In Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, Janette Sadik-Khan describes what she was able to achieve after being hired as New York City transportation commissioner by mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007. She would hold that position for six and half years, part of his new vision for a radical change.
This is a book packed full of good ideas for transforming cities into places where people can walk, bike, sit, enjoy public space. It is a story of how such spaces were created both in terms of design, and as importantly the political know-how and processes required. It is also a brilliant place to go for ammunition in the struggle to get similar, livable, safe streets in other cities where there is a desparate need for them.
As always, a serious engagement with issues of history, equality, and economy are pushed to the side. Who are these spaces for? How do they affect land value and the forces displacing communities? How did such devastation happen in the first place? These aren’t really questions asked, so this is to some extent a superficial urban revolution, a street fight amongst elites. Perhaps this was a political or practical choice — both in the winning of her battles, and in the telling of these stories. We all know that these days equity isn’t actually all that popular, but it begs the question of just when planners lost that battle and started making practical choices about the discourse they use.
Still, every time I go to Tucson and watch the terrifying sprawl into the desert and the constant widening of streets into a city that makes it ever more unpleasant if not impossible to walk, I feel deep in my bones the kind of uphill battle even this kind of project, with constant reinforcement of its economic benefit, represents.
On the side of good — part of what made Sadik-Khan’s campaigns possible was grassroots advocacy. She writes:
This new vision came into focus as a growing advocacy movement hit critical mass, spurred by Transportation Alternatives, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Straphangers Campaign, and political outsiders who often understood the goals of government more keenly than many people in office. With the release of PlaNYC, the advocates suddenly found an administration proposing traffic solutions beyond traffic signs and signals and dedicated to safety, efficiency, and transportation investment based on data. (xiv)
This is part of what allwed her to start with certain assumptions — proved in studies over and over and over again, yet ignored by planners around the country:
Streets for the last century have been designed to keep traffic moving but not to support the life alongside it. Many streets offer city dwellers poor options for getting around, discouraging walking and stifling vibrancy and the spontaneous social gathering and spending that energize the world’s greatest cities, dragging down economies that would otherwise thrive. (1)
Building new highways, widening streets, and endlessly sprawling the city’s limits have merely multiplied the damage to city cores and smothered the very assets that make cities places where people want to live — their accessibility, convenience, diversity, culture and immediacy. (2)
The idea of the many things streets have been, could become again:
Streets are the social, political and commercial arteries of cities…identify social status. … mark political and cultural boundaries…play critical roles in democracies and in the transformative moments of history. … City dwellers around the world are beginning to see the potential of their city streets and want to reclaim them. They are recognizing an unmet hunger for livable, inviting public space. (3)
Which brings us to just what the streetfight is all about — to make such transformations against the push-back of the status quo.
She starts with Jane Jacobs, everyone among this new flood of books about public space, density, and livable streets does — the idea that streets aren’t just for traffic, that observation will help uncover a street’s multiple real uses and help solve its problems.
Rocket science it appears. Because, of course, Jacobs has been both celebrated and all the while practically ignored for decades of disinvestment in urban cores and white flight and building the suburban dream — even when it comes to rebuilding it in city centres.
Sadik-Khan’s analysis of what her team was facing at the beginning of her term:
Downtown Manhattan street life … amounted to sidewalk hot dog vendors and lunches eaten standing up. What public space there was could be found in front of courthouses and official buildings, grim and uninviting spaces likely to be occupied by homeless people and the city’s less savoury elements…
The city’s previous minimalist agenda for these spaces? ‘Basic maintenance, repair and safety from crime.’ (14)
This is the world of the traffic engineer, like those under Bob Moses who worked to transform NY: The City of the Future. She shares this image, where pedestrians were only ever an afterthought:
Yet Sadik-Khan distances herself in some ways from Jacobs’ fight against Moses in that it came to mean constant battle to preserve what exists against change. Sadik-Khan argues that cities have to change after many decades of disinvestment and decay, she writes:
retrofitting our cities for the new urban age and achieving Jane Jacob’s vision today will require Moses-like vision and action for building the next generation of city roads, ones that will accommodate pedestrians, bikes, and buses safely and not just single-occupancy vehicles… (19)
This book is something of her Moses-like vision (!), the struggle to bring it to life, and how it worked…
Density is Destiny
I often tell people that if they want to save the planet, they should move to New York City. But it could be any big city…Cities’ geographic compactness, population density, and orientation toward walking and public transportation make them the most efficient places to live in the world. Large cities like New York or Mexico City offer the best odds for sustainable growth… New Yorkers have a carbon footprint 71 percent lower than that of the average American, a function of driving less, living vertically, and the economies of scale that come with centrally located goods and services (23).
