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Erin R. Pineda (2021). Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement

In: Protest
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Khalil Fadl OsmanIndependent Political Scientist, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

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Erin R. Pineda (2021). Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Oxford University Press. xiii + 265 pp., isbn: 978-0-19-752643-9

There is no shortage of theoretical work on offer attempting to provide analytical insights into, and explanations of, the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, and the acts of civil disobedience that typified it. Hailed as a major step forward toward removing racial segregation and establishing racial equality in the US, the civil rights movement has also been enshrined as an exemplar or ‘ideal type,’ to use Max Weber’s terminology, against which subsequent civil disobedience and civil rights activism in the US has been evaluated. However, in her original and remarkable book, Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement, Erin R. Pineda shows that this pervasive, mainstream view of the civil rights movement is nothing but a sanitized version of this important chapter in contemporary American history.

Embedded in US public discourse, academic writings and media reporting on the civil rights movement is an image of ‘black civility’ and nonviolent activism eliciting white empathy that fueled inexorable progress towards, and attainment of, American values of universal liberty and justice. Here we encounter a narrative of a presumed march “from denial to fulfillment, from the aberrant national sin of racial segregation to its ultimate redemption and peaceful overcoming” (p. 2). Civil rights activism, in this telling, was a matter of persuasion and awakening the conscience of white Americans to incontrovertible American values. Pineda argues that this teleological narrative is premised on the acceptance of the legitimacy of the existing constitutional order, as well as on privileging “the ends of constitutional integrity and stability, centering the white citizen as the normative ideal, and figuring the problem of racial injustice as limited, exceptional, and all-but-already solved” (p. 4). On this account, civil disobedience is deliberately non-revolutionary. Marshaling an impressive body of primary archival material and secondary sources, Pineda sets out to expose the standard narrative as not only conservative in essence, but also as amounting to seeing the civil rights movement from the prism of a white state. More importantly, beyond her attack on the well-worn myths of the standard narrative, Pineda proffers an alternative narrative that sees the civil rights movement from the prism of the activists involved in it.

The author adeptly traces the genesis of the mainstream theories of civil disobedience to the debates that raged in the US in the 1960s over law, order, common American values, and the limits of racial justice. These theories were expounded by liberal political and legal thinkers and philosophers, such as Hugo Bedau, John Rawls, and Michael Walzer, who were “intent on defending the civil disobedience of the civil rights and antiwar movements, [but] nevertheless had to answer the claim of critics that lawbreaking, no matter how conscientious, was directly tied to a general degeneration of the state’s authority that would lead to violence, criminality, and anarchy” (p. 6). Seen from this decidedly liberal vantage point, civil disobedience – its radical nature notwithstanding – was presented as operating within self-imposed constraints set by the activists themselves who sought to uphold the legitimacy of the constitutional order and remain within the law, even while breaking it. “While the fact of public lawbreaking,” Pineda says, “signals the radical nature of the protestor’s intervention, the way in which that lawbreaking is undertaken – as nonviolent, noncoercive, persuasive, and oriented toward common, constitutional principles – ensures that it remain governed by the impulses of public reason and the norms of citizenly conduct within the constitutional democratic state” (p. 7).

Subsequent theoretical developments, Pineda points out, have given rise to a variety of deliberative democratic and neo-republican theories which, while being informed by the core assumptions of the liberal theory, have taken issue with the Rawlsian notion that civil disobedience is warranted only as a response to the violation of basic rights and liberties. These theories drew attention to the problems of democratic processes and institutions that can become ineffective in addressing political problems and/or overly attentive, if not subordinated, to the influence of special interests and lobbying groups, thus making them legitimate targets of civil disobedience activism. Pineda argues that, although these theories take stock of potentialities for civil disobedience beyond the circumscribed bounds of the liberal theory, they “nevertheless hew closely to the standards for comportment required for civil disobedience by their liberal predecessors” (p. 8). Ultimately, the image of civil disobedience that emerges from this welter of ‘misplaced’ theoretical formulations, in their liberal, deliberative democratic and neo-republican incarnations, amounts to misremembering the civil rights movement.

