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A Question of Leadership

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 27, Number 2, June 1999
pp. 289-297 | 10.1353/rah.1999.0040

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Reviews in American History 27.2 (1999) 289-297
Belinda Robnett. How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. xi + 256. Notes and index. $35.00.

The move away from national, televised events and the summitry of Kennedys and King has been one of the strongest currents in the recent historiography of the civil rights movement. This "bottom-up" perspective draws support from veterans of the freedom struggle, notably those associated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They were always unhappy with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (SCLC) emphasis on high-level politicking. Historians, whose recent professional training has stressed the social scientific merits of the individual case study, also endorse a more localized approach. This methodology promotes the view that the civil rights movement was in a key sense not one movement but many. Its dynamics were different in Greensboro than in Monroe, North Carolina, and different again in Greenwood and Jackson, Mississippi, or in Birmingham, Montgomery, or Tuskegee, Alabama.

Local studies have also strengthened the scholarly recognition that the "classic phase" of the freedom struggle (1954-1968) had a lengthy prologue. To understand the movement in Louisiana, historian Adam Fairclough begins in 1915 with the formation of the New Orleans chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Historians do tend to mistrust the pronouncements of sociologists because their abstract and generalized models are too far away from the local realities, yet these theoretical frames have consistently informed the historical study of social movements. In 1982, Doug McAdam argued that the civil rights movement's dynamics reflected a changing political process within which large-scale structural changes provided periods of enhanced, and then contracted, political opportunity for insurgent social movements. The sociologists' shift to a more local perspective on the movement came in 1984, when Aldon Morris applied the resource mobilization model of social movement theory to find the key origins of insurgency within African American communities. Since then a fruitful dialogue with European social theorists, who have stressed the personal, psychological aspects of social movement formation, has prompted American scholars to focus on micro-mobilization. This approach inevitably stresses the local activities that drew people into the movement and kept them there, despite the risks. As Belinda Robnett concludes, "central to the success of a social movement is an intermediate layer of leadership, whose task includes bridging potential constituents and adherents, as well as potential formal leaders, to the movement" (p. 191).

When Charles Payne looked closely at the movement in Greenwood, Mississippi, he concluded that the men led but the women organized. What he articulated was the fact that while formal titled leadership positions in movement organizations remained overwhelmingly a male preserve, the growth and sustenance of the movement relied upon the activities of its female participants. For the general reader, Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville has served as a symbol of these mainstays of movement culture. Payne placed the important work of these women inside what he termed the "organizing tradition." This tradition was fuelled by SNCC's stress on developing committed local activists, which was itself a product of movement veteran Ella Baker's insistence on the value of participatory democracy, and of Myles Horton of the Highlander Folk School's faith in student centered learning. Both Baker and Horton linked the civil rights movement to the labor struggles of the 1930s, and their radical pedagogy had precedents in the Union Leagues of Reconstruction and the Farmers' Alliances of the populist era.

Payne, like Morris before him, saw the movement's gender imbalance as stemming from the structure of the rural African American church with its overwhelmingly male clergy but with women as its most active congregants. Robnett's study of women in the civil rights movement expands upon these findings. She argues against an emphasis on the male clergy (pp. 140-41). Their titled positions gave them public recognition but did not equate automatically with movement leadership. By their community activism, women, who were generally excluded from formal positions of power, excited enormous loyalty among, and exerted considerable influence upon...


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