Biography and History in the Nashville Civil Rights Movement

In this recently completed project (with Larry Isaac, Dan Cornfield, Dennis Dickerson, and James Lawson), I examined pathways into and out of the early Nashville civil rights movement. This project relied on oral history interviews and archival data on 63 members of the Nashville civil rights movement. Abstracts of articles from this project can be found below.

Coley, Jonathan S., Daniel B. Cornfield, Larry W. Isaac, and Dennis C. Dickerson. 2022. “Social Movements as Schooling for Careers: Career Consequences of the Nashville Civil Rights Movement.” Social Movement Studies 21(3): 255-273. (external link)

Scholarship on social movement schools shows that movements often facilitate the schooling of their participants, while scholarship on the biographical consequences of social movements demonstrates that movements influence their participants’ subsequent careers. To date, however, few studies consider whether and how the schooling functions of social movements shape participants’ later careers. In this pilot study, through a qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) of the careers of 23 student participants in the Nashville civil rights movement of 1958-1961, we show that participants who enrolled in James Lawson’s workshops in nonviolence and who served in the core cadre of the movement’s Student Central Committee – two important forms of social movement schooling – pursued careers in organizing and electoral politics. In contrast, participants who did not enroll in Lawson’s workshops and who were not part of the core cadre of the Student Central Committee tended to pursue careers as social service workers or businesspeople. The article extends our knowledge of the impacts of social movement schools and suggests directions for future research on the biographical consequences of social movements.

Cornfield, Daniel B., Jonathan S. Coley, Larry W. Isaac, and Dennis C. Dickerson. 2021. “The Making of a Movement: An Intergenerational Mobilization Model of the Nashville Civil Rights Movement.” Social Science History 45(3): 469-494. (external link)

The 1960s-era, Nashville nonviolent civil rights movement—with its iconic lunch counter sit-ins—was not only an exemplary local movement that dismantled Jim Crow in downtown public accommodations.  It was by design the chief vehicle for the intergenerational mentoring and training of activists that led to a dialogical diffusion of nonviolence praxis throughout the Southern civil rights movement of this period.  In this article, we empirically derive from oral-history interviews with activists and archival sources a new “intergenerational model of movement mobilization” and assess its contextual and bridge-leading sustaining factors.  After reviewing the literatures on dialogical diffusion and bridge building in social movements, we describe the model and its sustaining conditions—historical, demographic, and spatial conditions—and conclude by presenting a research agenda on the sustainability and generalizability of the Nashville model.

Isaac, Larry W., Jonathan S. Coley, Daniel B. Cornfield, and Dennis C. Dickerson. 2020. “Pathways to Modes of Movement Participation: Micromobilization in the Nashville Civil Rights Movement.” Social Forces 99(1): 281-304. (external link)

We employ a unique sample of participants in the early 1960s Nashville civil rights movement to examine within-movement micromobilization processes. Rather than assuming movement micromobilization and participation are internally homogeneous, we extend the literature by identifying distinct types of pathways (entry and preparation) and distinct types (or modes) of movement participation. Pathways into the Nashville movement are largely structured a priori by race, by several distinct points of entry (politically pulled, directly recruited, or professionally pushed), and by prior experience or training in nonviolent direct action. Participation falls into a distinct division of movement labor characterized by several major modes of participation— core cadre, soldiers, and supporters. We demonstrate that pathways and modes of participation are systematically linked and that qualitatively distinct pathways contribute to understanding qualitative modes of movement participation. Specifically, all core cadre members were pulled into activism, soldiers were either pulled or recruited, and supporters were pulled, recruited, or pushed. Highly-organized, disciplined, and intense workshop training proved to be integral in becoming a member of the core cadre but not for soldier or supporter roles. We conclude that social movement studies would do well to pay more attention to variability in structured pathways to, preparation for, as well as qualitative dimensions of movement participation. These dimensions are critical to further understanding the way movements and their participants move and add insights regarding an important chapter in the Southern civil rights movement. The implications of our findings extend to modes of movement activism more generally.

