Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement

By Asch, Chris Myers | The Journal of Southern History, August 2012 | Go to article overview

Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement


Asch, Chris Myers, The Journal of Southern History


Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement. By Tomiko Brown-Nagin. (New York and other cities: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. [xii], 578. $34.95, ISBN 978-0-19-538659-2.)

In early 1966 civil rights movement veteran and newly elected Georgia state representative Julian Bond faced blistering criticism because of his controversial statements about the Vietnam War. Rather than disavow his beliefs, the twenty-five-year-old responded with steely determination: "I hope that throughout my life I shall always have the courage to dissent" (p. 262).

From this inspiring riposte Tomiko Brown-Nagin takes the title of her excellent, exhaustively researched study of Atlanta during the civil rights movement. A lawyer and historian at the University of Virginia, Brown-Nagin seeks "to bridge legal and social history, and national and local history," by writing a "bottom-up narrative" that emphasizes local lawyers and activists rather than the U.S. Supreme Court and the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund (LDF) (pp. 9, 8). She succeeds admirably.

The book is divided into three sections, each of which explores different individuals who embodied a particular approach to the movement and the law. The first section follows the remarkable Austin Thomas "A. T." Walden and his "pragmatic civil rights" approach (p. 2). Like other members of Atlanta's black elite, Walden dissented strategically from the integrationism of Thurgood Marshall and the LDF. Pragmatists such as Walden emphasized political power and economic independence, and they "reacted skeptically to litigation, particularly in the areas of housing and education, that might undermine the economic position of the black middle class" (p. 19).

By the 1960s, Walden and his pragmatist allies found themselves challenged by the young activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC brought a different approach to the law. Rather than deferring to lawyers who pursued slow-moving individual cases, SNCC embraced direct action, deploying attorneys when necessary to defend activists in the wake of protests. This type of "movement lawyering" was embodied by Len Holt, the innovative SNCC attorney who pursued omnibus civil rights lawsuits and created "do-it-yourself legal kits" to help citizens file their own suits (pp. 13, 195).

Then, in the 1970s, "new rebels emerged" in the form of impoverished women such as the outspoken Ethel Mae Mathews, president of the Atlanta chapter of the National Welfare Rights Organization (p. 4). In the battle over school desegregation, Mathews and her allies attacked Lonnie King and other members of the "civil rights network" who now effectively controlled the city (p. 436). Whereas King and the black elite sought to protect middleclass administrators by deemphasizing pupil integration, Mathews fought unsuccessfully to fulfill the ideal of full school desegregation pursued by the NAACP since the Brown v. …

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