The Civil Rights Movement: Analysis of an Indigenous Approach
It may seem like a redundant, unoriginal, and nondescript cliché to say that the Civil Rights Movement was a very important part of our history. Regardless of how many times we’ve heard that phrase, or how unsophisticated a description such a simple statement may be, the fact remains that the Civil Rights Movement is undoubtedly a very powerful series of events that pioneered some crucial changes in our nation and has sparked debates over its origin among many experts.
I am writing on Aldon Morris’ book, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, in which Mr. Morris—a political sociologist and expert in African-American studies—discusses what the origins of the Movement were from his own point of view while debating what he feels are disputable points in the theories of sociologist Max Weber and theorists Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian. Morris’ indication of his own explanation of an indigenous approach comes from his opening paragraph of Chapter 11:
“The present analysis of the civil rights movement is informed by three important sociological theories of social movements and collective action: classical collective behavior theory, Weber’s theory of charismatic movements, and the resource mobilization theory. Insights have been drawn from those theories when appropriate, and they have served as a point of departure for further theorizing. I shall briefly present the main points of these and assess them in light of my findings on the civil rights movement. I shall then present the outlines of an indigenous approach to movements of the dominated.” – Aldon Morris, “The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement”, pg 275.
Many theorists have comprised their own adaptations of why the civil rights movement came about. Their ideas are compiled from the three main sociology theories listed by Morris in this chapter. The first is the classical collective behavior theory, or more plainly, different people behaving in the same uniform manner. Under this premise, theorists vary in description. Some say collective behavior varies by organization, and is most often sparked by some rapid or abrupt social change, or a crisis, such as a natural disaster. Morris’ quotes theorist Lewis Killian and agrees with his assessment that characterizes classical collective behavior as intentional efforts made by those trying to institute change into their societies.
“I agree with Killian that social movements are deliberate, conscious efforts by men to change their society.” Morris, pg. 277
While he agrees that social movements are geared toward social change, he did not agree that the Civil Rights Movement can be classified as a cult or fad. He believes the origin of the movement was put in place for human rights for Blacks to be restored to the equal level of the Whites. I myself agree with Killian’s theory as it pertains to the Civil Rights Movement, and I agree with Morris that it cannot be categorized in the same class as a fad or a cult. It does take strong, conscious efforts of mankind to initiate and infiltrate change into their societies, and it took something extra from the African-Americans of that time to initiate the movement—it required their anger. The anger that stemmed from being treated like animals, robbed of their humanity, and separated from their families and beaten, enslaved and/or killed. They were fighting to get back what no one person or group had the right to ever take away in the first place—the right to exist—freely, period. As the racial hate crimes against African-Americans were committed were committed against the collective, I believe that surely collective behavior in retaliation was inevitable.
The next theory Morris refers to is theorist Max Weber’s theory of charismatic leaders. In my opinion, this theory almost blatantly implies that humans are not intelligent enough to make a sound, competent decision to be a part of something without being hypnotized or brainwashed. Morris states:
“For Weber, such followers were charismatic to the extent that they convinced followers, by successfully performing exemplary acts, that as leaders they possessed “supernatural” or “superhuman” qualities. Weber resembled the collective behavior theory and argued that charismatic authority occurs during periods of crises and is therefore devoid of formal rules.”—pg. 278
It seems like a ridiculous assessment for a well-educated expert to imply that witchcraft, magic or anything other than human choice for something new was the motivating factor in the Civil Rights Movement. To believe that people would ideally opt to live a life that is controlled by other people who hate them simply because they’re different is inhumane in itself.
Morris used Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example of the charismatic leader. (pg.279) All that is known about Dr. King doesn’t coincide with anything Weber’s theory states about charismatic leaders, yet Dr. King indeed had charisma. He simply talked of a world of peace and racial equality, and although he, too, suffered the tortures of the White man, he tried to set an example of instilling change without violent retaliation. That he was successful in reaching a mass of people who agreed with him and join in his mission doesn’t make him a brainwashing snake-charmer.
The third and final theory used by Mr. Morris is the resource mobilization theory. This theory indicates that dominated groups,(in this case, the African-Americans), do not possess the skills needed to organize such movements on their own. They need stronger, more powerful outside forces to assist them in their quests by providing resources the lesser group wouldn’t have on their own. Morris’ examination of sociologist Anthony Oberschall’s approach finds Oberschall states:
“Theories that tend to overemphasize the importance of outside resources can unnecessarily restrict the scope of analysis of the movement”. (pg.281)
Morris states that while Oberschall maintains that the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s heavily depended upon outside resources—Northern liberals, the federal government, courts, philanthropic organizations and white college students—his approach assigns weight so heavily to white elites and events that he fails to reveal the scope of the movement from his own indigenous approach. Morris states that his own research, in contrast, reveals that a great portion of financing for the movement came from Northern Black communities. In short, Oberschall’s theory omits information that may provide more crucial insight to the participants and aides of the movement, while simultaneously sparking more curiosity to investigate deeper into this event than what is provided in the history books.
