Aldon D. Morris: The Indigenous Perspective on Social Movement

22493Aldon D. Morris’s book analysing the Civil Rights Movement using the indigenous perspective is one of the best things I’ve read in some time on this kind of subject… clearly a limited amount of time was spent revising this from a thesis, but it didn’t matter.

As with all the books I like best, it is firmly founded in people’s concrete experience and full of rich detail. He writes:

Organized protest against white domination has always been one of the cornerstones of the black experience (x).

He cites the slave revolts, Marcus Garvey’s UNIA , the March on Washington, the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP…all in the same tradition.

The tradition of protest is transmitted across generations by older relatives, black educational institutions, churches and protest organizations. Blacks interested in social change inevitably gravitate to this “protest community,” where they hope to find solutions to a complex problem… The modern civil rights movement fits solidly into this rich tradition of protest. (x)

Movement and struggle don’t just happen, they are part of a long history. So what marked the modern civil rights movement as different within this longer tradition (one often ignored)? It:

… broke from the protest tradition of the past in at least two crucial ways. one, it was the first time that large masses of blacks directly confronted and effectively disrupted the normal functioning of groups and institutions thought to be responsible for their oppression. The hallmark of the modern civil rights movement is that these mass confrontations were widespread and sustained over a long period of time in the face of heavy repression. Two, this was the first time in American history that blacks adopted nonviolent tactics as a mass technique for bringing about social change. (xi)

This engages with academic literature on movements, so it has to choose an approach and contrast it with others — I have to say, I haven’t bothered too much in exploring the others as he demolishes them fairly soundly. Aldon Morris himself is writing from the ‘indigenous perspective’:

the assumption is that mass protest in a product of the organizing efforts of activists functioning through a well-developed indigenous base. A well-developed indigenous base includes the institutions, organizations, leaders, communication networks, money, and organized masses within a dominated group. Such a base also encompasses cultural elements — music, oratory, and so on–of a dominated group that play a direct role in the organization and mobilization of protest…. a central concern of the indigenous perspective is to examine the ways in which organizers transform indigenous resources into power resources and marshals them in conflict situations to accomplish political ends. (xii)

I’ll skip to the conclusion now, because this is the real point of all of this literature on social movement, or should be:

The task of the indigenous perspective is to examine how dominated groups take advantage of and create the social conditions that allow them to engage in overt power struggles with dominant groups. (282)

I also love that Morris combines the economic, political and personal in this tripartite structure of oppression — quite similar to what Stuart Hall does though ideology was absent here.

The tripartite system of racial domination–economic, political, and personal oppression — was backed by legislation and the iron fist of Southern governments. In the short run all members of the white group had a stake in racial domination, because they derived privileges from it. poor and middle-class whites benefited because the segregated labor force prevented blacks from competing with them for better-paying jobs. The Southern white ruling class benefited because blacks supplied them with cheap labor and a weapon against the labor movement, the threat to use unemployed blacks as strikebreakers in labor disputes. Finally, most Southern whites benefited psychologically from the system’s implicit assurance that no matter how poor or uneducated, they were always better than niggers. (3)

So how did the civil rights movement arise? First, geography, the benefits of a segregated spatiality,  ‘the concentration of institutions and creation of close-knit communities where all lived together regardless of class or education. (3)

But in the beginning there was the church.

The black church functioned as the institutional center of the modern civil rights movement. Churches provided the movement with an organized mass base; a leadership of clergymen largely economically independent of the larger white society and skilled in the art of managing people and resources; an institutionalized financial base through which protest was financed; and meeting places where the masses planned tactics and strategies and collectively committed themselves to struggle. (4)

Bases of the United Defense League, MIA, ICC, ACMHR …

their ability to unite community leaders by bringing them directly into leadership positions while simultaneously organizing the black masses. They were able to organize the black masses because they themselves were mass-based organizations that had grown directly out of a mass based institution, the black church. It is almost inconceivable to picture an alternative route to mass mobilization in these complex black communities, with their deep social divisions and under a tripartite system of domination that controlled blacks and kept them powerless. (46)

A little more on what the church offered:

In the case of the civil rights struggle, the preexisting black church provided the early movement with the social resources that made it a dynamic force, in particular leadership, institutionalized charisma, finances, and organized following, and an ideological framework through which passive attitudes were transformed into a collective consciousness supportive of collective action. (77)

The Church and the NAACP.

