Brown-Nagin's New Book Focuses on Unsung Civil Rights Lawyers, Activists

February 8, 2011

The Civil Rights Movement was a ground-up struggle that encompassed much more than landmark acts of the Supreme Court and Congress, Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin writes in a new book from Oxford University Press.

Tomiko Brown-Nagin
Tomiko Brown-Nagin

In "Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement," Brown-Nagin explores the work of civil rights lawyers and activists who made important and often overlooked contributions.

"In a nutshell, the book's aim is to re-conceive how scholars think about the constitutional and social history of the Civil Rights Movement by moving the analytical lens away from the legendary Justice Thurgood Marshall and Supreme Court doctrine and blending the methodologies of legal and social history," Brown-Nagin said.

Courage to DissentBrown-Nagin is the Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law as well as a history professor, and said her dual training aided in the book's creation. She drew on sources such as the organizational papers of legal groups and activist organizations, and also interviewed former student activists and lawyers.

Though Marshall and court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education are represented, the book examines a much broader array of actors, she said.

I'm interested in what I hope is a fresh perspective, and that is looking at on-the-ground dynamics and at unsung civil rights lawyers and activists at the local level in Atlanta, obviously an important city," she said.

Brown-Nagin writes about three distinct waves of dissenters and activists in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement. All three worked toward the goal of equality, but had different priorities and tactics, she said.

The first wave was made up of pragmatists who sought to challenge repressive Jim Crow laws without destroying the social and economic capital the black middle class built during segregation, she said.

Atlanta lawyer A.T. Walden was a prominent proponent of this methodology. Walden did not wholeheartedly embrace the concept of school desegregation, but challenged oppressive voting laws by showing up at the polls and demanding the right to vote. He also founded numerous organizations to increase black political participation.

These endeavors are integral parts of the process of making change, making it last, making it meaningful," Brown-Nagin said.

The second wave of dissenters included lawyers and demonstrators who sought to end segregation all at once.

"The lawyers in these groups litigated important cases in the Supreme Court, but they also worked side-by-side with student activists such as Julian Bond, John Lewis, and many others in hopes of mobilizing communities politically," Brown-Nagin said.

The third wave of dissenters was made up of the poor themselves, and included welfare rights activists and the lawyers who represented them, she said. This wave lodged searing critiques of economic and structural inequality in schools and politics.

They even criticized the new generation of black officials elected by virtue of the Voting Rights Act of 1965," Brown-Nagin said.

The book also explores the debates and disagreements that dissenters and civil rights activists had at the time, including discussions about housing desegregation, poverty, voting and education.

In law schools, when we think about education and civil rights, because of Brown, all that we tend to think about is desegregation," Brown-Nagin said. However, from the perspective of black communities, the struggle for equality and education was much more complex than that. It was about access to role models, to self-determination, to quality representation on school boards, to a whole range of factors that make for quality education."

It's natural in some ways for constitutional law scholars and historians to view the Civil Rights Movement primarily through the courts and legislatures, Brown-Nagin said. However, such views can oversimplify the movement's nuance and depth.

It makes perfect sense to think of the actors who are most involved in litigation and in legislation. I care about all of those things too," she said. But at the same time, if one only thinks about how society works in terms of the courts and Congress, it imparts an inaccurate view of history and undermines the sense of human agency and the vibrancy of democracy."

Brown-Nagin's teaching and service activities at the law school often bring her in contact with students who pursue careers in public interest law. She said students and advocates today can learn much from the methods of the lawyers and even the everyday people who don't figure largely in the legal history of the movement.

The book discusses a variety of people — Walden, Donald Hollowell, Len Holt, Howard Moore, Jr., Constance Baker Motley, Margie Pitts Hames and Ethel Mae Mathews, among others — who made contributions that I think should be known, because they provide new or different models of advocacy for students who may be interested in this kind of work today," Brown-Nagin said.

While she did not set out with that purpose in mind, the possibility of speaking to students today makes me happy," she said.

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