hiring of several black police officers; the opening of the city’s first black high school, hospital, public library branch and farmers’ market; and the construction of public housing for African-Americans. Several black baseball players even integrated the city’s professional baseball team, the Montgomery Rebels. Beginning in the mid-1940s, a small but slowly growing number of African-Americans succeeded in registering to vote. Significantly, with white political factions almost equally balanced, the tiny black electorate occasionally tilted the balance of power. Taken together, these developments constituted a “tentative beginning toward the goal of disestablishing white supremacy,” Thornton writes, and should not be dismissed or judged by today’s standards; rather, they represented to black contemporaries “exciting evidence of genuine progress.” Together with the election of white antimachine candidate Dave Birmingham to the City Commission, they apparently sparked black Montgomery residents’ desire to press for further changes.

In industrial Birmingham and commercial Selma too, progress was visible in the pre-movement years. Progressive white businessmen in Birmingham opened channels of communication to the city’s black citizens in the late 1940s by sponsoring a private biracial committee. By the early 1950s, quiet negotiations had resulted in a daycare center for black children; a black public golf course; equipment for a black community center; black access to the state fair, the municipal zoo and Vulcan Park; white financial support for a new black hospital; and the integration of downtown elevators. As in Montgomery, these developments gave middle-class blacks “a sense of positive momentum, and therefore a growing confidence and insistence.”

In Selma, improved black educational opportunities dramatically reduced illiteracy, while a new hospital and nursing school, among other institutions, were signs of an “important metamorphosis taking place below the surface of daily life,” providing African-Americans with “confidence that blacks’ subordination need not be perpetual.”

Despite the shared experience of Jim Crow and the budding sense of improvement, each of these communities produced local civil rights movements in the 1950s and ’60s that were, in many ways, distinct. Their specific character was informed by a host of pre-existing factors, such as black political organizations and strategies, rivalries among black leaders and factions, divisions between white moderates and staunch segregationists, the strength and temper of white supremacist associations, and a range of other local political issues and outside forces. The book’s title speaks to the obvious chasm separating whites from blacks; even at the height of these conflicts, whites–moderates (sometimes called progressives) included–understood very little about black aspirations and goals. But more important, the title also speaks to divisions within each group–among whites and among blacks. Indeed, these intraracial divisions fueled the movement and created the opportunities for change.

Divisions among whites, Thornton argues persuasively, created political openings that African-Americans were quick to exploit. The “white socioeconomic and political power structures in the towns in which the [racial] explosions occurred were not at all uniformly intransigent and oppressive in their racial attitudes,” Thornton demonstrates. “On the contrary, the common denominator that links the white leadership groups in all these cities is that they put out mixed signals, some elements of them offending blacks with their undisguised racism, other elements frustrating blacks with their oblivious indifference… but still other elements giving clear indications of an openness to reform.” These mixed signals usually came from white businessmen, who, while often remaining pro-segregation, prioritized economic development and the need to attract outside investment, something made more difficult by the bad publicity generated from protracted racial crises. Some whites’ tentative receptiveness to biracial dialogue, along with a semblance of progress, emboldened African-American organizing and protest.

White moderates’ role in this process was hardly lost on ardent white supremacists, who came to believe that the moderates were “renegades” aiding and abetting the black enemy. Left to themselves, they believed, blacks would be incapable of mounting an effective challenge to Jim Crow; if whites united to “make it so hot the [white] renegades would be afraid to open their mouths,” the specter of integration would quickly collapse. One need not accept Thornton’s conclusion that the white Citizens’ Councils at the forefront of the racial backlash always understood their “principal opponents to be, not black civil rights workers, but white racial moderates and business progressives” to recognize their pivotal role in silencing white dissent and thwarting more moderate alternatives through violence, economic coercion, public humiliation and social ostracism. In the face of such harassment, white moderates often backed down, leaving the field open to the racial extremists.

Thornton succeeds in establishing that what we think of as “the movement” actually consisted of multiple, and often contradictory and even hostile, currents. Divisions–and often competition–among black leaders and activists were instrumental in shaping strategy and tactics and influencing the timing of challenges to the racial order. Sometimes these reflected socioeconomic and geographical differences among African-Americans, as they did in Montgomery. In the 1940s and early ’50s, longtime labor and civil rights activist E.D. Nixon represented a working-class black constituency based in the city’s west side, while an African-American middle class composed of schoolteachers, professionals and businessmen located near Alabama State College constituted the base of his rival, entrepreneur Rufus Lewis. The arrest of Rosa Parks, herself a recognized civil rights activist, triggered the bus boycott that temporarily unified the city’s black organizations and energized the rank and file with the creation of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). As is well-known, movement demands evolved over the course of the boycott from a modification of bus segregation to its elimination. In the end, the federal courts vindicated the protesters. But Montgomery was a far more overtly polarized community in the boycott’s aftermath.

Although white extremists muscled aside white moderates, racial violence escalated, and state and local government officials dug in their heels, Thornton attributes the stalling of Montgomery’s civil rights struggle during the late 1950s in good part to the “growing disarray and dissension within Montgomery’s black leadership.” Indeed, the unity among African-Americans prompted by the boycott did not long survive. Tensions between Nixon and Lewis escalated, as did internal conflicts over the MIA’s budget and disbursement of funds, leading a frustrated Nixon to resign in 1957. That act conceded the MIA’s leadership largely to the black middle class and put a damper on working-class support. By 1960, Thornton concludes, white supremacists surveying the Montgomery situation could “do so with considerable satisfaction,” seeing in post-boycott events a turning of the tide and the effective blocking of integration.