Moving beyond questioning the claims and philosophical foundations of the standard cultural narrative, Pineda takes up the task of revisiting the protest campaigns within the civil rights movement, focusing on “how civil rights activists – in concert with anticolonial activists across the globe – construed civil disobedience as a decolonizing praxis” (p. 16, emphasis in original). Seeking to rectify the standard narrative’s elision of the activists’ perspective, her narrative pays “a careful attention to the ways civil rights activists construed the problem of white supremacy; devised strategies for effective action; and challenged the meaning of democracy, equality, freedom, and citizenship” (p. 15). Throughout her analysis, she turns her attention to key episodes in the US civil rights movement, including, inter alia, the 1963 Birmingham campaign and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” student sit-ins and freedom rides, and the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama. Concurrently, Pineda, at times, extends the temporal bounds of her analytical account to encompass developments in US civil rights activism over several decades preceding the 1960s. In Pineda’s retelling, civil rights activists employed strategies of crisis generation, disruption, confrontation, and, even, coercion, as “tools that undermine the givenness of the current order, helping to build a world in which persuasion might be possible” (p. 131). Far from recognizing the legitimacy of the state or constitutional order, therefore, the activists sought to destabilize the very foundations of that legitimacy.

On Pineda’s account, activists engaged in civil disobedience in pursuit of inner and outer transformations: viz., self-emancipation and the transformation of the world around them. Seeing themselves as part of a global decolonizing praxis, US civil disobedience activists “espoused a vocabulary of liberation and grappled with Jim Crow in expansive rather than limited terms: a local instantiation of a global system of violence and fear; a regime whose practices of racial domination crisscrossed jurisdictional, geographical, and institutional lines, as well as those between public and private; and a system based not on the monopolization of force by the state, but the democratization of force among white citizens, empowered to maintain the status quo with whatever means necessary” (p. 51). Short of armed struggle and open rebellion, nonviolent civil disobedience as a tool shielded the activists from all-out, aggressive white retaliation. It afforded them “the possibility of rising up against a militarily strong oppressor, while minimizing the risk of either brutal annihilation or an ever-escalating cycle of retaliatory violence” (p. 77).

Pineda maps out the conceptual lineage of civil disobedience in the US, tracing it to ideas and discourses about nonviolent direct action that developed amidst the anticolonial struggles in India, South Africa, and Ghana. These ideas travelled within the framework of an emerging transnational or transboundary “imaginative transit” – a term that the author coined “to capture the creative, constructed linkages between disparate contexts, the forged solidarities and notions of shared struggle, and the actual, literal transit of activists across a world in motion” (p. 56). The American civil disobedience activists saw in these anticolonial struggles, as Pineda stoutly declares, “a shared condition of racialized unfreedom that was playing out globally, in the form of colonialism, segregation, and violence” (p. 58). Coverage of these developments in the American mainstream and black presses generated discussion about the relevance of nonviolent direct action to the problem of racial segregation in the US. Of particular interest to those who envisioned the potential applicability of nonviolence to fight Jim Crow laws in the US was Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha (literally, “holding firmly to truth” or “truth force”), “which represented nonviolence not only as a means to political ends but as an end in itself, a prefigurative politics that would refashion both self and society along new lines” (p. 63).

By the mid-1950s, the early stirrings of mass, grassroots nonviolent action against racial segregation in the US began, inspired by the success of the Indian example. As the movement continued to develop and expand, buoyed by a firm belief in the efficacy of nonviolence, activists began to experiment with various tactics of nonviolent action. A crucial turning point in this regard was the “jail no bail” campaign in 1960–1961 led by students and spearheaded by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (sncc) and the Congress of Racial Equality (core). The activists’ acceptance of going to jail, and refusing to pay bail, was no simple act of defiance and enactment of iron will in the face of racial injustice and segregation, as well as the law enforcement system safeguarding and compelling compliance with Jim Crow laws. Its symbolism and implications went far beyond a mere moral rejection of unjust laws. In practical civil disobedience activist terms, the use of the “jail no bail” tactic stretched local police forces and prison systems and strained the financial resources of the local authorities which were deprived of bail money and had to cover the costs of keeping the activists in jail. By opting to voluntarily stay in jail, Pineda maintains, the activists broadened the spatial contours of protest “into new arenas – the jail cell itself – and to new communities, galvanized by the arrest of nonviolent student protestors” (p. 112). More importantly, the “jail no bail” tactic reconstructed and transformed the meaning of incarceration. With the employment of the “jail no bail” tactic, incarceration became, in Pineda’s words, “an act of self-liberation, an expression of fearlessness, and a defiant rebuke of a system defined by terror and violence” (pp. 120–121).