Cornfield, Daniel B., Jonathan S. Coley, Larry W. Isaac, and Dennis C. Dickerson. 2018. “Occupational Activism and Racial Desegregation at Work: Activist Careers after the Nonviolent Nashville Civil Rights Movement.” Research in the Sociology of Work 32(1): 217-248. (external link)

As a site of contestation among job seekers, workers, and managers, the bureaucratic workplace both reproduces and erodes occupational race segregation and racial status hierarchies. Much sociological research has examined the reproduction of racial inequality at work; however, little research has examined how desegregationist forces, including civil rights movement values, enter and permeate bureaucratic workplaces into the broader polity. Our purpose in this paper is to introduce and typologize what we refer to as “occupational activism,” defined as socially transformative individual and collective action that is conducted and realized through an occupational role or occupational community. We empirically induce and present a typology from our study of the half-century-long, post-mobilization occupational careers of over 60 veterans of the nonviolent Nashville civil rights movement of the early 1960s. The fourfold typology of occupational activism is framed in the “new” sociology of work, which emphasizes the role of worker agency and activism in determining worker life chances, and in the “varieties of activism” perspective, which treats the typology as a coherent regime of activist roles in the dialogical diffusion of civil rights movement values into, within, and out of workplaces. We conclude with a research agenda on how bureaucratic workplaces nurture and stymie occupational activism as a racially desegregationist force at work and in the broader polity.

Isaac, Larry W., Jonathan S. Coley, Daniel B. Cornfield, and Dennis C. Dickerson. 2016. “Preparation Pathways and Movement Participation: Insurgent Schooling and Nonviolent Direct Action in the Nashville Civil Rights Movement.” Mobilization 21(2): 155-176. (external link)

mobilizationEmploying a unique sample of participants in the early Nashville civil rights movement, we extend the micro-mobilization literature by conceptualizing “preparation pathways” (“schooling” channels) through which activists acquire insurgent consciousness and capital so crucial for committed, effective, high-risk activism. We identify two key pathways in which activists were “schooled” in nonviolent praxis—experience in nonviolent direct action prior to the Nashville movement and training through intensive, highly-organized, and disciplined workshops on nonviolence praxis. Evidence suggests that both pathways prove especially efficacious in accounting for intensity and persistence of movement direct action participation. The implications of our findings extend to high-risk movement activism more generally, and also illuminate an important chapter in the southern civil rights movement. Activists are not a homogeneous lot. Instead they move through multiple paths accumulating diverse cultural and relational endowments that they bring into movements. Once there, these endowments can shape the intensity level and persistence of participation in struggle.

Isaac, Larry W., Daniel B. Cornfield, Dennis C. Dickerson, James M. Lawson, and Jonathan S. Coley. 2012. “‘Movement Schools’ and Dialogical Diffusion of Nonviolent Praxis: Nashville Workshops in the Southern Civil Rights Movement.”Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change 34(1): 155-184. (download) (external link)

rsmccWhile it is generally well-known that nonviolent collective action was widely deployed in the U.S. southern civil rights movement, there is still much that we do not know about how that came to be. Drawing on primary data that consist of detailed semi-structured interviews with members of the Nashville nonviolent movement during the late 1950s and 1960s, we contribute unique insights about how the nonviolent repertoire was diffused into one movement current that became integral to moving the wider southern movement. Innovating with the concept of serially-linked movement schools—-locations where the deeply intense work took place, the didactic and dialogical labor of analyzing, experimenting, creatively translating, and re-socializing human agents in preparation for dangerous performance—we follow the biographical paths of carriers of the nonviolent Gandhian repertoire as it was learned, debated, transformed, and carried from India to the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and Howard University to Nashville (TN) and then into multiple movement campaigns across the South. Members of the Nashville movement core cadre—products of the Nashville movement workshop schools—were especially important because they served as bridging leaders by serially-linking schools and collective action campaigns. In this way they played critical roles in bridging structural holes (places where movement had yet to be successfully established) and were central to diffusing the movement throughout the South. Our theoretical and empirical approach contributes to the development of the dialogical perspective on movement diffusion generally and to knowledge about how the nonviolent repertoire became integral to the U.S. civil rights movement in particular.