Biography and History in the Nashville Civil Rights Movement

With Larry Isaac, Dan Cornfield, Dennis Dickerson, and James Lawson, I have been researching participation in the early Nashville civil rights movement. This project draws on oral history interviews and archival data on 63 members of the Nashville civil rights movement. Abstracts of recent articles from this project can be found below.

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 and 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.