Does their use of lawyers and legal strategies advance or constrain the achievement of their goals? And, how do movements shape the lawyers who serve them and how do lawyers shape the movements? Cause Lawyering for Civil.
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Moving Law on Behalf. Reassessing the Influence. Social Movement Strategies and the Participatory Potential. How Cause Lawyers Frame the Legal. The Role of Cause Lawyers.
Cause Lawyers as Legal Professionals and Social. The Role of Lawyers in the Struggle. Among the most iconic images of the civil rights movement is that of police officers unleashing fire hoses and dogs on black children in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. That spring, in , families throughout the United States huddled around their televisions, watching in horror as racism in the segregated South was exposed in its most visceral and violent form.
Many historians cite the confrontation in Birmingham as the pivotal moment that paved the way for the Civil Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson just over a year later. The confrontation changed the political atmosphere in the country and crystallized an overwhelming public demand for action toward racial equality. Did this dramatic conflict occur by chance—emerging simply from the zeitgeist of the time?
Was the subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act merely the work of politicians in Washington? The protests in Birmingham were part of a carefully crafted mobilization, and their impact was far-reaching. Moreover, they are emblematic of how protest movements can break out quickly often to the surprise of outside observers , alter public consciousness, and affect both our society's social norms and its laws. When civil rights organizers—then led by Martin Luther King Jr.
Rather, they set out to generate popular pressure that would split the segregation establishment. The organizers intentionally chose the heart of the segregated South to dramatize the violence that black people had been suffering for generations. Their campaign, and their effective drive to use the national media to demonstrate how the violence of Jim Crow was an affront to American values, brought public consciousness to a boiling point. Birmingham was only one moment in a period of intense movement activity that spanned almost a decade. Although the Supreme Court's Brown v.
Board of Education decision to desegregate schools came down in , that ruling by itself did not ensure justice. In fact, the court's decision actually engendered more racist backlash in the South, where embattled racists dug in and increased repression of those who stood up to Jim Crow. It was only with intensified social movement activity—which produced important breakout moments such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott of , the lunch counter sit-ins of , the Freedom Rides of , the Birmingham campaign of , and the Selma campaign of —that politicians were decisively moved to take the necessary steps to dismantle the legal and political foundations of segregation.
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Although many of the breakthrough campaigns were local in character, their impact was national. Where the spotlight illuminated the evil, a legislative remedy was soon obtained and applied everywhere. Shortly before Birmingham, many political experts considered passing substantive civil rights legislation an impossibility, given conditions in the Senate, which was largely controlled by southern delegations that were strongly pro-segregation.
President John F. Kennedy was pragmatically averse to risking support from southern Senators and was reluctant to put forward full support for the cause. Yet suddenly, one month after the campaign in Birmingham made international news, Kennedy delivered a fiery address in support of civil rights.
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This historic about-face ushered in concrete legislation. Public outrage, among both whites and blacks, had shifted so that he risked more by not supporting civil rights than by taking a strong stance. This is how social movements work: They turn developments once seen as impossible into feasible ones by shifting public opinion and altering the limits of political possibility. The Birmingham case in not unique.
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In many places and time periods, we see that mass mobilizations have a profound effect in setting the stage for legal and legislative change. Unfortunately, despite playing a critical role, protest movements are dramatically underfunded. Foundations and large donors are far more likely to focus on the endgame of social transformation—backing the lobbyists and lawyers who formalize the agreements made possible by movement activity. But this approach leaves a huge gap in the social change ecosystem and often makes possible only piecemeal reforms.
To promote more transformational change, funders must recognize the vital role that mass protest organizing makes in creating the conditions for substantive reforms, and they must work to bolster activity in the parts of the social movement ecology that remain undernourished. When it comes to social change, our society has a huge bias. In hindsight, our history books and media spokespeople tend to attribute major social changes to the actions of powerful officials rather than the political forces that compelled such individuals to act.
Even in cases where movement activity is well documented, such as the Civil Rights Movement, accounts often fixate on the actions of presidents and powerful senators in moving legislation. Too often, they chalk up the social change victories to the leaders' humanitarianism or to the natural tides of history. This bias toward emphasizing the actions of powerholders overlooks how the decisions of officials are often a consequence of organizing and pressure applied from below.
In recent years, we have seen this bias at work in accounts of how marriage equality for LGBTQ couples was won. Many political commentators see the victory as a primarily the product of Supreme Court jurisprudence and as the result of dedicated lawyers pushing the issue through the courts. However, this view is incomplete at best.
Certainly, legal advocates did critical work. But to tell only their story is to miss the wider picture of social change—and to distort the process by which important legal and political victories are achieved. Take it from one of the lawyers who fought for decades to secure that win: Evan Wolfson.
In , Wolfson was a young lawyer working in Hawaii who was asked to join a landmark case on marriage discrimination. Being in a progressive state like Hawaii, he thought they had a shot at winning marriage equality, and, in fact, they did. In , the Hawaiian Supreme Court made a historic ruling that legalized unions between same-sex couples. Just two years later, however, what seemed like a victory turned into defeat when voters overturned the ruling. Wolfson was devastated. But this early loss provided a strategic lesson that would later steer the movement toward national victory.
The setback at the polls in Hawaii made him come to a profound realization: that court victories alone were simply not enough. We needed to be able to mount a sustained affirmative campaign to drive a strategy all the way to completion through ups and downs.
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In the s, Wolfson continued pushing forward legal cases in pivotal states such as Massachusetts. But now, he did not limit his work to the courtroom. Instead, he insisted that the movement supplement legal challenges with organizing campaigns to engage the public. Campaigns that Wolfson supported set out to tackle public sentiment state by state.
In many cases, they sparked mobilizations of tens of thousands of people—protests that responded to important developments such as the passage of the discriminatory Proposition 8 in California. Beyond classic demonstrations, the broader movement for marriage equality worked to gain acceptance within specific institutions, pulling down each pillar that propped up discrimination. Youth constituencies activated campuses around discrimination by establishing LGBTQ clubs at a majority of colleges all over the United States.
Within major religious institutions, there were significant efforts to gain acceptance within congregations and leadership positions. Even professional institutions were pulled into the public debate. The American Psychiatric Association, for example, was pressured to remove homosexuality from its list of psychological dysfunctions. The movement used a slew of tactics, including traditional door knocking campaigns and more creative cultural interventions.
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The movement actively encouraged people to come out of the closet in their communities—to go beyond revealing their sexual orientation to friends and family, and make pride in their identity a public statement. As movement activity increased, cultural shifts began taking place, and marriage equality gained more support across many different constituencies. As my brother and I note in our book on nonviolent revolt, This Is an Uprising , although these shifts eventually affected mainstream opinions, a smaller minority of people drove them and pushed the issue onto the priority list:.
Changing the tides of public opinion proved effective. By the time of the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, which legalized same-sex marriage nationally, 37 states and the District of Columbia were already recognizing such unions—a huge shift from , when same-sex marriage was regarded as a third-rail political issue and 26 states had passed amendments explicitly prohibiting it.