Did Confrontation Really Work in the Civil Rights Movement?

I've recently wrapped up reading Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire, the book covering 1963-1965 in a three-part series on the civil rights movement. I've been reading through the series in large part for its insights for animal advocacy in particular and social and political dynamics in general. The civil rights movement is one of the most commonly cited pieces of evidence for why protests and grassroots activism work. (It's certainly overly cited in the animal advocacy context.) Despite that, I'm ending the book with doubts about whether confrontational activism worked even in the civil rights movement.

To be clear, Pillar of Fire and its prequel Parting the Waters document short-run nonviolent triumph over the forces of segregation: children pushing through firehoses in Birmingham and marches to the Selma voting registrar's office. The civil rights movement's discipline yields political rewards. The political party most allied to them, the Democrats, win an epic landslide in Congress and the White House. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes by a wide margin, to be followed by wide margins for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, which line up with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s increasing concern with poverty.

Yet the now-familiar successes of civil rights protesters that dominate the narrative of Pillar of Fire are laced with the foreboding growth of a white backlash that gathers more power over time. The middle portion of the book covers election year 1964, and the candidacy of Barry Goldwater–a sharp reaction to civil rights–feels eerily similar to Donald Trump's. Things nobody thought could be said are said, a socially forward Republican establishment is undercut, and strange alignments grow between regressive social forces. Goldwater is defeated, but his attack dog Ronald Reagan and the segregationist George H.W. Bush get their start with his election cycle. The civil rights movement succeeds in toppling Southern segregation, but the residential and educational segregation common to Southern and Northern states receive little redress. When King seeks to speak in Northern cities, his words about troubles in the South are celebrated. His words about troubles in the North are shunned and increasingly opposed.

Most strikingly, politicians begin to define their identities with respect to racial problems. Of course, politicians' taking on the fight against racism and defining their identities around it is a good thing, and Lyndon Johnson makes the matter a personal crusade. This is paired, though, with many politicians' taking the other side in the fight: opposing the civil rights movement, and doing so vocally. Southern politicians' growing support for the Republican party is explicitly built around common opposition to federal civil rights action. In short, the debate is polarized, and it is clear in the book where this polarization is headed (see the Southern strategy).

Until now I'd always seen civil rights protests of the 1960s as irrefutably effective. The concrete institutional changes they seemingly achieved ended explicit discrimination and legal segregation, and there are many signs of progress, including a sharp decline in hate crimes and rise in life expectancy. Those changes, though, do not necessarily prove the movement effective because we do not know what would have happened without civil rights demonstrations. In the 1960 election, there was ambiguity as to which party would be more supportive of civil rights: both parties made overtures to civil rights advocates. One can imagine a slower process ending in the same legal changes occurring. It seems clearer from Pillar of Fire that the drama and conflict of civil rights confrontations played a significant role in triggering a white backlash that led to the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and residential and educational segregation on a par with pre-civil rights America.

To be clear, I still think it would be the wrong conclusion to take from the historical record that civil rights era protests led to more backlash than success. At the very least, though, I'm significantly less bullish on actions I'd previously thought to be clearly effective.


  1. Was the backlash to the direct action/confrontation or to the legislative changes?

  2. It's not really possible to know without replaying history. I still think more likely than not it was an inevitable side effect, but my read of it is that there's a non-negligible chance it's either the direct action/confrontation OR the atmosphere around the changes.

  3. Very interesting! I wonder if one proxy for future backlash could be how polarizing a message is? Maybe if people can be gently convinced of something without turning it into two-sided debate, the idea will encounter less resistance. I guess this is partly what people have in mind when they say they "don't want to politicize" some topic like climate science or effective altruism.

    1. Yup, I think that's probably a good proxy. Of course, sometimes the backlash is worth it, and it probably was in this case. I do understand EAs who make that claim more though. (I've seen it most in the X-risk space when people talk about Elon Musk.)

  4. It's not really clear whether the mass incarceration or de facto residential and school segregation were exacerbated by white backlash to the Civil Rights Movenent or rather were about the same as without the Movement, or were attenuated by the Movement.

    In any event, one lesson we might glean is that bans affect official policies but not people's actions on their sentiments outside of official contexts. This is a familiar point from Prohibition: alcohol was no longer served at official venues but was prevalent enough elsewhere. Similarly, official Jim Crow impediments to voting and official school segregation were mostly ended, but racist policies and behaviors were prevalent elsewhere (white flight, unequal treatment from police, "redlining" by banks, etc.).

    We might expect the same with a meat ban---and it is what happened with Chicago's 2006-2008 fois gras ban---underground black markets. I don't think the lesson is that bans are bad or that they are not worth passing but rather that bans aren't the end-all. They need to be accompanied by cultural transformation, e.g. the stigmatization of notions like racism and speciesism and public calling of attention to scenarios where they occur, even subtly.

    1. My (uneducated) impression is that mass incarceration got dramatically worse in the 1970s/1980s. But of course it's hard to say how much this would have happened anyway....

    2. Good points re: segregation and mass incarceration. To be clear, I think they were probably less severe than racial injustice would have been without the protest movement, but I have less confidence in that then I did before.

      I agree with the claims re: bans (it would be great if we had hard evidence on how one can actually create cultural transformation), although I think in this context the bans actually did take effect in many cases. Explicit employment or accommodation discrimination is quite rare now. Worse are the things left completely unaddressed by the law.


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