The NAACP evolved as a bureaucratic organization. It did not emerge within the black community, nor were the black masses involved in shaping the organization at the outset. The NAACP began as a small group of black and white intellectuals who intended to organize the black masses to struggle for their rights. (13)

Out of necessity, the NAACP in the South was closely tied to the black church. The church, being independent of the white power structure, was often the only place where the NAACP could meet. (15)

They didn’t just meet there of course, ‘…in many cases the church ran the local Southern units, but within the constraints of the National office of the NAACP.’ (37) Many thought that it’s methods were the only proper way to effect change, dampening effect across the South, and many within it feared the rise of the SCLC and CORE, and their critique of NAACP methods. King writes:

when legal contests were the sole form of activity…the ordinary Negro was involved as a passive spectator. His interests were stirred, but his energies were unemployed. (123)

The opening salvo showing a new way of struggle was the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott. in 1953. Damn. I confess, I had not heard of it. Reverend Jemison led the movement here, a relative newcomer to the city but still very active — a common characteristic of the movements leading figures as they had no embattled history to divide people but were also connected to church networks, local community groups and the NAACP, which allowed others to unite behind them. The black community formed an umbrella organisation, the United Defense League to direct the boycott, and churches mobilised their congregations  — ‘this procedure … became the fundamental organizing principle of many later movements’, joining many leaders together into one organization with a common cause.

Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy knew the history of this boycott, they consulted closely with Jemison when the Montgomery bus boycott launched in 1955.

Another thing I vaguely knew, but this really brought home was the ferocity of the attack against the NAACP after the 1954 Brown v Board, when the NAACP were the only ones trying to implement it. The attack included legal and political efforts to force NAACP to share membership lists, putting all of its members at risk of direct violence and professional discrimination, firings, and boycotts. The Attorneys General of Louisiana, Alabama and Texas obtained injunctions against the NAACP operating in their states. Virginia passed 7 laws equally designed to stop the NAACP from functioning there. Florida approved $50,000 to investigate communist involvement in the NAACP. South Carolina banned teachers from belonging to it. This alongside threats and violence. The efforts continued through 1958 and 1959. When Arkansas made  it illegal for any state agency to employ members of the NAACP, 7 school principals and 37 teachers fired.

Morris notes this was a ‘brilliant strategy’ as NAACP committed to fighting legal battles, and wouldn’t itself break the law… (31) Between 1955 and 1958, the NAACP lost 246 branches in the South, intensified campaign to expand branches in North. I also greatly appreciate the point that ‘the attack destroyed not only a great deal of what the NAACP was but also what it might have become.’

Like Walter Rodney’s work, this makes me realise how little we take that aspect of loss into account — the damage of the moment is always so great that there seems little reason to think of the loss of all of what could have been, but isn’t that where much of the tragedy lies?

Equally interesting, however, is what filled the hole left by the NAACP in these communities, as Black resistance continued. Morris notes that the NAACP actually often served as a damper to resistance:

Ironically, the Southern white power structure’s attack on the NAACP played an important role in the rise of the modern civil rights movement…bureaucratic protest organizations of poor and dominated groups are not likely to initiate or direct a mass movement…. It is precisely the problem of developing appropriate tactics that an established bureaucratic protest organization claims to have solved… Alternative tactics therefore come to be viewed not as supplementary but as opposing, threatening, and incorrect… The established protest organization has much to lose if a significant segment of the dominated group supports alternative tactics, especially if that segment includes those who traditionally supported the bureaucratic organization. (35)

Anyone who has worked through an official organization to effect change, especially given their dependence on donations or grants, is familiar with this:

…as with all bureaucratic organizations, business is conducted in terms of very specific goals (e.g. registering a stated number of voters, winning certain court decisions) achievable within specific time frames (year, fiscal period). It is as if the “freedom goal” can be parceled into manageable units of inputs and outputs that can be convincingly displayed in charts and graphs upon request. (36)

The bus boycotts provoked debate about tactics and strategies, but even more powerfully, it showed that results could be obtained through direct action rather than courts and NAACP bureaucratic action. Given the shutdown of the NAACP, ministers began organising far outside the NAACP’s comfort zone, and looking to direct action.

