Friday, February 18, 2011

Tomiko Brown-Nagin's "Courage to Dissent"

Tomiko Brown-Nagin is Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law and Professor of History at the University of Virginia. She holds a doctorate in history from Duke and a law degree from Yale, where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement, and reported the following:
As it happens, of all the pages in Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and The Long History of the Civil Rights Movement, page 99 is a particularly revealing window into the essence of the book as a whole.

Courage to Dissent seeks to offer a fresh perspective on the civil rights movement. It does so by exploring the work of unsung civil rights lawyers and activists – people who, it turns out, sometimes pursued goals different from those pursued by national civil rights organizations. The work is set in Atlanta—home to leading civil rights organizations, but also home to a relatively large black middle class and to black ghettos ravaged by poverty.

Courage to Dissent discusses three waves of freedom fighters—styled dissenters from the status quo. Distinct priorities and tactics set the dissenters apart. The first wave of dissenters—the pragmatists of the 1940s and 1950s—sought to undermine Jim Crow incrementally and without destroying the social capital that middle-class blacks had managed to accrue under segregation. The second wave of dissenters—street demonstrators and “movement lawyers” of the 1960s—sought to end segregation once and for all through sit-ins and other protest tactics; they demanded full political and economic empowerment for black communities. The third wave of dissenters—the black poor themselves, including many welfare rights activists—attacked structural inequality in the economy, schools, and politics during the 1970s. Even as these three waves of activists battled the white power structure and racism, they also engaged in fierce debates about which approach to civil rights—pragmatism, public protest, or confronting structural inequality—should rule the day.

Upon turning to Page 99, the reader will find a revealing moment in Courage to Dissent when the pragmatists, whose complicated perspective on the merits of racial integration have typically been ignored or misunderstood, take a skeptical view of Brown v. Board of Education, the civil rights landmark In Brown, civil rights lawyers with the national NAACP directly attacked segregation in schools. The NAACP would no longer represent parents who sought greater resources for all-black schools. Page 99 quotes one leading pragmatist’s response to the NAACP’s stance:
C. A. Scott, the editor of the Atlanta Daily World and a leading force in black politics, topped the list of critics. He called equalization of segregated schools a “practically obtainable” and “just” goal. … He rejected the idea that equality under segregation was impossible.
Justice motivated the pragmatists, but so did something much more tangible: dollars. Separate schools provided employment opportunities for black teachers—a majority of the black middle class. In turn, such employment opportunities provided other benefits: self-determination, status, and the ability to shape each new generation within the black community.

The class divide cited on page 99 reverberates throughout Courage to Dissent. For it turns out that the three waves of dissenters often disagreed about whether the interests of the black middle- or working-class should take priority in fights over equality in housing, public accommodations, politics, and schools.

Ultimately, the book’s exploration of this broad array of activists’ struggles raises difficult questions that still resonate today. Who is qualified to speak for a community? How much does race matter in representation? And what constitutes educational equality—equality of resources, community control, racial integration, or something else? Perhaps Courage to Dissent’s excavation of the past can shed light on these ongoing controversies.
Learn more about Courage to Dissent at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue