Why the Civil Rights Model Will Not Work for Occupy

The black civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s is one of the most studied and analyzed social movements in American history – with good reason.  After centuries of slavery, followed by another 90 years or so of segregation, economic oppression, and political disenfranchisement, African Americans managed to reverse some of the most egregious denials of their civil rights in just a couple of decades.

By now, the movement has achieved near legendary status.  Who among us doesn’t recall the iconic images of courageous nonviolent protesters facing down the shocking violence that enforced the Southern caste system?  If we are not old enough to have seen the news reports back in the day, we surely saw the images in documentary films shown at school or on television.

For many Americans, the strategies and tactics of the early civil rights era have become the gold standard by which later movements, strategies, and tactics are judged.  However, the successful template of one social movement cannot be applied in assembly line fashion to every social movement that follows.  What worked for the black civil rights movement (in the South – the strategy was less successful in the North) will not work for Occupy.  This is due, in part, to a changed political and economic environment, and in part to differing goals and values of the two movements.

The strategy of the civil rights movement began with a legal agenda pursued by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), resulting in a number of Supreme Court decisions in the 1940s and 1950s affirming the civil rights of African Americans.  Activists then attempted to nonviolently assert those rights, knowing that segregationists would respond with violence.  The ensuing crisis would compel the federal government to enforce rights upheld by the courts.

So, for example, the Supreme Court decision, Brown vs the Board of Education (1954), which prohibited segregated public schools, prepared the way for the integration of Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.  When the nine black students chosen to integrate Central High arrived on the first day of school, they were met by an angry crowd and denied entry by the Alabama National Guard under orders from Governor Orval Faubus.

Ultimately, President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to protect the students and compel the integration.  “Mob rule cannot be allowed to overrule the decisions of our courts,” said Eisenhower.  That year, the black students rode to school escorted by armed soldiers in jeeps in front of and behind their vehicle.  Once at school, a soldier was assigned to each student and walked the students to their classes.  Nevertheless, the Little Rock Nine, as they were called, were taunted and physically attacked by white students in places like restrooms and gym class, where the soldiers did not follow them.

The Freedom Rides, begun in May of 1961, employed the same strategy.  The goal of the rides on interstate buses, initially organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was to compel the federal government to enforce two Supreme Court decisions (Boynton v. Virginia (1960) and Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946)) that banned segregated interstate travel.  James Farmer, then director of CORE, explains:

We decided the way to do it was to have an inter-racial group ride through the south.  This was not civil disobedience, really, because we would be doing merely what the Supreme Court said we had a right to do…  We felt that we could then count upon the racists of the South to create a crisis so that the federal government would be compelled to enforce federal law.  And that was the rationale for the Freedom Ride  (Eyes on the Prize, 1987).

The riders were met with savage violence in the Deep South.  Outside Anniston, Alabama, the lead bus was firebombed and the exits blocked.  A loud explosion scared off attackers, which allowed the riders to escape the bus.  However, they were then beaten by the mob, twelve were hospitalized, and the bus was destroyed.  The riders were later evacuated from the hospital as staff feared for their safety from the mob outside.

In Birmingham, despite advance information obtained by the FBI that was “quite specific” (Eyes on the Prize, 1987) about the planned attack on riders, both the FBI and the local police stood down.  Freedom Riders were brutally beaten with baseball bats, pipes, and bicycle chains by a mob organized by the Ku Klux Klan.

Remarkably, Attorney General Robert Kennedy called for “restraint” – not from the Klan and white racists, but from the Freedom Riders.   When SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) got involved and it became clear the rides would continue, Kennedy demanded protection for the riders from Alabama governor John Patterson.   If Patterson would not provide it, Kennedy announced, the federal government would intervene.

The governor appeared to relent and provide protection for the bus leaving Birmingham for Montgomery.  But about 40 miles outside of Montgomery, the squad cars and plane disappeared.  A vicious mob attacked the riders as they got off the bus.  Freedom Rider Frederick Leonard recalled attacks with sticks and bricks and shouts to “Kill the niggers.”  Some riders, including James Zwerg, the first off the bus, were severely beaten.  According to Leonard, Zwerg and others were “damaged for life” (Eyes on the Prize, 1987).

In Mississippi, riders were met only by police, who herded them off the buses, through the bus station waiting rooms, out the back door, and into paddy wagons.  Robert Kennedy had made a deal with local officials:  They would see to it that there was no violence and the federal government would not enforce the Supreme Court decision on segregation and interstate travel.   Consequently, the riders were not attacked by mobs, but were left to the mercy of local judges.  They were sentenced to 60 days in a maximum security penitentiary by a judge who literally turned his back on the riders’ lawyer in court and faced the wall.  That summer Robert Kennedy at last petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue regulations banning segregation, and the ICC complied.

