Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Civil Rights Movement Proves Alexander's Case

The most convincing part of Jeffrey Alexander's The Civil Sphere is his account of the civil rights movement as, at heart, a struggle for the culture of America. Alexander's "strong program of cultural sociology" is at its best in showing the cultural competition that lies under the struggle for power and resources.

Traditional social movement theory emphasizes that movements win by mobilizing resources and seizing power. The model of success, Alexander argues, is the storming of the Bastille. Yet the issues in a real struggle to change a society are, at root, about how the basic values of society should be lived and institutionalized. The main struggle is cultural. If it is waged right, on both sides, it can stay cultural and remain in the civil sphere. It is only when a struggle fails that it turns violent. Sometimes revolutionary violence is necessary, but as the last, last resort -- not the exciting ideal.

Looking at the civil rights movement as a cultural movement makes clear that America had deep cultural resources for racial equality, as well as a long practice of the opposite. This, indeed, was the American Dilemma that Gunnar Myrdal exposed in the book of that name. Not every society starts with a commitment to equality in its cultural DNA. But we did.

What was needed was an inspired moral leader who could stick to the high road in calling America to live out its own values. This is why Martin Luther King, Jr., was the indispensable man at that moment. He kept the movement civil -- a cultural struggle in the civil sphere -- despite intense provocation to turn to violence and direct power struggles, which would have been suicidal for the movement.

Alexander also successfully shows how the civil rights movements created the organizations that could mobilize people on the basis of the commitments they already had. The key act of the leadership, King and others, was to translate those commitments into action -- most importantly, into non-violent action consistent with Christian morality.

Alexander's cultural theory rests on a claim that our society already is committed to a set of values, in positive and negative binaries; cultural movements just get us to realize them. The South was so twisted by racism that all the institutions that should have defended racial equality were coopted. So the civil rights movement appealed to the non-South, acting through the federal government, to bring reasonable Southerners to their senses about the contradiction between the values they already held and the practices of Jim Crow. For this reason, King would break any state law that needed to be broken, but not a federal law or federal court order, even when it would have seemed justified to do so.

The civil rights movement worked because it healed the breach the let racist values intrude on an essentially non-racist American civil sphere. This is a powerful argument.

1 comment:

SP Weston said...

About this "bringing reasonable Southerners to their senses" idea...

That was possible almost entirely because white Southern culture already had the seeds of something better. Christianity in its evangelical, revivalist, largely Baptist form is deeply egalitarian--and pivotal in Southern identity. Its mildly secular form is "y'all come see us," with an implied offer of iced tea and pound cake on the front porch.

Of course, the same culture insisted that the equality, the friendliness, and the iced tea couldn't be shared across the race line--but that boundary was under constant pressure from the biblical commitment to all nations and the cultural commitment to neighborly helpfulness.

That's why a civil rights commitment that was unthinkable to my paternal grandfather could be absolutely essential to my father. My dad kept most of what he learned at home and at church, and merely let go of the codicil explaining about when black neighbors did and didn't get neighborly treatment.

On my computer desktop, in the regular rotation, I have a picture of the current Republican governor of Georgia, Sonnie Perdue, standing on the Capitol steps, waiting to welcome Coretta King's coffin to lie in state. You don't move in one generation from Lester Maddox to Sonnie Perdue unless you're moving WITH a deep cultural current of decency.

And you don't get currents that deep without religious connections.