From the Streets to the Courts: Doing Grassroots Legal History of the Civil Rights Era

By Gross, Ariela J. | Texas Law Review, April 1, 2012 | Go to article overview
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From the Streets to the Courts: Doing Grassroots Legal History of the Civil Rights Era


Gross, Ariela J., Texas Law Review


From the Streets to the Courts: Doing Grassroots Legal History of the Civil Rights Era COURAGE TO DISSENT: ATLANTA AND THE LONG HISTORY OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. By Tomiko Brown-Nagin. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 578 pages. $34.95.

I. Introduction

In Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement, Tomiko Brown-Nagin brings us the definitive legal history of the civil rights movement from the bottom up. This rich, dense narrative account of the day-to-day creation of civil rights law at the local level finally gives the "long" civil rights movement its legal history. Social and political historians have recovered the "long" local histories of the movement, re-centering our focus away from Congress and the Supreme Court and toward the grass roots, and shifting our attention backwards in time, away from the landmark cases and legislation of the 1960s, back toward the 1940s and 1950s.1 Yet legal historians have remained remarkably attached to Brown v. Board of Education,2 its roots, and its aftermath. For some it has been a beacon, for others a foil. Whether we are writing about what Brown should have said, or the effects Brown did or did not have, or the paths not taken when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund (LDF) pursued the Brown litigation, we are entranced by the Brown case, by the United States Supreme Court, and by the national players who sought to influence the Court, notably Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP LDF.3 In this work, Tomiko Brown-Nagin joins Risa Goluboff and Kenneth Mack and in heralding a new kind of constitutional history with regard to race and law, one that puts Brown in perspective as only one aspect of an ongoing engagement by African-American lawyers and activists with struggles for equality, representation, and resources.4

Brown-Nagin brings to light some important and neglected themes in this history. One major contribution of her book is to demonstrate the intense conflict within the "black community" over the direction of civil rights strategy and policy. Brown-Nagin uncovers disputes between the local Atlanta NAACP, led by lawyer A.T. Walden, and the national NAACP, led by Thurgood Marshall, in the 1940s and 1950s; between both Marshall and Walden on the one hand, as well as with student movement leaders in the 1960s; and between poor and working-class black parents and middle-class black officials during the 1970s.5 When one looks to the local level, one can see division within the black community. As in the work of Kenneth Mack on black lawyers and of Dylan Penningroth on an earlier era of African- American history,6 Brown-Nagin takes on what was once taboo in writing the history of a subordinated group: internal conflict. Even those who early on challenged the progressive orthodoxy that canonized Brown, such as Derrick Bell, presupposed a monolithic local black community whose interests were overridden by the national civil rights lawyers pushing integration at all costs.7 By contrast, Brown-Nagin shows a local community internally divided, not only by class but even within the middle and working classes. While middle-class professionals, especially teachers and principals, fit Bell's thesis that blacks were sold out by the national NAACP, a significant number of poor black families wanted integrated schools because they thought it was their best chance at a good education.

Brown-Nagin also shows the importance of class to African-American history. Courage to Dissent, read alongside Risa Goluboff's Lost Promise of Civil Rights-which illuminated the claims working-class African Americans made to the NAACP and the Justice Department in the 1930s and 1940s8- demonstrates the different economic and political interests at work in the "black community." Goluboff's book concludes that, most of the time, the interests of the poor majority, both white and black, were consistently ignored and underserved by those with political power.

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