Why Movements Matter in Black Politics

Photo courtesy of Shivani Somaiya


It is impossible to understand the long arc of the Black Freedom Movement – ​​from the early 20th century to the movement’s crescendo of activism in the 1960s to today’s Black Lives Matter movement – ​​without integrating party research politics and social movement research with black politics research. , whether this research takes place in the disciplines of political science, sociology or history.

In recent years, black politics experts have focused on how activists in the movement have pressured national political party leaders to grant more rights and more power to black citizens. From Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush, working both inside and outside the electoral system, mobilizing grassroots popular support.

Yet, due to methodological barriers, it is not a narrative that is often embedded in research on institutions in American politics.

Sidney Tarrow’s invaluable new study of American political parties and social movements highlights the need to rethink the separation between the various subfields. Specifically, to think more critically about how scholars make decisions about the voices and events that matter in the writing of American Political Development (APD). For example, Tarrow shows us how serious engagement in social movement research will broaden the way scholars think about critical moments and deepen their understanding of the American party system.

But when we broaden the analytical lens of research on the American party system, what other areas of research have been silenced or overlooked?

What struck me in reading Tarrow’s book was how few scholars of the party system and ODA recognize the research done by black scholars on the interplay between the black freedom movement and the two political parties.

I suspect this is because most ODA researchers focus narrowly on institutions and political elites. However, since black people have always been excluded from political institutions, scholars of black politics, on the other hand, have often emphasized the importance of non-elitist social actors and movements.

For the most part, scholars in the two subfields have often sparred, unless Black protests reach a level that compels elites and elite institutions to respond, whether through a federal legislation or Supreme Court decisions. To be blunt, black protests are only worth studying by most ODA scholars when they directly affect white political life.

It is true that there has been an influx of political science scholars focusing, for example, on historical court cases and civil rights legislation of the 1960s. But, this scholarship ignores how movements build momentum and help to support the holidays in the years between these “great” moments or critical moments. It also ignores how inclusion and exclusion from the party system shape the strategies that black movement activists see as viable.

Take the case of Black Lives Matter. Close attention to the massive protests of 2020 and their immediate effects might suggest that their most significant political consequence was the backlash among voters alarmed by the “Defund the Police” slogan, and the subsequent decline in public opinion polls. in favor of the movement. .

Yet, viewed through the prism of a black political approach that treats social movements as an integral aspect of American political development, the movement’s deeper, long-term impact has been readable in many other ways.

The 2013 and 2015 phases of the Black Lives movement transformed people’s understanding of the power they could potentially wield in the electoral process. For many black people who had backed down or been intentionally silenced in the electoral process, the protests in the movement’s early years lowered barriers to political engagement and created new on-ramps to democracy.

At the same time, the movement has opened up new space for those previously involved in the electoral process to share their grievances and debate broader repertoires of collective action through new Black Lives Matter affiliate organizations.

In other words, the initial achievements of Black Lives Matter continue to shape, not just the future of this movement, but the future of the Democratic Party. Indeed, the increased focus on engaging Black voters had a direct and immediate impact on voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election. Voter registration drives were conducted during Black Lives Matter protests during historic 2020 protests and many leaders of black-led polling organizations have also been actively involved in the same protests. As a result of building new political alliances through struggle, leaders were able to bring together previously fragmented organizing work under one umbrella.

As a result, and despite violent voter suppression, black organizers registered and helped secure record numbers of voters in Georgia’s national presidential election and runoff. Georgia-based voting rights organizations including Fair Fight, Black Voters Matter and the New Georgia Project played a key role in turning Georgia blue and electing two Democratic senators in the January 2021 runoff election. The adoption of the movement by some members of the Democratic Party have in turn had an impact on the movement itself. Many activists in the movement devote time and energy to electoral efforts and some veterans of the movement have decided to run for office.

If the last ten years are any indication, movements in the American political system aren’t going away, no matter how many political scientists who canceled the Tea Party a decade ago and are trying to cancel the Black Lives Matter movement now. While these movements may not fit neatly into conventional analyzes of political development, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a continuing and significant impact on American political institutions. In the final analysis, what the struggle for black freedom teaches us is that institutions can be transformed into places where state actors and marginalized groups renegotiate power. I believe that American political development derives its dynamism from the tension between powerful actors and those who challenge and criticize the projects they seek to implement. I also believe that scholars who study it can learn a lot from a new engagement, not only with scholars of social movements, but also with experts in black politics.


Megan Ming Francis is the G. Alan and Barbara Delsman Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington.


Click here to read Sidney Tarrow’s essay “Social Movements and Political Parties in the Creation and Undoing of Modern American Democracy”.

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