“Thus, Oberschall’s theory provides new insight into the organizational and mobilization of the movement, but the insight is not fully developed because in his view the analysis attributes inordinate casual weight to outside elites and resources.” (Morris, pg. 281)
Theorists and sociologists seem to find the Civil Rights Movement the most interesting event to use as a topic of discussion and of debate. They try to come up with scientific, sociological, philosophical and psychological reasons for the movement’s origins. While all of these categories are critical factors of explanation, I believe that the most critical aspect of all has not been addressed—the human aspect. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the African-Americans of that era as just people. I will do my best to summarize all of these theories and approaches from this point of view.
Let’s first picture ourselves as grown men with families who are just living are lives. Somewhere down the line, another man, a foreign stranger to boot, comes into our lives with guns, whips, and whatever other weapons he has and strips our wives and children from our homes and tells us, with force, that we are all to serve as their slaves. We will eat, drink, sleep and live only as they instruct us, and as we naturally refuse, our wives are raped and/or killed, and our children are tortured and/or killed right before our eyes to command our compliance. To add insult to torment, we are still forced to be slaves and we find out that our closest friends, relatives and neighbors have been captured in the same way. We are shipped off like animals in freight vessels, branded with hot irons like cattle to be identified not by our names, but by our captive plantation owners. When our brains finally register that we are truly slaves, we bond with our fellow slaves, whom have now become our family by common trauma, and we all secretly voice our anger and desire to change. Thus, we have now become a collective via natural human reaction to cruel horrors, forming a behavior that we all share.
Many years have passed with us living this animalistic life, and more of us have died, watched our women be raped and killed, our babies fattened for both the proverbial and literal slaughters, and yet, even with the legal abolishment of physical slavery, we are still killed at will by our former captors simply for walking on the same side of the road, or trying to educate ourselves. We have no real power to get help because the authorities and law enforcers are smoking buddies with our former captors. Along comes a man of our kind, who is not afraid to stand up to our former captors, despite the beatings, imprisonment and attacks he, too, still suffers. He stands firm in his loath for human degradation, and he fights against our Beastmasters for equal rights. He encourages us to denounce our fears and tap into the energy of our anger for strength to fight as well. Slowly but steadily, his strength and persistence begins to infect us, and we begin to see hope. Now, we are actually starting to listen to what he is saying, and we finally believe in the strength of our kind as a unified group. Even our former captors are showing signs of fear when we walk. He becomes our mentor. Hence, the birth of the charismatic leader.
What happens next is the crucial. All of us are infuriated now! We are supposed to be legally protected to live as equal and free people, but we’re getting hosed, killed, lynched, falsely jailed and beaten because we are not the same color as our former captors. This time, however, we have a positive channel in which to put our anger to progressive use. Our leader and our joined force will command a change. We may not have money, but we have our large body count and our powerful leader. We also have shaken the former captors’ confidence in their ability to dominate us as easily as before. Our next move is to passively hit the captors where it will hurt without violence. If they won’t provide resources for us, we won’t help them generate anymore for themselves. We won’t use their services, we will not shop in their marketplaces, and we will definitely not work for them! They will suffer in the only way that will make them listen. We will do it as a group. If we can’t get help here, we will find some other way to get help, but we will fight!
The final theory is the resource mobilization theory. The Civil Rights Movement showed a force of strength from inside a person, not a bank. The power of the movement that instilled the changes we benefit from in modern day society didn’t come from financial assistance, nor from the federal government initially. It came from the strength of human rage against losing the one thing that should never have been negotiated as a marketable item in the first place—their human dignity. They wanted to make a change for the better on a collective scale, and if people fear change on an individual level, they were in for a grueling fight. Still, they strived for it and weathered the torturous storms. It takes a bit of all of those categories to execute a great plan, so regardless of which expert aspect the origins of the Civil Rights Movement are viewed or analyzed from, a great struggle for change still originates from human desire to achieve it.
Morris, A. D. (1986). The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. 1st Free Press, Pbk.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Morris, A. D. (1986). The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. 1st Free Press, Pbk.