As it turned out, they were wrong. The bloody white violence directed against Freedom Riders in 1961 (what Thornton describes as the “darkest days in all of Montgomery’s history”) reversed the tide again. White moderates rediscovered their voice, the MIA came to advocate “quiet negotiations and compromise,” and the federal court judges, particularly Judge Frank Johnson, increasingly sided with protesters. Civil rights protests took the form of direct-action campaigns in Birmingham and Selma because negotiations stalled and federal judges repeatedly ruled for white supremacists against civil rights activists, greatly exacerbating existing tensions.

In contrast, the judiciary’s role in desegregating public facilities and reining in racist voter registrars and the willingness of moderates to negotiate “deepened the commitment of Montgomery’s black leaders to the emerging new municipal order.” The result was modest progress before the passage of federal civil rights legislation in 1964. When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference proposed a direct-action campaign of demonstrations in Montgomery in 1965, local leaders withheld their support. For many Montgomery blacks, recent experiences had taught that “segregation could be disestablished through court suits alone, unaccompanied by direct action.”

Thornton parts company with scholars of the modern civil rights movement who tend to treat grassroots activists and militants as the unqualified heroes of their narratives. He dispassionately analyzes the conflicts between black moderates and black militants, seeking not so much to judge them–although his sympathies are frequently evident–as to evaluate their role in shaping protest strategy and accomplishing the movement’s goals. For example, Birmingham activists shared no consensus on how to carry forward the struggle for equality. By the late 1950s, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s militant Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights had grown to distrust white moderates and advocated direct action to force change upon the city. To Shuttlesworth (and subsequent historians who adopt his perspective), black moderates were advocating accommodationism. The city’s black moderates, who eventually formed a competing group called the Inter-Citizens Committee, rejected what they saw as the “foolish absolutism” of the militants, whose “fervor” and “moral vigor” they interpreted as “unthinking emotionalism and submissive devotion to Shuttlesworth’s tutelage.” They chose “negotiated compromise” and “amicable negotiations with white moderates” as their preferred strategy. During the climactic conflicts of 1963, the moderates viewed the mass demonstrations warily as “ill-timed” and “more likely to retard than to advance black progress.”

Strained relations between these two factions not only prevented a united front but undermined the efforts of both groups to win their goals amid the brutal white repression and violence of 1963. Although Thornton treats each side respectfully, Shuttlesworth’s actions come across as rash and ill considered in an account that often appears to sympathize with the moderates, and that stands in contrast to McWhorter’s laudatory account of Shuttlesworth’s leadership. Ultimately, and provocatively, Thornton concludes that post-1963 developments–particularly growing black electoral strength and the achievement of a “degree of genuine municipal power” by black moderates–“must call into question the significance of the 1963 demonstrations in shaping the course of Birmingham’s history.” While indisputably important in prodding the Kennedy Administration into proposing meaningful federal antidiscrimination legislation, their impact on racial progress in most spheres of Birmingham life is “debatable.”

Indeed, Thornton seems intent upon rescuing local black middle-class leaders from the condescending treatment they have often received in civil rights histories. The group McWhorter dismissively calls the “Negro bourgeoisie” or the “Big Boys” and that Glenn Eskew, in his But for Birmingham, refers to as “the traditional Negro leadership class” is afforded a more significant role in Thornton’s narrative. Studiously refraining from imposing current political sensibilities on his historical actors, Thornton eschews the disdain–so evident in other accounts–for black elites’ strategies of working for reform within the framework of segregation in the 1940s and ’50s. For Thornton, it was the black moderates’ engagement with white business progressives in the conference room and the electoral arena that had the greatest impact on shaping Birmingham’s future.

Dividing Lines succeeds admirably in highlighting the importance of municipal politics in influencing the contours of the movements for racial equality and shaping their local outcomes. In placing divisions among whites and especially blacks near the center of the story and in portraying black moderates in a favorable light, it challenges more heroic and moralistic accounts of the movement. It also reminds us that the moral crusade against Jim Crow was a political crusade and that politics, even in a good cause, is often messy business. This is particularly evident in Thornton’s final chapter, “Aftermath.” The civil rights movement declined after 1965 at the national level, Thornton observes, but it “continued to play itself out in numerous electoral contests for town councils, county commissions, and state legislative office. In that sense, the death of the civil rights movement has been greatly exaggerated.”

But if his laserlike focus on shifting interracial alliances, persistent racial divisions and enduring factionalism among black leaders makes for sober reading, it also makes it difficult to appreciate the substantial gains achieved at the community level. Similarly, Thornton’s treatment of local politics in isolation from the broader national contexts of race relations and racial politics, economic transformations and public policy, and political-party competition obscures an understanding of the broader forces constraining Southern black political influence and limiting further black progress in the decades after 1965.

As compelling as Thornton’s explanation of the character and timing of direct-action campaigns is, his top-down, leadership-centered narrative makes it difficult to substantiate his plausible thesis that potential activists had to believe first that change was possible and that risks were worth taking before direct-action campaigns could emerge. Did gradual improvements, the cracks in the white political facade and new municipal political opportunities generate a new belief in the possibility of change? The historical literature on the modern civil rights movement is replete with firsthand accounts and oral histories of the movement’s participants. Those perspectives and voices find little place in Thornton’s otherwise impressive account, which remains focused on the local leaders who guided the movement but largely ignores the less prominent men and women who filled the church-based protest meetings, boycotted the buses, lined up to register to vote or marched in the street. Their absence renders the issue of human motivation speculative. For all these concerns, however, this is an important, deeply researched, provocative and often compelling book that will supplement, if not replace, many of our standard accounts of the modern civil rights movement.

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