Courage to Dissent

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Tomiko Brown-Nagin. Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xii, 578 pp. $34.95, ISBN 9780195386592



In her 2011 book about the civil rights struggle, Tomiko Brown-Nagin seeks to flip the traditional narrative on its head in order to identify and understand the narratives of local black communities that helped shape the civil rights battle on the streets, in stores, and in the courts. Her research and narrative are focused tightly on Atlanta and its surrounding region, but she argues that observations of Atlanta are illustrative for the history of civil rights across the nation. Brown-Nagin argues principally that “local black community members acted as agents of change” (7). She highlights the ways in which the national policy of the NAACP and LDF sometimes conflicted with the needs of the local community or the goals of the local branches.

Through street protests, sit-ins, negotiation, litigation, and community action, these African Americans worked from the bottom up in a fight for civil rights that suited their needs. Because those needs were not universal, the black community fought both external and internal conflict. Brown-Nagin acknowledges the complexity of the situation, and “how class, race, and self-interest shaped the legal and political strategies of activists” (12).

From the 1950s to the 70s, black community members and lawyers in Atlanta used diverse methods to fight for civil rights, including pragmatic lawyering, direct action, litigation, and movement lawyering. In her final assessment, Brown-Nagin concludes that “In Atlanta, each wave of civil rights activists insisted on defining equality and the paths toward it in its own way, and each group gave rise to a new wave of activists with different priorities, strategies, and tactics” (432).


Dan Curry, Spring 2014

In her book, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement, Tomiko Brown-Nagin provides a significant contribution to the historiography of the American Civil Rights Movement. Much like Hasan Kwame Jeffries’ book, Bloody Lowndes, Brown-Nagin’s Courage to Dissent focuses on bottom-up influences as well as conflicting strategies and goals within the African American Community. Although urban Atlanta and rural Lowndes County differ in many respects, both books contain common themes regarding class conflict within the African American community and national versus local conflict regarding civil rights strategies and goals.

Brown-Nagin provides a detailed explanation of how “pragmatic civil rights” advocates such as A.T. Walden, “penniless blacks” such as Ethel Mae Mathews, student activists and national leaders such as Thurgood Marshall all had conflicting opinions and definitions of success. Most importantly, she brings out how the Civil Rights Movement “actually” evolved in Atlanta and that “no grand, absolutist theories about courts, lawyers, and social change” tell the whole story (p. 434). Her narrative remains objective by providing a thorough analysis of motivations, priorities and fears of each group. She also explains how they all contributed to positive results and concludes that “friction between and among lawyers and political activists over ideology and methods often energized the civil rights movement in Atlanta” (p. 432).

Spencer Roberts, Spring 2014

Brown-Nagin’s approach to the civil rights movement is particularly interesting because it reconstructs the narrative to reinsert the experiences of local blacks who helped shape the civil rights activism in Atlanta, and were profoundly affected by the results of legislative and legal decisions. For the men and women who lived in segregated society, lawyers were not always the most expedient or desirable way to show their insistence on equal treatment. Brown-Nagin reclaims the civil rights movement for those people who were not nationally recognized or infamous in the courts, but whose actions were crucial in the debates about segregation (whether they supported or opposed it).

Brown-Nagin’s upended approach is striking, but also suffers from plodding, exhausting accounts of court cases, legal battles, and litigious manoeuvrings that can leave a reader wondering where the people involved had gone. Although she attempts to keep them present while discussing the courts’ procedures, the voices of local blacks is often a faint echo in the arguments presented by lawyers. Brown-Nagin notes, in fact, that poor and working class blacks were rarely represented well in those instances, but struggles to include their narrative in her own account. It is necessary, however, to include the legal wrangling in an account of the civil rights movement, and Brown-Nagin’s makes a fairly successful attempt to keep a balance between individual agents and legal proceedings.

Only serious research on other urban civil rights activism could truly test Brown-Nagin’s arguments about Atlanta and its representativeness; perhaps historians might find success using lengthier, more urban-centred approaches in a style similar to Danielle McGuire’s gender and sexuality focus in At the Dark End of the Street. Most importantly, however, Brown-Nagin has challenged the version of civil rights history that resounds throughout society, asking historians to dig deeper into the sources and be attentive to alternative forms of activism that may not match the image of notable lawyers and famous leaders.

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

Brown-Nagin demonstrates both the potential and the limitations of civil rights activism through litigation. While she focuses on actions within the courts, she acknowledges the limited impact and slow rate of change following these decisions, Brown in particular. Equally important, Brown-Nagin shows how, particularly when pragmatic elites were in charge of the movement, negotiations and settlements between African American and white leaders often served the best interests of the elites of both races. By highlighting the court-based civil rights activists as well as those engaged in direct action, Brown-Nagin highlights not only their differences but their similarities. As she states in the introduction, the author is sensitive to the way “class, race, and self-interest” motivated activists, both in and out of the courtroom.(12) This sensitivity to issues of class division within the African American population of Atlanta helps to balance the narrative, which of necessity often focuses on elites within that population.

While Atlanta may not be representative of the nation as a whole, it was one of the largest cities in the South and, as Brown-Nagin points out, was in competition with Charlotte, North Carolina for the status of lead city of the "New South." Specific court cases, and even the implementation of school desegregation, may have been unique to the city, but the conflict within the movement, particularly tension between pragmatism and direct action, were wide spread.

Anne Ladyem McDivitt, Spring 2015

Tomiko Brown-Nagin in Courage to Dissent examines a "movement with many dimensions," much like many recent works in the historiography of the long civil rights movement. (p. 173) Recently, many books sought to expand our traditional view of what encompassed the traditional civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and Brown-Nagin's monograph holds a similar goal. Focused on the city and people in Atlanta, Georgia, she demonstrates the how "each wave of civil rights activists insisted on defining equality and the paths toward it in its own way, and each group gave rise to a new wave of activists with different priorities, strategies, and tactics." (432)

Much like Roberts, I felt that the book sometimes was bogged down exhaustive coverage of legal cases, sometimes losing her goal of a "bottom-up" history focusing on the local people of Atlanta. (434) Brown-Nagin considers her work more of a bottom-up history because instead of focusing on the NAACP LDF, she argues that "the complicated and changing relationships between leaders of the national and local NAACP and between leaders of the national and local civil rights bars, are at the root." (8) I feel that this work is strong in its focus on Atlanta's civil rights movement, the treatment of class, and its study of the bottom-up legal history of the movement.

Beth Garcia, Spring 2015

In Courage to Dissent, Tomiko Brown-Nagin provides an in-depth and insightful analysis of the various groups and individuals that led Atlanta in its long struggle for civil rights. By examining the diversity of actors and their often competing strategies and ideologies, Brown-Nagin demonstrates that the fight for civil rights was not a monolithic and wholly unified movement. Lawyers and political activists had different ideas about how the battle for civil rights might best be won. But, as Brown-Nagin skillfully shows, this tension between those who saw victory in the courts and those who saw it in more direct action campaigns actually helped to energize the civil rights movement. She captures this tension well in discussions of the NAACP and the SNCC where the NAACP’s continued emphasis on legal strategies that produced less immediate results were consistently countered by the SNCC’s calls for sit-ins, boycotts, and other direct action campaigns. As Brown-Nagin argues, it was often “the justices’ inaction and timidity that propelled the direct action wing of the civil rights movement forward” (433).

Beyond strategic differences, Brown-Nagin demonstrates that participants in the movement also shared ideological differences; while all civil rights activists might have demanded equality, they did not always agree on the meaning of this term. These differences are best depicted in Brown-Nagin’s analysis of Atlanta’s school desegregation battles. For many middle-class black men and women, desegregation threatened the livelihoods of the city’s thousands of black teachers and administrators; equality could be achieved only if black men and women were granted equal economic opportunities and, thus, for these activists, equality was conceived of in economic terms. But for others, particularly those of the lower classes, equality would only be achieved when black children were granted the same educational opportunities as white children. These activists believed that separate would always remain unequal and thus advocated pupil integration and such implementation strategies as busing.

Brown-Nagin’s analysis of the school desegregation battles highlights also the class dimension of the civil rights movement. The lawyers who represented the “black community” and even African-American politicians who were elected to represent black interests failed to include the working class or to address their interests in any meaningful way. These leaders did not recognize that the “black community” was actually many communities, “often divided by class” (359). Through this examination of class, Brown-Nagin demonstrates again that the movement for civil rights was not a monolithic one but one wrought with internal tensions.

Courage to Dissent is a well-written and compelling study that successfully weaves together the local and the national to shed new light on Atlanta’s long struggle for civil rights.