I think this is a good point. Cities linger in our conscious and subconscious as unsustainable. There are the other biases against cities that are bound up in racial and class fears and a particularly American ideology:
Making cities a choice preferable to the suburbs cuts against a long-standing anti-urban bias in the United States based on a view that cities are dangerous, crowded, and havens for crime. (24)
Which helps explain why
After years of rhapsodizing about the virtues of pristine forests, modern environmentalists have changed their tune on the city. Instead of fighting to preserve the spotted owl in the forest, they are taking the fight to cities, advocating smart of compact urban growth as part of an antisprawl strategy. (25)
Instead of? I don’t think so. There are as many campaigns as there are kind of environmentalists as there are issues that need to be resolved for our very survival on the planet. Loss of biodiversity is hardly less important than sprawl, why simplify global warming into oblivion? But anyway.
Setting the Agenda
The collective impact of these plans, processes, and policies was a wholesale government rebranding. We were changing the language and the expectation of what the department was capable of and responsible for, and how it should use the resources under its control. (40)
How do I hate ‘rebranding’? Let me count the ways, principally in that rebranding as a word actually doesn’t mean changing actual responsibilities or use of resources, and so in practice is thrown around as indicative of great changes when only superficial change is made.
But to give her credit, she made actual changes. She gives these wonderful examples from Island Press’s Urban Street Design Guide from the National Association of City Transportation Officials as some of the inspirations:
There are multiple ways to transform streets through extending curbs, adding bike and bus lanes, and this chapter has a lot of good places to look for the studies that will bolster the struggle to stop street widening and promote similar kinds of projects in other cities.
She hits it on the nose:
Cities today are designed for private vehicles not because it is the most efficient mode, but because other transportation options were rendered impossible following planning decisions made decades ago. (64)
Of course, power and money were behind those decisions so this is quite complicated, there is rather uncritical praise of the redevelopment of Broadway in LA, which I know to be a deeply troubling contribution to the racial cleansing of downtown. In particular you can go back to Kevin Lynch’s descriptions of Broadway half a century ago, and it is all too clear that Broadway didn’t actually need much help to be a vital cityscape, it needed changes for whites to feel comfortable there. The development of Hollywood density is quite similar.
These are troubled histories. Like this one:
Before there was a New York City, there was a Broadway. Originally brede weg in pre-Colonial Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam, Broadway was one of the island’s first roads at a time when there was an actual wall built at Wall Street to keep out native incursions and Five Points was a pond within a swamp. (73)
Pre-fucking-Colonial? The wall built to keep Native Americans off their own traditional lands, a people who didn’t believe in walls to begin with, or private ownership?
It troubles me how sentences like that sit alongside great ideas for city transformation, acknowledgment of what she calls desire-lines and the importance of city sidewalks:
the natural, spontaneous way that people use public spaces, often contradicting the way the space was designed. … Desire-lines are a road map of opportunity… (74)
Sidewalks aren’t raised concrete streets for pedestrians. They are the front yards for city dwellers, as important as any suburban lawn. … these in-between places are a stage for New Yorkers, the urban filament where people sense and connect to the city’s energy. (75)
She’s the one who brought Jan Gehl on board to look at how NY’s public spaces could be improved. His own book detailing some of this is an interesting and very worthwhile complement. She quotes Speck as well, but that was more likely to set me off more given his focus on planning to increase property values.
But back to what can be learned. I particularly liked the way they used paint — like the blue-line project that once partially transformed my Bow neighbourhood in East London.
