Movements and Civil Rights

As a follow-up to our class discussion of this week, I have a few thoughts about the relationship of the Civil Rights movement and John McCarthy’s “Resource Mobilization”.

The words Civil Rights and movements have often been connected: Civil Rights Movement. In the USA, civil rights has been a rally point for minority groups and women. Both, are very understandable under McCarthy’s categories as a) part of a defined sector; and, b) social movement organizations. However, there may be a few important distinctions.

Civil Rights organizations, having “religious” roots through local churches, became “officially” recognized under the ambit of the Civil Rights Act of 1963. In fact, civil rights organizations existed and flourished within protestant church organizations for many years before the Civil Rights Act. Dr. Martin Luther King was active in the “movement” as early as the 1950s. In 1955, Dr. King led a school bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. The fact that President Lyndon B. Johnson supported and signed the Civil Rights Act in 1963, only amplified the civil rights movement’s long history. Thus, the movement was always recognized as a social movement organization (SMO) and fit the classic McCarthy model. The earlier, 1962 Equal Pay Act was as defining for the women’s movement which had been active long before passage of the Equal Pay Act.

The first Civil Rights Act was in 1957, however. It’s primary purpose was to guarantee and protect voting rights and to create an oversight body: US Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR). Although it became the focus of what McCarthy describes as the Social Movement Sector (SMS) and it rapidly expanded to cover oversight and definition of the “sector” even before the passage of the iconic legislation of the 1960s. I was a senior researcher at the Commission from 1972 to 1978. During this period, I published numerous analyses of the movement and the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of the various Federal and private sector agencies involved in the civil rights movement.

During this time, there was a conscious effort to support the movements with Federal enforcement and funding. In effect, it began a process of “incorporation” or legitimation not clearly envisioned by McCarthy. In fact, they became more like a social movement civil rights industry. At the head of the “industry” were the national leadership organizations that leveraged Federal and private sector resources, sponsored legislation, and coordinated nation-wide efforts. Thus, what McCarthy did not envision is a type of organizational shift from SMO to SMI. Up to that time, the Civil Rights SMOs received the bulk of their resources from the protestant church congregations and a variety of national Jewish organizations. The Civil Rights Commission added legitimacy.

One of the Civil Rights Commission’s efforts was to evaluate the effectiveness of the movement and the enforcement of legal protections. The Commission was a legislative branch organization and did not report to the President. President Nixon attempted to influence commission findings. I remember when then Chairman Arthur S. Flemming informed the President that he did not work for the Executive Branch. Subsequently, the Commission became the “home” for many civil rights movement members. Fortunately, the Commission was structured to protect it from government influence while remaining open to SMO influence.

SMOs representing women’s interest went on to successfully advocate for enforcement reforms of the Equal Pay Act which was then enforced by the US Department of Labor. I worked with most of the Women’s SMOs to write the evaluation report that reorganized the Labor Department and transfer enforcement to the EEOC. This process of “acceptable” influence is not fully explained by McCarthy, but it is not inconsistent with the basic theory. Unfortunately, some SMOs were not so lucky and became more of a figurehead than a part of a social movement.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs, has for many years funded “veterans service organizations” or VSOs. These SMO organizations, after being funded by the VA have become relatively ineffective. Indeed, it seems like a conscious effort to diminish the effectiveness of the veterans movement by incorporation. Indeed, McCarthy does indicate that some SMOs do not always have freedom to make decisions. (pg. 1223) In this case, there are a number of classic “bystander” publics, adherents, and constituents. Thus, this may give us another way in which to apply McCarthy’s first rule, when the the discretionary resources may result in controlling the ability of the SMO to act, despite the increase in resources. However, VSOs directly fit the model for Hypothesis 2. The expansion of the VSO infrastructure has always been influenced by funding availability from the VA. Yet, because of this relationship, Hypothesis 4 does not exactly fit since the flow of resources is determined by the VA in most cases.

Given this unique VSO organization, the “incorporation” of SMOs dramatically limits their accountability to its constituents and the public. In effect, it frequently renders them ineffective in my personal experience. Thus, this development becomes a special qualification or variant to understand the 10 rules that McCarthy sets forth. Moreover, it becomes a tactic to render the SMO ineffective either by accident or intention.


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