So back to the indigenous perspective, and how it begins to look at this moment:

‘The indigenous perspective on social movements stresses the important role of local protest groups on a major social movement. Instead of one homogeneous civil rights movements, there were dozens of local movements with their own organizations, activists, interorganizational relationships, boundaries, and famous activists, organizations, and abstract concepts.  (40)

It’s funny just how heartening it is to read that in Montgomery, Birmingham and Baton Rouge, there was intense factionalism that divided the community before everyone came together to support the boycotts in a campaign that we look back on now with wonder. Because of the people, the knowledge and connection to history, there are continuities of leadership with the NAACP, but very new methods of protest. Morris names the principle three:

  1. decision-making apparatus and procedures

  2. reliance on charisma, mass emotionalism

  3. disruptive tactics by the masses (46)

This book is full of inspiritions, both in stories and quotes — this is one my favourite moments from Martin Luther King:

The opening hymn was the old familiar “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and when that mammoth audience stood to sing, the voices outside (the church building could not accommodate the large gatherings) swelling the chorus in the church, there was a mighty ring like the glad echo of heaven itself…The enthusiasm of these thousands of people swept everything along like an onrushing tidal wave. (47)

There is is the stupidly necessary reminder that it didn’t all kick off the way conventional history tells it and Rosa Parks was not just a tired woman. I love this quote from her too:

My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me and not just that day. (51)

So what were the principle contributions of the Montgomery Bus Boycott? ‘…the MIA, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the nonviolent method, and success.’ (51)

Before the Montgomery Movement blacks had no mass-based movement organizations. The UDL of Baton Rouge had been successful, but that mass-movement lasted only seven days and was practically invisible to the larger black community. The importance of the UDL lies in what it taught to a small but significant number of community leaders… A protest of the magnitude of Montgomery was required to provide the larger community with a blueprint. (56)

Morris looks at Montgomery, then at Tallahassee. The mass meetings rotated from church to church, the funding coming from Black congregations themselves, the protests and victories and ongoing protest until promises of desegregated buses became real.

Birmingham showed these tactics could desegregate more than buses. There they demanded hiring of black police officers to patrol black communities, desegregate buses, railroad stations, disenfranchisement at the polls, discrimination in hiring, segregation of schools and at swimming pools, libraries and retail stores. Another amazing quote from Reverend Shuttlesworth:

I was trying to tear the system down. Out to kill segregation before it killed us. (70-71)

An interesting observation this one, about how things start…

Because Shuttlesworth was organizing a movement without the benefit of a precipitating outrage, such as the arrest of Rosa Parks, he was forced to make direct action popular by his personal acts and courage. (71)

Clearly the context is at work here too, the momentum building across the South — and Morris also notes the change after two world wars fought for freedom and democracy. I also like the concept of movement centres, cities where a number of factors came together to create the foundation for mass movement. He argues such movement centres had  7 characteristics:

  1. A cadre of social change-oriented ministers & congregations.
  2. Direct action organizations of varied complexity. Some churches, NAACP Youth Councils, CORE affiliates
  3. Indigenous financing coordinated through the church
  4. Weekly mass meetings, which served as forums where local residents were informed of relevant information and strategies regarding the movement. these meetings also build solidarity among the participants.
  5. Dissemination of nonviolent tactics and strategies. the leaders articulated to the black community the message that social change would occur only through nonviolent direct action carried out by masses.
  6. Adaptation of a rich church culture to political purposes. The black spirituals, sermons and prayers were used to deepen the participants’ commitment to the struggle.
  7. A mass-based orientation, rooted in the black community through the church. (194)

Movement Centres, Movement halfway houses and the key personalities in them heavily impact movement as it arises. For example, the large role that activists from Nashville played in the movement over all — college students filled disproportionate number of SNCC’s leadership positions and also held large roles in SCLC. Why? The presence of four black universities — Fisk, Tenessee State, American Baptist Teological Seminary and Meharry Medical School. The connections with Highlander and FOR, Reverend James Lawson a key leader on noviolence, and part of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council (NCLC).