Success took longer to achieve where court decisions and extreme violence perpetrated by segregationists against activists could not be depended upon to force federal action.  The Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56) lasted just over a year.  Although the Supreme Court had overturned segregation in interstate travel, southern bus companies circumvented the law instituting local regulations. As black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., refused to ride the buses until they were desegregated, the NAACP filed suit in federal court.  The bus companies were hit hard by the boycott, but they refused to give in until the Supreme Court heard the case filed by the NAACP and ruled bus segregation unconstitutional.

In Albany, Georgia (1961), the strategy broke down entirely.  Invited by locals to help organize against segregation, SNCC challenged the system in bus stations, libraries, schools, and movie theatres.  But Police Chief Laurie Pritchett had read Dr. King’s book and understood the strategy of drawing out violence and filling up jails.  He prevented violence against the demonstrators and arranged for jails in surrounding areas to accept arrestees.  Meanwhile, the city filed suit in federal court requesting a restraining order to stop the demonstrations.

Stymied, and with hundreds of local activists in jail, black leaders invited Dr. King to help out.  King had other commitments, but spent some time in Albany giving speeches and leading marches.  After almost nine months of action, a federal judge sided with the city, and issued the restraining order.  Coretta Scott King explains the dilemma:

When the federal courts started ruling against us, that created a whole different thing in terms of what strategy do you use now?  Because, up to that point, Martin had been willing to break state laws that were unjust laws.  And our ally was the federal judiciary.  So, if we would take our case to the federal court, and the court ruled against us, what recourse did we have?  (Eyes On the Prize, 1987).

King asked President Kennedy to intervene, but he declined.  Defeated, King left Albany.  (SNCC, however, remained to carry on the fight).

The strategy of some of the most famous actions of the civil rights era depended upon favorable decisions from the federal judiciary and the willingness of the federal government to exert its power – backed by violence, as is the power of all governments – to enforce those decisions.  Note also that the activists’ goal of exposing the violence that enforced the Southern caste system was intended primarily to force a confrontation between the federal and state governments and secondarily to appeal to Northern and international supporters.

The notion, further developed by Gene Sharp, that violence inflicted on nonviolent protesters will eventually win the hearts and minds of individual civil servants, police officers, and others who uphold the system, and that those individuals will then withdraw their cooperation with the system, thereby enabling a victory for the activists, quickly went out the window.  Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (SCLC) explained in a discussion of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott:

We thought we could shame America…  But you can’t shame segregation… Rattlesnakes don’t commit suicide.  Ball teams don’t strike themselves out.  You’ve got to put ‘em out (Eyes on the Prize, 1987).

Occupy cannot employ a strategy similar to that of the civil rights movement for a number of reasons.  To begin with, the focus of the Occupy movement is corporate power – the economic, political, and social inequality it creates, as well as the destruction of the environment it perpetrates.  Supreme Court decisions in recent years increasingly favor corporations over individual citizens.  The most egregious of these is the 2010 Citizens United decision asserting first amendment rights for corporations and thereby banning limits on their campaign contributions.

Indeed, the Supreme Court increasingly appears unwilling to uphold even basic civil rights.  Witness the recent decision allowing police to strip search citizens arrested for any offense, no matter how minor – a practice banned by international human rights treaties.  The Court has also signaled that it may uphold portions of Arizona’s controversial immigration law; in particular, the requirement that police officers check the immigration status of anybody who looks like they might be an illegal immigrant.

With or without favorable court decisions, it’s a pretty safe bet that the Obama administration will not be sending in the 101st Airborne to protect us from corporate malfeasance anytime soon – or even to protect Occupiers against the violence of local police.  A more likely scenario is that the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and federal law enforcement worked with local officials and law enforcement, suggesting tactics and offering advice that resulted in a semi-coordinated and brutal crackdown on encampments late last year.

Even if the contemporary political climate was favorable to a legislative agenda enforced by the federal government, it is unlikely that Occupy would pursue that strategy.  Appealing for concessions from a higher authority is not consistent with the overlapping values and goals of horizontalism and anarchism that shape the Occupy movement.  Horizontalism, as Marina Sitrin explains, involves a concept of power as “something we create together…  It’s not about asking, or demanding of a government or an institutional power.”  It’s a way of relating to one another, as equals, rather than according to positions in a social hierarchy.

