March 27, 2011


Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford & New York: Oxford U. Press, 2011) (Point One: In law school, understandably but unfortunately, students are given the impression that lawyers and courts are at the center of events, especially events surrounding social change. As a consequences, law students (and lawyers) fail to see that other actors may play equally, if not more, significant roles. Consequently, law students and lawyers easily develop over-inflated views of their importance. Point Two: I don't think any jurisdiction requires those applying for admission to the law bar to have any knowledge of legal history. It is doubtful that more than a handful of law schools have a legal history requirement in their curriculum. Consequently, law students and lawyers can be quite unknowledgeable even of the history of their profession. For the most part, if law students or lawyers think knowledge of history is important, they will have to self-educate themselves by reading legal history on their own. Professor Brown-Nagin has written a history of the civil rights movement in the United States, one that does not give lawyers and courts center stage. "In telling these stories, I seek to answer the following questions: What would the story of the mid-twentieth-century struggle for civil rights look like if legal historians de-centered the U.S. Supreme Court, the national NAACP, and the NAACP LDF and instead considered the movement from the bottom up? The answer, I contend, is this: a picture would emerge in which local black community members acted as agents of change--law shapers, law interpreters, and even law makers. Each contested and contingent step in the struggle for racial changes comes into clearer focus. One can only see this picture by looking beyond the Court and the national NAACP and LDF; and examining developments in local communities before, during, and after lawyers launched civil rights litigation." ". . . This local perspective is crucial. As important as national organizations and national leaders were, local actors helped to define equality, too--and did so in profound ways. Local actors worked to create the conditions necessary to achieve change. They played leading roles in everyday struggles to ameliorate inequalities in the social and political order. And they experienced the gap between civil rights and remedies once the movement achieved formal equality." ". . . In the story told here, members of the national bar and bench, considered the primary engines of racial change even in much recent scholarship, play important, but less commanding roles. They remain protagonists and catalysts of change, but I critically examine the national actors in relation to the local clients and communities on whose behalf they labored." "This bottom-up narrative makes intraracial conflict central to the legal history of the civil rights movement. . . ." Id. at 7-8. "Scholars of law and social change who argue that Supreme Court litigation undermined political mobilization during the civil rights era have not fully engaged these points. Civil rights litigation siphoned resources from more fruitful political avenues for change, it is said. Brown [v. Board of Education] is thought to have a unique impediment to direct action, Only when Congress and the executive branch became involved in civil rights did any significant change occur. This understanding of how social change occurred, and this perspective on what counts as change, persuasively argues that the U.S. Supreme Court is not a driving force in social reform. Yet, it does not fully account for the agency of student activists on the ground--the 'guerilla warfare' of movements for change--are hidden when scholars focus primarily on the work of the Court and the roles of national institutions. These dynamics are overshadowed when sharp distinctions are not drawn, or points off commonality are not recognized, between student activists and legal activists, as appropriate The work of the courts and lawyers naturally captivates the attention of legal scholars. Nevertheless, the activities of lay activists--improvised, yet capable of responding to the changing legal and political environments--laid the groundwork for the sweeping legislative and executive branch changes that the Court, as scholars rightly note lacked the capacity and will to implement on its own." Id. at 135.).