By following the footsteps and tracing an outline of the way people use the street today, we could uncover the design of the city we will want to live in tomorrow. These streets of tomorrow can be outlined in paint. (79)
She gives this example
It’s great. But again, she notes the joy with which the local BID agreed to take care of it — and practically that makes sense — but there has been a constant struggle against BIDs for the use of private security guards to control who has the right to access space. Anyway. This conflicted process of improving neighborhoods, yet generally for a wealthier kind of person, continues. On the High Line, she writes:
…it was becoming clear that the area would soon resemble the nearby upscale Greenwich Village, abandoning its bleak past as an after-hours drug-scoring, cruising strip. (83)
She notes the role of independent media in supporting their work, for better for for worse, particularly Streetsblog, which chronicled the
urban revolution unfolding on new York City’s streets’ that newspapers and ‘blogs obsessed with conflict’ could not tell (84)
Honestly, I think some of the deeper conflicts around equity and justice did need a lot more telling, but newspapers rarely get to that level either, there was clearly a lot of much less worthwhile NIMByist arguments going on.
Another note, both very positive if the change is positive, and yet more than a little frightening:
Once you changed a space, its new configuration became obvious and unassailable, and people immediately abandoned whatever attachments they had to the way it used to be. (84)
The Battle for a New Times Square
Times Square is iconic to all factions around the development of city spaces.
Times Square by that point had already outgrown most of its legendary seediness and shed the peepshow theatres… (91)
In their planning they worked with the business district, the Times Square Alliance, and sure enough, a measure of progress was a massive increase in property value:
The Real Estate Board of New York found that per-square-foot rental rates for ground-floor properties fronting Times Square doubled in a single year, a figure that would eventually triple. (102)
Poor Luke Cage, banished from downtown New York just when it needed superheroes the most. It seems to limits the conception of ‘people’ to write this:
These changes weren’t just quality-of-life improvements. They opened a city to its people and through that expanded its economic prospects. (103)
Stealing Good Ideas
Shock horror, the point of this chapter is that you should learn from other cities. It looks at (the admittedly wonderful) example of Medellin and Bogota. Which I shall, I must, examine separately on its own terms, as both are extraordinary.
I do like the encouragement of people to make space their own.
These DIY acts reveal the power of signs, signals, paint–seemingly minor cues from the streets that shape our lives. It takes only a little bit of imagination to transform a sidewalk into a place-making feature of the street. In an increasing number of cases, city planners are being inspired and, in turn, inspiring these kinds of unorthodox strategies, blurring the lines between the sanctioned and unsanctioned and also erasing the barriers between the people and those who represent them. (136)
I hope we see more of this, and I hope we see more bike lines, but woah! The crazy battles over bikelines! Because I do love bikelines and lanes, particularly of this kind, separated from cars by a painted shoulder or by concrete as in Holland (sadly not like most of London or Bristol).
And then, the chapter title:
Sorry to Interrupt, but We Have to Talk About Buses
I get it. A lot of people don’t like to ride buses. So why would you want to read about them here? (233)
I am glad when she returns to Bogota and a quote from Penalosa which I have heard before,
An advanced city is not one where poor people drive cars, but where rich people take public transportation. (235)
So true. At the same time, those poor people actually form the majority in cities, they take the bus, the issues with equity and justice are clear despite the framing of this, suddenly bringing into even higher relief the audience for whom this book is written. She gets, of course, that it’s a question of equity, I like her for it, but equity is rarely visible in this book. Possibly, as I said earlier, because of that audience. Buses are a hard sell where equity is not a primary consideration.
This lack of equity as a worthwhile object in itself leads to the next section, and quote:
Next to safety and mobility, which should be the first considerations, the economic power of sustainable streets is probably the strongest argument for implementing dramatic change. (252)
I don’t quite understand how we have arrived in a place where commonsense fails to find problematic a lack of fairness or justice in these first considerations, or to leave unquestioned the public good in this scenario:
In Minneapolis, a 5.5-mile former rail right-of-way converted into a bike and recreational path spurred $200 million in investment over the last decade, resulting in 1,200 new residential units. (261)
When displacement, and the shuffling of the poverty deck, is always a huge related issue.
Nuts and Bolts
I love that she loves infrastructure — I confess I don’t think about this enough myself. It is an issue few think about, I know, and undoubtedly why this should be the last chapter. Sadik-Khan writes:
But no one want to hear about infrastructure. It’s even less sexy than buses. (265)
Poor buses. Compare the US to London where the buses are iconic and much loved — and they work.