Horizontalism, or horizontalidad, emerged in Argentina, after that country’s 2001 economic crisis.  People gathered in the streets, at first banging pots and pans and generally registering protest.  Eventually, taking their cue from the landless movement in Brazil, which organized around the slogan, Occupy, Resist, Produce, Argentineans “recuperated,” or reclaimed workplaces such as factories, schools, and clinics and collectively managed them.  Similarly, anarchism envisions an ideal society organized voluntarily and cooperatively, with no one having power over another.   The bottom-up organizing principle of Occupy, then, is inconsistent with appeals to a higher power.

In their classic text, Poor People’s Movements (1977), Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argue that opportunities for insurgencies to emerge are not available most of the time, and when they are, those insurgencies are shaped by contemporary social conditions.  In this view, both the civil rights movement and Occupy were and are shaped by the historical moment in which they appeared. I admire the veterans of the civil rights movement and what they were able to achieve.  Contemporary economic and political conditions preclude that strategy for Occupy, but at the same time present different, and in my view, more exciting opportunities, for social change. The possibility of relating to one another in a more egalitarian way, of empowering people rather than seeking relief from a higher power, and of, as Noam Chomsky says, working toward a different way of living “not based on maximizing consumer goods, but on maximizing values that are important for life,” is deeply appealing.  Occupy is the movement for our time – and I am deeply grateful to all of those on the front lines.


  • alex_the_tired
    May 10, 2012 12:14 PM

    It isn’t that the Civil Rights Movement’s tactics won’t work for OWS. It’s that, fundamentally, most of the OWS protesters aren’t really in it to win it. A long time ago, I read an article about why white teenagers were so enthusiastically embracing hip-hop and rap songs with lyrics about a completely different experience than their white, middle-class one. And one of the people in the article put it succinctly. The white teens listen to it, he said, because, at the end of the day, they can throw away their rap CDs, change their wardrobes, and go back to being white.

    OWS has a large component of persons who see this whole thing as their chance to be rebels. But they all think that the economic disparities, somehow, will not apply to them. They will, somehow, find a great job, they will, somehow, land on their feet, buy a house, get a retirement.

    My proof for what I’ve just written?

    1. There is no facebook/twitter/social media groundswell effort to have everyone cancel their subscription electronic device plans. No one is smashing their iPhone into little bits and mailling it back to Apple with a promise to not buy another Apple product until they stop outsourcing and start paying the corporate taxes.

    2. There is no letter-writing campaign to apply pressure to the politicians. The closest the OWS gets at Union Square is a folding table with some flyers. Flyers. Perfect. I see people with Starbucks coffees but they can’t be cajoled into spending 44 cents for a postage stamp?

    3. Most of the people at OWS are just “hanging out.” Yesterday, there was a couple of people playing hacky-sack. All that’s missing is someone in a tie-dyed shirt selling Grateful Dead bootlegs.

    4. Why is the OWS website such a useless piece of crap? They mentioned an event at Brooklyn College, but they didn’t post about it until the damned thing was halfway over. They post NO testimonials from the people who’ve been the victims of police brutality. Right now, for instance, if you scroll down the OWS site, you can find a Brooklyn College protest video. A lot of shouting, a lot of shrillness tinged with hysterics, people getting arrested. At the end, a young woman is breathlessly asking a student who is being arrested if he has representation. “Okay, the number is 1-800… I NEED A PEN NOW! No, you have to write it on his body …”

    Half-assed, half-thought-out, pointless protests (was Karin Gould even IN her office?) accomplish nothing. Trying to write a phone number on someone’s body while they’re being carted off by the police — and you will, as soon as you figure out who had his or her head far enough out of his or her ass to actually have a pen on them — is kind of like looking for the scissors to open the plastic wrap around the smoke detector while your house starts to burn.

    I hate to sound like someone’s father, but OWS:

    a. Go home.
    b. Throw out all your drugs.
    c. Launder your sheets.
    d. Take a long shower (use soap and shampoo).
    e. Sleep for at least nine hours.
    f. Eat breakfast (something real, not corn flakes and a soda).
    g. Take another shower (use soap and shampoo).
    h. Shave (if you have stubble).
    i. Clean your apartment, room, house (that includes the bathroom and all the dishes).
    j. Unplug your television.
    k. Go outside and get some air. Take a walk around the block.
    l. Go to your OWS location.
    m. Pick three people who look like they’ve actually done what you’ve done.