David McKenzie, Spring 2015

Tomiko Brown-Nagin's Courage to Dissent presents a local study of the long civil rights movement in Atlanta. This approach allows her to tease out a great deal of nuance often missing from national and legal histories of civil rights. The greater nuance, namely, comes from her focus on divisions within the African American community (a loose term, to be sure) in Atlanta: Divisions of education, social class, and generation. These divisions provide part, but not a full, explanation for differences in approach to civil rights. Elites like A.T. Walden, for example, pursued a measured approach that emphasized the "equal" part of "separate but equal" in the 1940s and 1950s, realizing that pushing further might jeopardize his own interest. Then the next generation, which pursued cases like Brown v. Board of Education, found sit-ins and other activist activities too brazen. As Brown-Nagin shows, each generation of activist sought to push the envelope further, while learning from the previous generation (although not always). Additionally, those who had achieved middle class and elite status sought to protect their gains, and did not always see economic rights in the same realm as they saw civil rights—an important distinction that Brown-Nagin covers well.

Atlanta is a particularly poignant choice for this study because of its centrality to the story of civil rights and the reputation the city tried to build as being "too busy to hate"—a reputation that Brown-Nagin shows was frequently unwarranted. Thus, the story, while locally focused, also resonates with wider implications that perhaps only a study of Birmingham, Alabama, could come close to matching. At the same time, though, using Atlanta as the example does raise the question of how different a comprehensive study of the same questions in a less central Southern city would yield. Courage to Dissent, which is instructive not only for those looking to understand the long civil rights movement in Atlanta but nationally, provides a good basis to begin such comparisons.

Rebecca Adams, Spring 2016

In her work Courage to Dissent Brown-Nagin traces the trajectory of the civil rights movement in Atlanta. She focuses not only on monumental court cases and legal organizations (NAACP and LDF) but also on the grass roots organizing of lesser known activists, giving us a bottom-up history. She examines the movement in three phases. In Phase One she focuses on activists like Atlanta lawyer AT Walden and his pragmatic method of activism- slow, deliberate negotiation and compromise (preferably without litigation) common among the cities black elite and middle class. Phase Two focuses on the civil rights activists who challenged pragmatists like Walden and touted direct action- specifically the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Although these young activists tended to dislike using the courts to affect change preferring instead to take to the streets, they did support “movement lawyering” embodied by SNCC attorney Len Holt that empowered citizens to file their own suits. Phase Three focuses mainly on low income women and their advocates who find fault in the local civil rights leadership in Atlanta. These women, championed by Ethel Mae Matthews and Margie Hames, believed that the black leadership ignored the needs of the impoverished in order to ensure gains among the middle class and elites.

By examining multiple civil rights groups, both local and national, Brown-Nagin places emphasis on the conflicts and cooperation between these groups and how they pushed and pulled one another in way that both hindered and aided the movement. She argues that successes within the movement should not be attributed only to court cases and the well known organizations, that without the movement of local, everyday activists these cases might never have materialized or they might never have been implemented on the ground.

Andrew Salamone, Spring 2016

In Courage to Dissent, tomiko Brown-Nagin illuminates the differing views and approaches to the Civil Rights movement that African-Americans pursued during the 1950s and 1960s. Focused specifically on Atlanta, Brown-Nagin uses the career of the prominent lawyer A. T. Walden to explore the impact economic class had on the cohesiveness of the movement. Walden, and those who chose to follow what Brown-Nagin called his "pragmatic" approach to combating Jim Crow, were often driven by their desire not to disrupt the social and economic environment to the point that it would jepoardize their place in the emerging black middle class. For example, Walden was an ardent supporter of the voting rights campaign, but unlike civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, Walden opposed efforts to desegregate Atlanta's schools. This difference between Walden, the NAACP, and many important civil rights leaders would help shape the movement over the next few decades. As the Civil Rights movement evolved, young and sometimes more militant leaders rose to prominence during the late 60s, but it seems that she argues that these leaders gradually moderated their approach, particularly if they were able to achieve small victories, resulting in a situation in which there was an increasingly wide "chasm" between these two groups.

Overall, Brown-Nagin's work provides a window into the internal and external forces that helped shaped the Civil Rights movement across several decades. Rather than presenting it as a single cohesive push to do away with racially opressive practices, she underscores that the social and economic situation of participants often dictated how far they would go to challenge the existing order. She also seems to argue that the political power that African-Americans were able to achieve came with a price. It further alienated these new political leaders from the communities they were supposed to represent, reinforcing the gap between middle class blacks and their working class constituents.

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