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

By Goss, Adrienne C. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

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


Goss, Adrienne C., The Western Journal of Black Studies


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

Author: Tomiko Brown-Nagin

Oxford University Press, 2011

Price: $ 34.95

ISBN: 978-0-19-538659-2

The beauty of Tomiko Brown-Nagin's work, Courage to Dissent, lies not just in the artful retelling of the impact of legal organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); grassroots movements like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Commission (SNCC); nationally-recognized leaders like Julian Bond; and behind the scenes organizers like Ella Baker. Her work reveals the dynamic, sometimes contentious relations that participants in the Civil Rights Movement had with one another.

Brown-Nagin begins this text with an introduction to A. T. Walden, a highly influential but not widely known pragmatic lawyer in Georgia. Walden rose to prominence in the Black community when he became the first African American in Georgia's history ever to aid in the prosecution of a White man. Walden's pragmatism, characterized by slow, deliberate negotiation and compromise, aligned with the views of many of the Black elite and middle class who had a lot to lose by radical, active resistance to White supremacy. This same pragmatism alienated him from youth activists, and left him labeled in many imaginations as an "Uncle Tom." Still, by the mid-1960s, youth activists, civil rights lawyers, and most pragmatists attempted to work together in the midst of tension and disagreements, "sometimes successfully and sometimes less so" (p. 177) in order to make advances in civil rights.

Unique Contributions to Scholarship

The strengths of this text include the highly detailed accounts of both commonly- and lesser-known events of the civil rights era. Direct quotes from movement leaders through personal interviews and archives strengthen the conviction of her analysis. Brown-Nagin's focus on Atlanta remains contextualized in the events occurring in the nation and even throughout the world at any given time, giving the reader a global perspective while maintaining a constant point of reference. Citing the work of Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Brown-Nagin's work challenges the notion of "simple justice"--the master narrative that claims that the civil rights era began with the Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka (1954) case and ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This departure from simple justice turns our attention from typical, "top-down," legal scholarship of the civil rights era that focuses on litigation, mostly by the NAACP, in the fight for legal and social change. Instead, Brown-Nagin shows us the civil rights era from the "bottom-up," arguing in some cases that the legal victories of organizations like the NAACP could not have occurred without the grassroots organizing of lesser-known activists and the intervention of Congress and the Executive Branch of the federal government. …

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