  • Susan Stark
    May 10, 2012 2:58 PM

    Yes Alex, you absolutely do sound like someone’s father. And you are hopelessly outdated if you think writing letters to politicians is going to do anything. Do yourself and kick back on the recliner with all the other “Dads”.

  • innocent victim
    May 10, 2012 7:40 PM

    People do not risk their lives and limbs unless they feel they have no alternative.

  • exkiodexian
    May 10, 2012 7:59 PM

    And what exactly IS Occupy doing that’s any better? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

    And before Susan complains, let me just say: DON’T MAKE ME DRESS YOU DOWN AGAIN!

    I’m tired of explaining why Occupy is a pointless, worthless, useless, meaningless bunch of trash. These people couldn’t start a revolution if one was handed to them.

  • Wow! Ferocious reactionary backlash.

    Somebody’s got a bur under their saddle.

    A nerve has been struck.

  • alex_the_tired
    May 10, 2012 11:00 PM


    One person writing a letter? No. It won’t do anything. But if all the people at OWS took 1/10 of the time they expended chanting and marching to mail a letter to their representatives — that’s a real letter, written or typed, put in an envelope, and mailed — those reps would find their offices filled with thousands of letters.

    And what do those letters represent? Each one represents a citizen who has come out of his or her stupor for long enough to realize he or she is getting the reaming of a lifetime.

    You think politicians don’t care that thousands of people have suddenly gotten that pissed?


    Well then, I may still sound like someone’s dad, but you sound like someone’s senile grandmother.

    And get off my lawn!

  • Whoever hitched up the “dirty hippie” trope to OWS was a fucking evil genius. But I am sure tired of hearing it – y’know, it’s kind of like the “ignorant n*gger” from the 50’s and 60’s.

  • alex_the_tired
    May 13, 2012 1:00 PM


    “Whoever hitched up the ‘dirty hippie’ trope to OWS was a fucking evil genius.”

    No. Whoever did it was being observant. You may not like it, but that’s the group’s image. A significant proportion of the people at OWS look like they have only a passing acquaintance with soap. They look bedraggled. They look like they just rolled out of bed. Again: OWS is not trying to sway the people who support them. OWS should be trying to sway the people who are on the fence, and that means conforming to those people’s notions of respectability. Clean shirts, clean pants, clean faces, clean hands. Put out those goddamned cigarettes. Stop just sitting around.

  • Ted’s analysis is spot on. Today’s problem is corporate fascism. OWS is only a symptom. The economic crisis is making this reality more obvious to more people. The elites are holding all the power. It will take a very large lever to move that.
    There are two events looming that will force structural changes, and might be such a lever. Peak oil and climate change. We could be facing the deconstruction of our societies and economies. It could be catastrophic. Extinctions will occur, and that might likely include the corporate power systems.
    Corporations are self-serving amoral structures. Another human creation gone awry. Like an invasive species with no predators. Corporations are predators. Insatiable.
    It may take an “ecosystem” crash to get them under control.
    As it stands now, we don’t have the leverage/power/weapons to take them on. We are up against an unholy alliance of corporations, a corrupt political system, the military industrial complex, media (corporations), and the filthy rich.
    OWS is just a little sign that more folks are starting to get it. Criticizing OWS isn’t going to make any difference. But if it makes you feel better, enjoy yourself.

  • alex_the_tired
    May 14, 2012 1:27 AM


    “OWS is just a little sign that more folks are starting to get it.” We’ll have to disagree. OWS is, if anything, a sign that people DON’T get it. Every tactic OWS has employed has been flawed. They’ve been in existence since Labor Day 2011 or so. And ALL they’ve accomplished is to get their membership arrested and injured. The cop who maced the four women get reassigned to desk duty closer to where he lives: his “punishment” was a shorter commute.

    Consensus building sessions and teach-ins and whatever other terms that are being bounced around yield the same result: nothing changes. The “protests” invariably seem like young people and burnouts of all ages having a good time.

    If these people “got it” they would take it more seriously. This isn’t a fun-times-free-for-all. This is their entire economic future, and they still seem to think that some badly made signs and a few marches are going to change minds.

    OWS has to figure out how to force the system to pay attention to it, not just be annoyed by it.

  • @alex-

    “OWS has to figure out how to force the system to pay attention to it, not just be annoyed by it.”

    Bingo. We don’t agree on how they should do that, but kudos for summing up the proplem in a nutshell.


    Silly little plant- to dress someone down AGAIN, you need to do it sucessfully a first time. I’m no fan of Susan’s but in every interaction I’ve seen you two have, she’s eaten you for lunch.

    Not that that’s a high bar to clear. But still.

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