Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, and the Balance of Structure and Agency

This article from the BBC caught my attention this morning.  I've been following the protests surrounding the Zimmerman verdict and the article brings up some interesting points about where they might be expected to go based on the parallels to the killing of Emmett Till and its role in sparking the civil rights movement.

The conditions around Emmett Till's death are also good illustrations of the major structure or agency debate surrounding civil resistance and social movements generally.  The debate centers on whether social movements arise and succeed simply because of outside factors, particularly "political opportunity structures" as argued by people like Kitschelt, or whether individual choices, embodied by particular leaders or organizations, can successfully spark a movement and lead that movement to success, as argued by the civil resistance literature of people like Ackerman and Kruegler.  Are social movement defined by structures imposed from above or choices made from below?

Doug McAdam offers an important synthesis of these two perspectives in regards to the civil rights movement - both political opportunities and intelligent individual choices are necessary but insufficient to create change.  In order for a movement to be sparked, individuals must be able to recognize and take advantage of the opportunities which exist.

The article about Emmett Till above nicely dovetails these two elements.  Till's killing wasn't particularly different from many other brutal lynchings that took place around the same time but it had a powerful impact because of both structural factors and individual choices.  Structurally, it came almost immediately after a period of optimism from the Brown v. Board of Education ruling and in the larger context of the Cold War where it was critical to US interests to be perceived as morally superior to the USSR.  But individually the death had particular impact because individuals, particularly Till's mother Mamie, chose to expose the brutality of what had been done.  Without the open casket funeral and the nationally-publicized photos of Till's abuse the event would likely have had little impact.  Structure was important but not enough - Agency was important but meaningless without the larger structural context.

What direction the Trayvon Martin protests will go remains to be seen - it certainly looks as though the protests have some staying power.  However, the structural context and political opportunities don't seem favorable to the movement having a substantial impact.  The gun lobby is well-organized to oppose any sort of push for changing "stand your ground" laws, etc... and without some further widespread, highly-visible impetus the movement seems likely to eventually lose momentum.  The justice department civil rights case against George Zimmerman may go somewhere but other than that there doesn't appear to be much potential for movement.  These things are unpredictable, though and the choices which protest leaders make over the next weeks and months may end up surprising us.

No comments: