Lawyers, Law, and the New Civil Rights History
It is not always easy to identify a new field or a new paradigm for an old field. It can creep up on you - a book here or an article there. But there is no denying it: the legal history of civil rights is not what it used to be. Over the past several years, a number of books and a slew of articles and dissertations have coalesced around similar themes, methodological approaches, and arguments. A new civil rights history has arrived.
Professor Kenneth W Mack's Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer is the latest entry in this growing field. Its publication provides an occasion to identify both the contours of the new approach and its most significant lessons. In Part I, I describe Representing the Race, a poignant and nuanced collective biography of African American lawyers. In Part II, I survey the new civil rights history and its dominant characteristics. In Part III, I situate Mack's book in the context of the new field. I first identify the ways in which Mack draws on the methodological approach of the new civil rights history. I then explore how, even where Mack does not explicitly engage the new literature, his book nonetheless reinforces many of its lessons.
his essay reviews "Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer" by Kenneth W. Mack. The essay first describes Mack’s collective biography of African American lawyers who struggled to succeed in a largely white legal profession. It highlights the paradox of representation that Mack identifies, showing how African American lawyers experienced conflicting pressures to make themselves whiter in order to succeed professionally while maintaining the racial authenticity that allowed their successes to reflect well on the race as a whole. The essay then shows how Representing the Race is the most recent entry into a growing new field of civil rights history. It describes the contours of the field and its key characteristics. These include decentering the Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education, and the NAACP’s campaign for school desegregation and including many more actors involved in the process of legal change; taking a prospective rather than retrospective approach to the past; emphasizing lawyers as particularly important intermediaries between the legal claims of lay actors and legal doctrine as constructed by courts; identifying the importance of class and economic issues to the ways in which various groups of lay and professional legal actors interacted with and understood the law; taking legal doctrine seriously but viewing it as a field of contestation rather than the authoritative output of judges; and finally, as a result of these other shifts in focus, highlighting the contingency of the law-creation process. Finally, the essay explores Mack’s engagement with this new field. It concludes that his collective biography reinforces some of the literature’s key conclusions, most notably how lawyers’ situated choices channeled, transformed, and perhaps limited civil rights doctrine and the shape of civil rights law.