But I share her love of bridges, and am so jealous of her chance to climb one. I rather love her love of asphalt, the details of this chapter of rock and its sources, its processing, its new life as a surface.
Her last lines.
There is a new vocabulary for street designs that serve the needs of the people who live in cities. There are new expectations for streets. And there is New York.
If you can remake it here, you can remake it anywhere.
I am glad we have developed a new vocabulary, a new portfolio for design, new expectations.
Now, for social equity to become something we care about again.
For more on building social spaces and better cities…
[Sadik-Khan, Janette and Seth Solomonow (2016) Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. NY: Viking.]
Aldon D. Morris’s book analysing the Civil Rights Movement using the indigenous perspective is one of the best things I’ve read in some time on this kind of subject… clearly a limited amount of time was spent revising this from a thesis, but it didn’t matter.
As with all the books I like best, it is firmly founded in people’s concrete experience and full of rich detail. He writes:
Organized protest against white domination has always been one of the cornerstones of the black experience (x).
He cites the slave revolts, Marcus Garvey’s UNIA , the March on Washington, the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP…all in the same tradition.
The tradition of protest is transmitted across generations by older relatives, black educational institutions, churches and protest organizations. Blacks interested in social change inevitably gravitate to this “protest community,” where they hope to find solutions to a complex problem… The modern civil rights movement fits solidly into this rich tradition of protest. (x)
Movement and struggle don’t just happen, they are part of a long history. So what marked the modern civil rights movement as different within this longer tradition (one often ignored)? It:
… broke from the protest tradition of the past in at least two crucial ways. one, it was the first time that large masses of blacks directly confronted and effectively disrupted the normal functioning of groups and institutions thought to be responsible for their oppression. The hallmark of the modern civil rights movement is that these mass confrontations were widespread and sustained over a long period of time in the face of heavy repression. Two, this was the first time in American history that blacks adopted nonviolent tactics as a mass technique for bringing about social change. (xi)
This engages with academic literature on movements, so it has to choose an approach and contrast it with others — I have to say, I haven’t bothered too much in exploring the others as he demolishes them fairly soundly. Aldon Morris himself is writing from the ‘indigenous perspective’:
the assumption is that mass protest in a product of the organizing efforts of activists functioning through a well-developed indigenous base. A well-developed indigenous base includes the institutions, organizations, leaders, communication networks, money, and organized masses within a dominated group. Such a base also encompasses cultural elements — music, oratory, and so on–of a dominated group that play a direct role in the organization and mobilization of protest…. a central concern of the indigenous perspective is to examine the ways in which organizers transform indigenous resources into power resources and marshals them in conflict situations to accomplish political ends. (xii)
I’ll skip to the conclusion now, because this is the real point of all of this literature on social movement, or should be:
The task of the indigenous perspective is to examine how dominated groups take advantage of and create the social conditions that allow them to engage in overt power struggles with dominant groups. (282)
I also love that Morris combines the economic, political and personal in this tripartite structure of oppression — quite similar to what Stuart Hall does though ideology was absent here.
The tripartite system of racial domination–economic, political, and personal oppression — was backed by legislation and the iron fist of Southern governments. In the short run all members of the white group had a stake in racial domination, because they derived privileges from it. poor and middle-class whites benefited because the segregated labor force prevented blacks from competing with them for better-paying jobs. The Southern white ruling class benefited because blacks supplied them with cheap labor and a weapon against the labor movement, the threat to use unemployed blacks as strikebreakers in labor disputes. Finally, most Southern whites benefited psychologically from the system’s implicit assurance that no matter how poor or uneducated, they were always better than niggers. (3)
So how did the civil rights movement arise? First, geography, the benefits of a segregated spatiality, ‘the concentration of institutions and creation of close-knit communities where all lived together regardless of class or education. (3)
But in the beginning there was the church.