Here he brings forward a critique of Piven & Cloward who saw movement as spontaneous, mass phenomena. Instead Morris argues that

Movement centers provided the organizational frameworks out of which the modern civil rights movement emerged, and it was organization-building that produced these centers.

Perhaps more interesting is his analysis of why movement organisation is so often dismissed.

  • the nature of movement centers themselves, how they operate in repressive circumstances, ebb and grow, focus often on what they face rather than their ‘wider significance, organizational strength, and capabilities.’ (75)
  • Organizers often themselves emphasize the spontaneous and unplanned nature of protest — shields the center and key activists from unwelcome attention, authorities can’t charge with conspiracy
  • assumptions by scholars (and cites P&C and Anthony Oberschall) ‘that subordinate groups ate usually without organizational resources and skills’ (76)

Yeah, a little accusation of academic racism in there. I think he’s right about that too. He continues his critique of P&C (I think because they are the most persuasive and ‘on-side’ theorists of this stuff, at least they are in my own opinion), ‘the civil rights movement was not simply a by-product of urbanization and economic modernization.’ Not simply on of the ‘spontaneous outbursts of mass defiance in response to rapid social change and community breakdown.’ It ‘grew out of the conscious and deliberate effort of organizers who understood the organizational nature and capacity of black society. Economic modernization and urbanization were necessary, but not sufficient, causes…’ (81)

All this, and we still haven’t gotten to the formation of the SCLC! It formed through conversations between Dr and Mrs King, Fred Shuttlesworth, C.K. Steele, Ella Baker, Ralph Abernathy, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin. Its first meeting was titled the ‘Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation’ — initially focused on organising around segregation on buses. I liked Morris’s note that they saw that this was both a ‘just grievance’ but also connected to ‘economic survival’ as outlined in their first working paper. (84)

I like that insight into what campaigns could motivate direct action in the face of violence. How this combined with a belief that people could win, which is what Baton Rouge and Montgomery proved.

They also realized the white community was not monolithic and began strategising around the different interests, ways to split them. Morris argues that despite the popular view that the SCLC was top down, in fact

The real power of the SCLC was in its affiliates, the many churches who had mass bases so that this base was built into the very structure of the SCLC (89)

Membership structures — always interesting when contemplating how these things actually work, fund themselves, make decisions, implement decisions…

‘Community organizations became affiliates of the SCLC by paying a twenty-five-dollar fee and signing a charter committing them to organize their communities and to engage in direct action protests.’ (90)

The churches and related organizations constituted the crucial internal organization enabling the SCLC to mobilize community resources. they were so central that SCLC leaders called them the “invisible hand of God.” (91)

Given the connection with the church and the culture of the Black South, the charisma of individuals clearly played a key role — and apparently much has been written on the subject.

King clearly understood the social power of oratory and used it as a tool for agitating, organizing, fundraising, and articulating the desires of the black masses. (59)

Many leaders interviewed for this study recalled that King could attract large segments of oppressed blacks from the poolrooms, city streets, and backwoods long enough for trained organizers to acquaint them with the workshops, demands and strategies of the movement. (61)

Many critiqued charismatic leadership, and King in particular, but all recognised its usefulness in bringing people together. There is a lovely section on Ella Baker, and her fight in a very male-dominated movement, her constant argument that ‘for people’s movements to be effective, participants must encourage and build leadership among the masses.’ (103) In her own words:

Instead of “the leader”–a person who was supposed to be a magic man–you would develop individuals who were bound together by a concept that benefited larger numbers of individuals and provided an opportunity for them to grow into being responsible for carrying on the program. (104)

I’ll come back to her.

