Friday, February 4, 2011

Political Dissent, Social Change, and Constitutional History from the Bottom Up

One of the more interesting commentaries that I have read thus far on the remarkable political protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East takes a perspective relevant to scholars interested in social and political change. Joel Dreyfuss’s essay, “Where Are the Black Voices on Egypt and Tunisia?, notes that few members of the Congressional Black Caucus have weighed in on the pro-democracy movements and the putative U.S. role in the “struggle for human rights.” He contrasts this silence to the tradition of African Americans serving as the “conscience” of American foreign policy. Dreyfuss cites Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s April, 1967 statement of opposition to the Vietnam War as an example of the black tradition of dissent.

My recently-released book, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement, examines, among other things, competing traditions of black dissent over four decades. Dr. King, however brave, is not the icon of dissent in my book, not even with respect to the Vietnam War. In January, 1966—long before Dr. King spoke out against the war—activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) condemned America’s “hypocritical” involvement in Vietnam. When Julian Bond, simultaneously SNCC’s communications director and a representative-elect to the Georgia House of Representatives, endorsed SNCC’s antiwar statement, the legislature, by an overwhelming vote, deemed him “unqualified” for office and refused to seat him. Part of chapter 9 of Courage to Dissent recounts the events surrounding Bond’s ouster from the Georgia legislature and the litigation that it spawned: Bond v. Floyd, an important U.S Supreme Court precedent protecting the First Amendment rights of elected officials. Howard Moore, Jr., one of the unsung “movement lawyers” whose work on behalf of the civil rights, antipoverty, and peace movements is considered in Courage to Dissent, co-counseled the case. (See Moore with his client, Bond, in the photo on the right, taken in 1966; it is used with the permission of the photographer, Shailesh Saigal). Ultimately, the saga ended favorably for the young Bond, who went on to a long career in the state legislature. And the Supreme Court's decision provided protection for future dissident officials who dared to speak out on controversial matters of public policy.

The interplay of law and politics in that historical moment years ago suggests a series of questions relevant to our world today--where the relationships among war, peace, social change, and expressions of political dissent remain germane. To what extent did the traditions of black dissent and protest survive the Voting Rights Act revolution of the 1960s and the advent of black political insiders? That is, has the possibility of black empowerment through electoral politics and the phenomenon of “outsiders as insiders” crowded out the potential for minority dissident politics and non-electoral forms of mass participatory action in pursuit of social change? If so, is this a phenomenon unique to blacks, or does it apply to other historic outsider groups, including women? What are the implications of this analysis—if the account linking increased access to insider politics and decreased participation in non-electoral forms of protest is at all accurate—for theories of minority political empowerment and social change? If the tradition of black dissent survives and thrives, who personifies it? Finally, how does the rise of the Tea Party movement and other forms of contentious politics on the political right fit into this analysis?