- This Is Not Civil Rights: Discovering Rights Talk in 1939 America by George I. Lovell
In This Is Not Civil Rights, Lovell looks beyond the courts to explore how individual Americans understand law and rights. Lovell’s study is based on a sample of letters found in the files of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Section (crs) between 1939 (when the CRS was created) and 1941—a period marked by the New Deal–era growth of federal responsibilities but preceding the federal courts’ expanded commitment to individual rights. In these letters, individual Americans demonstrated a capacious understanding of “civil rights” in describing their grievances with local and state officials in matters including labor disputes, law enforcement, and economic justice. Lovell is particularly interested in how the letters challenge contemporary sociolegal scholarship critical of “rights talk.” According to this critique, the powerful ideological function of legal discourse leads Americans to trust law’s ability to solve problems, to accept existing legal limits, and to think in terms of individual rights to the exclusion of communitarian possibilities. Unfortunately, scholars argue, law promises more than it delivers; it limits Americans’ imagination to legal remedies endorsed by elite actors; and it steers Americans away from group mobilization.
In contrast to such claims, Lovell argues that those who wrote to the CRS were skeptical of law’s capacities. Although writers repeatedly couched their claims in legal form, Lovell makes clear that they did so instrumentally. They used legal arguments not to articulate their trust in law but to make the kinds of arguments that they thought federal officials wanted to hear. Nor did writers assume legal arguments to be sufficient; they routinely included extralegal arguments alongside legal ones in the hopes of persuading federal officials to act. Furthermore, rather than acquiesce in existing doctrinal limits, writers repeatedly articulated [End Page 280] ideas of rights that went far beyond contemporary understandings of what the federal government could do for its citizens. Thus, Lovell concludes, scholars interested in group mobilization should focus less on legal ideology and more on other obstacles driving Americans toward the law.
Lovell is careful to note the wide variation in how writers used and understood law, and he is clear about the assumptions that he makes, and does not make, about the authors themselves. He focuses on themes seen throughout the letters, but future scholars might fruitfully return to these documents to analyze how race, class, gender, and region figured into who complained, and why. Overall, Lovell’s focus on the argumentative strategies of letter writers is persuasive, and his argument about these particular Americans’ engagement with law is strongly supported. However, it is less clear that these historical sources, rooted in a particular context, support broader conclusions about law’s ideology across time. Lovell correctly notes that Americans’ understanding of what “civil rights” means has changed drastically since 1941, but he does not explore how the ideological power of law might work differently in the present (especially given the links between “rights talk” and the more recent phenomenon of individuals looking to the courts for relief).