Pineda characterizes this self-emancipatory dimension of civil disobedience in the US in the 1960s as an inward-facing aspect of the civil rights movement’s decolonizing praxis. This inward-facing dynamic was not operating in isolation. It was “inextricably linked” (p. 16) or “intimately linked” (p. 145) to outward-facing dynamics of the decolonization praxis, namely disclosure and disruption, both of which involved the use of coercion. While the tactics of disclosure sought to elicit and expose the hidden and overt violence of white supremacy, the tactics of disruption sought to destabilize the everyday routines and institutional functioning of the prevailing racial hierarchy. This directs attention to the nature of civil disobedience as a communicative act. The author states that “disclosure was not just about trying to attract media attention, though print and television media were key to the campaign’s ability to reach white citizens and lawmakers nationally, as well as international audiences. The idea was rather to reveal the ongoing structures of domination through a dramatic confrontation with them, while simultaneously undercutting the usual dynamic of a publicly justifiable reprisal” (p. 142). On the other hand, in Pineda’s reading of King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” she states that King, the beau ideal of the US civil rights movement, “identified disruption as a means through which the oppressed could force a renegotiation of the terms of social and political life with power holders” (p. 142).

Civil disobedience activists’ use of coercion, Pineda stresses, stemmed from their realization that persuading the white majority and public officials of the justice of their cause could not always be achieved without generating crises that disrupt, confront and/or unsettle their target audience. Noting that “problems arise when persuasion is made the unproblematic opposite of coercion,” she reminds her readers that parallels need not be always drawn between persuasion and nonviolence, nor between coercion and violence (p. 129).

In this regard, one episode analyzed at length by Pineda is the so-called Birmingham campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, led by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (acmhr) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (sclc) in the spring of 1963. The tactics used in this weeks-long campaign, which included street marches designed to provoke confrontations with a local police force steeped in the dark arts of repression “relied upon a productive entanglement of persuasion and coercion” (p. 131). Scores, including Martin Luther King, Jr., were arrested in the course of this campaign. “In revealing the ordinarily hidden violence of white supremacy, [the activists] called on white audiences to consider their relationship to the violence before their eyes” (p. 131). Nonviolent coercive tactics orchestrated by activists sought to induce white Americans to grapple with portentous questions about deeply rooted and multifaceted systemic racial discrimination and inequality in American society. They devised their protests in ways that not only offered them opportunities for self-emancipation, but also “that disclosed ignored realities, withdrew cooperation from dominating social relations, and used the force of disruption to elicit concessions from those who were not eager to make them” (p. 154). It is disappointing, though, that Pineda does not comment on the mobilization of children and teenagers to take part in marches during the Birmingham campaign which she covers in her account of the campaign’s events (pp. 146–154). One cannot but be puzzled at the absence of a discussion on the ethical aspects and dilemmas involved in using innocent children as, effectively, ‘cannon fodder’ during this campaign.

To be sure, Pineda’s distinctive reading of civil disobedience as seen from the lens of the activists themselves is a welcome contribution to the literature and scholarship on the US civil rights movement. Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement makes a much-needed shift away from the hoary chestnuts of orthodoxy that have long been repeated rote-like in the scholarship and public discourse on the US civil rights movement. Pineda’s account provides a fresh look at the tactics used by the activists and their symbolic architecture. It engagingly and masterfully interweaves theory with narrative. Pineda’s facts are straight, her arguments are coherent, and her analysis is compelling. For all these reasons, Pineda’s new book rightfully deserves praise.

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