Friday, December 30, 2016

Schmidt on Carle's "Defining the Struggle" and the Long Civil Rights Movement

Christopher W. Schmidt, IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, has published Legal History and the Problem of the Long Civil Rights Movement, a review essay on Susan Carle's Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880–1915, in Law & Social Inquiry 41 (Fall 2016): 1081-1107:
This essay offers a critical examination of use of the term "long civil rights movement" as a framework for understanding the legal history of the battle against racial inequality in twentieth-century America. Proponents of the long movement argue that expanding the chronological boundaries of the movement beyond the 1950s and 1960s allows scholars to better capture the diverse social mobilization efforts and ideas that fueled the black freedom struggle. While not questioning the long framework's usefulness for studying the social movement dynamics of racial justice activism, I suggest that the long framework is of more limited value for those who seek to understand the development of civil rights, as a legal claim, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century. The tendency of long movement scholars to treat civil rights as a pliable category into which they can put any and all racial justice claims is in tension with historical understandings of the term. Susan Carle's Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880–1915 suggests an alternative approach. Her detailed and nuanced account of a period in American history when racial justice activists understood civil rights as a relatively narrow subset of legal remedies within a much broader struggle for racial equality indicates the need for an alternate history of civil rights—one that places the evolving, contested, and historically particularized concept of civil rights at the center of inquiry.