There is also an interesting discussion of efforts to create the ‘New Negro’ as part of the Crusade for Citizenship — and just how important it was to organizers, how much a simple sound bite. Still,  John Tilley wrote in Dec 1958 that the SCLC

had created the machinery for “penetrating each community, reaching the man on the streets, bringing him a simple, practical way of life which will help him to break through the oppressive system of discrimination and oppression, change his surroundings, and his oppressors and make a new person.” (106)

In more concrete terms, the Crusade spread far and wide methods and philosophy:

The Crusade played an important role in acquainting the masses all over the South with the SCLC’s ‘direct action” approach, introduced earlier in Baton Rouge, Montgomery, and other cities. Whenever local churches or oganizations affiliated with the SCLC, members of the community were exposed to an organized group identified with the new approach. (111)

Morris looks at CORE as well, and makes the important point that ‘CORE’s primary goal was to show that social problems could be solved through non-violent direct action’ (129). They didn’t just see nonviolence as a tactic, but as a value in and of itself — and for many promoting that, more than vanquishing racism was the main goal.

They were also a whiter organization, whereas the SCLC where leadership was entirely black, from beginning CORE suffered from paternalism and ‘in-house racial bickering’. Farmer noted many blacks not willing to work in interacial organisations, and ‘White liberals must be willing to work in roles of secondary leadership and as technicians.’ (132) But again what I found fascinating was just how often there was overlapping membership in local leadership. Reverand Wyatt Walker, for example, was a board member of the SCLC, president of Petersberg NAACP, and state director of CORE in Virginia. He saw all of them as umbrella organisations to help bring together varying groups and factions. He used all of them.

The sit-ins as well, often described as completely spontaneous, and generally agreed that 1 Feb 1960 saw the first sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina. In actual fact sit-ins had already been used in at least 16 cities across the South between 1957 and 1960. They were often mentored by older activists involved in multiple other networks, and often most successful in cities that were Movement Centres. Morris write:

Nineteen sixty was the year when thousands of Southern black students at black colleges joined forces with “old movement warriors” and tremendously increased the power of the devloping civil rights movement. (195)

While students often operated independently, many were already involved through movement centres, especially those in Black educational institutions who had very close ties to the NAACP, CORE, SCLC. Students received support and help in planning that helped sustain and grow the sit-in movement. They were supported by the community as well, financed, boycotts supported, bail money raised, free services from doctors etc… People repeatedly mortgaged homes and handed over savings as bail.

That makes my heart happy.

Ella Baker was a key figure in this — she convened all of the different students involved in the sit-in movement through SCLC — in 1960 the call went out for the Southwide Student Leadership Conference on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation, where SNCC was formed. Sit-in participants were also meeting at Highlander, a population education centre that served as what Morris calls a ‘movement halfway house’. To be discussed separately. But I like how Morris argues that this is the foundation of the whiter student movements to come:

We can begin to answer the question of why that discontented group of affluent white students became involved in the politics of protest. That group entered into the politics of protest because the sit-ins by dominated black students provided them with a visible protest model, which demonstrated how they could proceed tactically and organizationally. (222)

Again Ella Baker was a bridge, this time not between students and the SCLC and other established adult civil rights organizations, but between white and black students, SDS and SNCC.

I’ll end with Birmingham, a triumph really. As an organizer, it gives me a little chill of awe to know that the SCLC held 65 consecutive nightly meetings rotating from church to church. They also brought on two organizers from SNCC to work with the youth movement. And they came up with what they called Project “C”.

C for confrontation with Birmingham’s power structure: Business and industrial elites, political elites serving status quo and race relations, and white extremist organizations, White Citizens Councils and KKK.

They decided it should be a ‘drama’, built it as a narrative — started out slow, low key, and building to crisis. They designed phased actions. Phase 1, limited daily sit-ins and picketing. Followed by Phase II, daily marches to City Hall. The city filed an injunction, King broke it on Good Friday and was imprisoned. Here he wrote the wonderful Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Phase III – 1000 children march to the jail, more and bigger marches to the jail. Confrontations, water cannon, dogs. Victory.

Another favourite quote, something to remember too:

‘Reverend Walker remarked: “There’s two kinds of people. People who are committed to the movement and people who get committed by the movement…” (264)

In the end, civil rights movement in this period unable to change one the tripartite system of domination — the economic was left intact. And so I will end where Morris’s book ends:

A critical question confronting the black community today is whether the organizations, leadership, tactics, and philosophies of the civil rights movement are appropriate for bringing about basic economic change, or whether a whole new set of structures and tactics is needed. (290)

Interesting question, particularly looking at today’s struggles.