Vol 5 No 4 Winter 2022

Understanding the Civil Rights Movement

In the scholarship on the civil rights movement, Doug McAdam’s work has played a pioneering role. His 1982 book Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930–1970 — a classic in the field of sociology — presents a primarily materialist explanation of the civil rights movement. His book Freedom Summer, about the struggle in Mississippi in 1964, won the C. Wright Mills Award in 1990. And he is the coauthor, with Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, of the influential 2001 book Dynamics of Contention, which argues that social movements, revolutions, riots, and rebellions are related forms of “contentious politics.” McAdam’s later works cover issues ranging from environmental activism to political polarization. 

Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, which grew out of McAdam’s doctoral dissertation at Stony Brook University, is far and away the most frequently cited academic book — or book of any kind — on the US civil rights movement, with over ten thousand citations. The book has also had an enormous influence on social science theorizing about social movements and the broader field of contentious politics.

Political Process develops a “political process model” to explain the civil rights movement. Scholars have subsequently applied this model to a wide range of social movements. The model emphasizes the importance of three factors for the emergence and dynamics of social movements: political opportunities, formal and informal organization, and what McAdam calls “cognitive liberation.” But these factors are, in a sense, secondary to McAdam’s main argument — for lurking behind them are more fundamental political-economic forces and class interests.

The longest chapter in McAdam’s book argues that it was the changing political economy of the South — the decline of cotton and the rise of urban industrial and service-sector employment — that led to the overthrow of Jim Crow and caste (but not class) oppression. As McAdam makes clear in this interview, Marxist scholars like Michael Schwartz (one of his dissertation advisers) and Jack Bloom led him to incorporate political economy into his explanation of the civil rights movement.

Ironically, this core element of McAdam’s theoretical perspective would be forgotten (or willfully ignored) by subsequent scholars. Political Process is mainly remembered for the concept of political opportunities — or what some would call “political opportunity structure” or POS — not for its more fundamental political-economic analysis.

For the most part, political economy remains marginal to sociological studies of social movements, at least in the United States, up to the present day. The Marxist roots of political process theory have been almost totally forgotten.

McAdam recently sat down with Jeff Goodwin to discuss the origins of his interest in civil rights and the influence of Marxism and political economy on his work on the civil rights movement.

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