The black church functioned as the institutional center of the modern civil rights movement. Churches provided the movement with an organized mass base; a leadership of clergymen largely economically independent of the larger white society and skilled in the art of managing people and resources; an institutionalized financial base through which protest was financed; and meeting places where the masses planned tactics and strategies and collectively committed themselves to struggle. (4)
Bases of the United Defense League, MIA, ICC, ACMHR …
their ability to unite community leaders by bringing them directly into leadership positions while simultaneously organizing the black masses. They were able to organize the black masses because they themselves were mass-based organizations that had grown directly out of a mass based institution, the black church. It is almost inconceivable to picture an alternative route to mass mobilization in these complex black communities, with their deep social divisions and under a tripartite system of domination that controlled blacks and kept them powerless. (46)
A little more on what the church offered:
In the case of the civil rights struggle, the preexisting black church provided the early movement with the social resources that made it a dynamic force, in particular leadership, institutionalized charisma, finances, and organized following, and an ideological framework through which passive attitudes were transformed into a collective consciousness supportive of collective action. (77)
The Church and the NAACP.
The NAACP evolved as a bureaucratic organization. It did not emerge within the black community, nor were the black masses involved in shaping the organization at the outset. The NAACP began as a small group of black and white intellectuals who intended to organize the black masses to struggle for their rights. (13)
Out of necessity, the NAACP in the South was closely tied to the black church. The church, being independent of the white power structure, was often the only place where the NAACP could meet. (15)
They didn’t just meet there of course, ‘…in many cases the church ran the local Southern units, but within the constraints of the National office of the NAACP.’ (37) Many thought that it’s methods were the only proper way to effect change, dampening effect across the South, and many within it feared the rise of the SCLC and CORE, and their critique of NAACP methods. King writes:
when legal contests were the sole form of activity…the ordinary Negro was involved as a passive spectator. His interests were stirred, but his energies were unemployed. (123)
The opening salvo showing a new way of struggle was the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott. in 1953. Damn. I confess, I had not heard of it. Reverend Jemison led the movement here, a relative newcomer to the city but still very active — a common characteristic of the movements leading figures as they had no embattled history to divide people but were also connected to church networks, local community groups and the NAACP, which allowed others to unite behind them. The black community formed an umbrella organisation, the United Defense League to direct the boycott, and churches mobilised their congregations — ‘this procedure … became the fundamental organizing principle of many later movements’, joining many leaders together into one organization with a common cause.
Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy knew the history of this boycott, they consulted closely with Jemison when the Montgomery bus boycott launched in 1955.
Another thing I vaguely knew, but this really brought home was the ferocity of the attack against the NAACP after the 1954 Brown v Board, when the NAACP were the only ones trying to implement it. The attack included legal and political efforts to force NAACP to share membership lists, putting all of its members at risk of direct violence and professional discrimination, firings, and boycotts. The Attorneys General of Louisiana, Alabama and Texas obtained injunctions against the NAACP operating in their states. Virginia passed 7 laws equally designed to stop the NAACP from functioning there. Florida approved $50,000 to investigate communist involvement in the NAACP. South Carolina banned teachers from belonging to it. This alongside threats and violence. The efforts continued through 1958 and 1959. When Arkansas made it illegal for any state agency to employ members of the NAACP, 7 school principals and 37 teachers fired.
Morris notes this was a ‘brilliant strategy’ as NAACP committed to fighting legal battles, and wouldn’t itself break the law… (31) Between 1955 and 1958, the NAACP lost 246 branches in the South, intensified campaign to expand branches in North. I also greatly appreciate the point that ‘the attack destroyed not only a great deal of what the NAACP was but also what it might have become.’
Like Walter Rodney’s work, this makes me realise how little we take that aspect of loss into account — the damage of the moment is always so great that there seems little reason to think of the loss of all of what could have been, but isn’t that where much of the tragedy lies?
Equally interesting, however, is what filled the hole left by the NAACP in these communities, as Black resistance continued. Morris notes that the NAACP actually often served as a damper to resistance:
Ironically, the Southern white power structure’s attack on the NAACP played an important role in the rise of the modern civil rights movement…bureaucratic protest organizations of poor and dominated groups are not likely to initiate or direct a mass movement…. It is precisely the problem of developing appropriate tactics that an established bureaucratic protest organization claims to have solved… Alternative tactics therefore come to be viewed not as supplementary but as opposing, threatening, and incorrect… The established protest organization has much to lose if a significant segment of the dominated group supports alternative tactics, especially if that segment includes those who traditionally supported the bureaucratic organization. (35)
Anyone who has worked through an official organization to effect change, especially given their dependence on donations or grants, is familiar with this:
…as with all bureaucratic organizations, business is conducted in terms of very specific goals (e.g. registering a stated number of voters, winning certain court decisions) achievable within specific time frames (year, fiscal period). It is as if the “freedom goal” can be parceled into manageable units of inputs and outputs that can be convincingly displayed in charts and graphs upon request. (36)
The bus boycotts provoked debate about tactics and strategies, but even more powerfully, it showed that results could be obtained through direct action rather than courts and NAACP bureaucratic action. Given the shutdown of the NAACP, ministers began organising far outside the NAACP’s comfort zone, and looking to direct action.
So back to the indigenous perspective, and how it begins to look at this moment:
‘The indigenous perspective on social movements stresses the important role of local protest groups on a major social movement. Instead of one homogeneous civil rights movements, there were dozens of local movements with their own organizations, activists, interorganizational relationships, boundaries, and famous activists, organizations, and abstract concepts. (40)
It’s funny just how heartening it is to read that in Montgomery, Birmingham and Baton Rouge, there was intense factionalism that divided the community before everyone came together to support the boycotts in a campaign that we look back on now with wonder. Because of the people, the knowledge and connection to history, there are continuities of leadership with the NAACP, but very new methods of protest. Morris names the principle three:
decision-making apparatus and procedures
reliance on charisma, mass emotionalism
disruptive tactics by the masses (46)
This book is full of inspiritions, both in stories and quotes — this is one my favourite moments from Martin Luther King:
The opening hymn was the old familiar “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and when that mammoth audience stood to sing, the voices outside (the church building could not accommodate the large gatherings) swelling the chorus in the church, there was a mighty ring like the glad echo of heaven itself…The enthusiasm of these thousands of people swept everything along like an onrushing tidal wave. (47)
There is is the stupidly necessary reminder that it didn’t all kick off the way conventional history tells it and Rosa Parks was not just a tired woman. I love this quote from her too:
My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me and not just that day. (51)
So what were the principle contributions of the Montgomery Bus Boycott? ‘…the MIA, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the nonviolent method, and success.’ (51)
Before the Montgomery Movement blacks had no mass-based movement organizations. The UDL of Baton Rouge had been successful, but that mass-movement lasted only seven days and was practically invisible to the larger black community. The importance of the UDL lies in what it taught to a small but significant number of community leaders… A protest of the magnitude of Montgomery was required to provide the larger community with a blueprint. (56)
Morris looks at Montgomery, then at Tallahassee. The mass meetings rotated from church to church, the funding coming from Black congregations themselves, the protests and victories and ongoing protest until promises of desegregated buses became real.
Birmingham showed these tactics could desegregate more than buses. There they demanded hiring of black police officers to patrol black communities, desegregate buses, railroad stations, disenfranchisement at the polls, discrimination in hiring, segregation of schools and at swimming pools, libraries and retail stores. Another amazing quote from Reverend Shuttlesworth:
I was trying to tear the system down. Out to kill segregation before it killed us. (70-71)
An interesting observation this one, about how things start…
Because Shuttlesworth was organizing a movement without the benefit of a precipitating outrage, such as the arrest of Rosa Parks, he was forced to make direct action popular by his personal acts and courage. (71)
Clearly the context is at work here too, the momentum building across the South — and Morris also notes the change after two world wars fought for freedom and democracy. I also like the concept of movement centres, cities where a number of factors came together to create the foundation for mass movement. He argues such movement centres had 7 characteristics:
- A cadre of social change-oriented ministers & congregations.
- Direct action organizations of varied complexity. Some churches, NAACP Youth Councils, CORE affiliates
- Indigenous financing coordinated through the church
- Weekly mass meetings, which served as forums where local residents were informed of relevant information and strategies regarding the movement. these meetings also build solidarity among the participants.
- Dissemination of nonviolent tactics and strategies. the leaders articulated to the black community the message that social change would occur only through nonviolent direct action carried out by masses.
- Adaptation of a rich church culture to political purposes. The black spirituals, sermons and prayers were used to deepen the participants’ commitment to the struggle.
- A mass-based orientation, rooted in the black community through the church. (194)
Movement Centres, Movement halfway houses and the key personalities in them heavily impact movement as it arises. For example, the large role that activists from Nashville played in the movement over all — college students filled disproportionate number of SNCC’s leadership positions and also held large roles in SCLC. Why? The presence of four black universities — Fisk, Tenessee State, American Baptist Teological Seminary and Meharry Medical School. The connections with Highlander and FOR, Reverend James Lawson a key leader on noviolence, and part of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council (NCLC).
Here he brings forward a critique of Piven & Cloward who saw movement as spontaneous, mass phenomena. Instead Morris argues that
Movement centers provided the organizational frameworks out of which the modern civil rights movement emerged, and it was organization-building that produced these centers.
Perhaps more interesting is his analysis of why movement organisation is so often dismissed.
- the nature of movement centers themselves, how they operate in repressive circumstances, ebb and grow, focus often on what they face rather than their ‘wider significance, organizational strength, and capabilities.’ (75)
- Organizers often themselves emphasize the spontaneous and unplanned nature of protest — shields the center and key activists from unwelcome attention, authorities can’t charge with conspiracy
- assumptions by scholars (and cites P&C and Anthony Oberschall) ‘that subordinate groups ate usually without organizational resources and skills’ (76)
Yeah, a little accusation of academic racism in there. I think he’s right about that too. He continues his critique of P&C (I think because they are the most persuasive and ‘on-side’ theorists of this stuff, at least they are in my own opinion), ‘the civil rights movement was not simply a by-product of urbanization and economic modernization.’ Not simply on of the ‘spontaneous outbursts of mass defiance in response to rapid social change and community breakdown.’ It ‘grew out of the conscious and deliberate effort of organizers who understood the organizational nature and capacity of black society. Economic modernization and urbanization were necessary, but not sufficient, causes…’ (81)
All this, and we still haven’t gotten to the formation of the SCLC! It formed through conversations between Dr and Mrs King, Fred Shuttlesworth, C.K. Steele, Ella Baker, Ralph Abernathy, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin. Its first meeting was titled the ‘Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation’ — initially focused on organising around segregation on buses. I liked Morris’s note that they saw that this was both a ‘just grievance’ but also connected to ‘economic survival’ as outlined in their first working paper. (84)
I like that insight into what campaigns could motivate direct action in the face of violence. How this combined with a belief that people could win, which is what Baton Rouge and Montgomery proved.
They also realized the white community was not monolithic and began strategising around the different interests, ways to split them. Morris argues that despite the popular view that the SCLC was top down, in fact
The real power of the SCLC was in its affiliates, the many churches who had mass bases so that this base was built into the very structure of the SCLC (89)
Membership structures — always interesting when contemplating how these things actually work, fund themselves, make decisions, implement decisions…
‘Community organizations became affiliates of the SCLC by paying a twenty-five-dollar fee and signing a charter committing them to organize their communities and to engage in direct action protests.’ (90)
The churches and related organizations constituted the crucial internal organization enabling the SCLC to mobilize community resources. they were so central that SCLC leaders called them the “invisible hand of God.” (91)
Given the connection with the church and the culture of the Black South, the charisma of individuals clearly played a key role — and apparently much has been written on the subject.
King clearly understood the social power of oratory and used it as a tool for agitating, organizing, fundraising, and articulating the desires of the black masses. (59)
Many leaders interviewed for this study recalled that King could attract large segments of oppressed blacks from the poolrooms, city streets, and backwoods long enough for trained organizers to acquaint them with the workshops, demands and strategies of the movement. (61)
Many critiqued charismatic leadership, and King in particular, but all recognised its usefulness in bringing people together. There is a lovely section on Ella Baker, and her fight in a very male-dominated movement, her constant argument that ‘for people’s movements to be effective, participants must encourage and build leadership among the masses.’ (103) In her own words:
Instead of “the leader”–a person who was supposed to be a magic man–you would develop individuals who were bound together by a concept that benefited larger numbers of individuals and provided an opportunity for them to grow into being responsible for carrying on the program. (104)
I’ll come back to her.
There is also an interesting discussion of efforts to create the ‘New Negro’ as part of the Crusade for Citizenship — and just how important it was to organizers, how much a simple sound bite. Still, John Tilley wrote in Dec 1958 that the SCLC
had created the machinery for “penetrating each community, reaching the man on the streets, bringing him a simple, practical way of life which will help him to break through the oppressive system of discrimination and oppression, change his surroundings, and his oppressors and make a new person.” (106)
In more concrete terms, the Crusade spread far and wide methods and philosophy:
The Crusade played an important role in acquainting the masses all over the South with the SCLC’s ‘direct action” approach, introduced earlier in Baton Rouge, Montgomery, and other cities. Whenever local churches or oganizations affiliated with the SCLC, members of the community were exposed to an organized group identified with the new approach. (111)
Morris looks at CORE as well, and makes the important point that ‘CORE’s primary goal was to show that social problems could be solved through non-violent direct action’ (129). They didn’t just see nonviolence as a tactic, but as a value in and of itself — and for many promoting that, more than vanquishing racism was the main goal.
They were also a whiter organization, whereas the SCLC where leadership was entirely black, from beginning CORE suffered from paternalism and ‘in-house racial bickering’. Farmer noted many blacks not willing to work in interacial organisations, and ‘White liberals must be willing to work in roles of secondary leadership and as technicians.’ (132) But again what I found fascinating was just how often there was overlapping membership in local leadership. Reverand Wyatt Walker, for example, was a board member of the SCLC, president of Petersberg NAACP, and state director of CORE in Virginia. He saw all of them as umbrella organisations to help bring together varying groups and factions. He used all of them.
The sit-ins as well, often described as completely spontaneous, and generally agreed that 1 Feb 1960 saw the first sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina. In actual fact sit-ins had already been used in at least 16 cities across the South between 1957 and 1960. They were often mentored by older activists involved in multiple other networks, and often most successful in cities that were Movement Centres. Morris write:
Nineteen sixty was the year when thousands of Southern black students at black colleges joined forces with “old movement warriors” and tremendously increased the power of the devloping civil rights movement. (195)
While students often operated independently, many were already involved through movement centres, especially those in Black educational institutions who had very close ties to the NAACP, CORE, SCLC. Students received support and help in planning that helped sustain and grow the sit-in movement. They were supported by the community as well, financed, boycotts supported, bail money raised, free services from doctors etc… People repeatedly mortgaged homes and handed over savings as bail.
That makes my heart happy.
Ella Baker was a key figure in this — she convened all of the different students involved in the sit-in movement through SCLC — in 1960 the call went out for the Southwide Student Leadership Conference on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation, where SNCC was formed. Sit-in participants were also meeting at Highlander, a population education centre that served as what Morris calls a ‘movement halfway house’. To be discussed separately. But I like how Morris argues that this is the foundation of the whiter student movements to come:
We can begin to answer the question of why that discontented group of affluent white students became involved in the politics of protest. That group entered into the politics of protest because the sit-ins by dominated black students provided them with a visible protest model, which demonstrated how they could proceed tactically and organizationally. (222)
Again Ella Baker was a bridge, this time not between students and the SCLC and other established adult civil rights organizations, but between white and black students, SDS and SNCC.
I’ll end with Birmingham, a triumph really. As an organizer, it gives me a little chill of awe to know that the SCLC held 65 consecutive nightly meetings rotating from church to church. They also brought on two organizers from SNCC to work with the youth movement. And they came up with what they called Project “C”.
C for confrontation with Birmingham’s power structure: Business and industrial elites, political elites serving status quo and race relations, and white extremist organizations, White Citizens Councils and KKK.
They decided it should be a ‘drama’, built it as a narrative — started out slow, low key, and building to crisis. They designed phased actions. Phase 1, limited daily sit-ins and picketing. Followed by Phase II, daily marches to City Hall. The city filed an injunction, King broke it on Good Friday and was imprisoned. Here he wrote the wonderful Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Phase III – 1000 children march to the jail, more and bigger marches to the jail. Confrontations, water cannon, dogs. Victory.
Another favourite quote, something to remember too:
‘Reverend Walker remarked: “There’s two kinds of people. People who are committed to the movement and people who get committed by the movement…” (264)
In the end, civil rights movement in this period unable to change one the tripartite system of domination — the economic was left intact. And so I will end where Morris’s book ends:
A critical question confronting the black community today is whether the organizations, leadership, tactics, and philosophies of the civil rights movement are appropriate for bringing about basic economic change, or whether a whole new set of structures and tactics is needed. (290)
Interesting question, particularly looking at today’s struggles.