Activism and the limits of moral suasion

As radical an organization as SNCC had always been, its modus operandi had remained but an aggressive variation on the “petition the masters” strategy. Its approach depended upon the federal government’s willingness to respond to “moral suasion,” albeit of a forceful sort. Events in Mississippi had undermined SNCC’s confidence in such a strategy. But it was the convention challenge that foreclosed this strategic option once and for all. In the eyes of the SNCC leadership, the Northern liberal elite had finally shown its true colors; moral force had proven no match for raw political power.

It was one thing to come to this conclusion, quite another to know how to act on it. Having based their entire operation on a politics of personal witness, the SNCC leadership faced enormous obstacles in trying to devise a new tactical agenda. If moral suasion had not worked, what would? Stokely Carmichael’s call for “black power” some two years later was as much a rhetorical symbol of the organization’s failure to resolve this dilemma as it was a real solution to the problem. In the face of impotence, one boasts of potency.

Ironically, then, it was Freedom Summer and the MFDP challenge—the crowning glory of SNCC’s existential style—that exposed the limits of the approach and left the organization in a quandary as to how to proceed. Efforts to resolve the dilemma would embroil the organization in almost continuous controversy for the remainder of its short life.

McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. Oxford University Press; Oxford. 1988. p. 121–2

Obviously this has huge relevance to the contemporary climate change activist movement, which is similarly confronted with ineffectiveness and riven by disagreement on how to proceed in response.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

One thought on “Activism and the limits of moral suasion”

  1. Ladner said she and others “did it for ourselves. We weren’t aware of history at that time, or that one day it would go down in history, because these events were in the moment. We didn’t have time to focus on long-term strategies.”

    Cobb referred to a phrase often used by one of the SNCC’s co-founders, Julian Bond: “He used to say that public opinion about the civil rights movement can be boiled down to one sentence: ‘Rosa sat down, Martin stood up and then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.’ ”

    “Even after then, it was still a lot of resistance,” Ladner said. “Three weeks after the march, the church was burned in Birmingham that killed the four little girls,” she said, referring to the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

    The following year— just before Freedom Summer began in Mississippi — Gallup asked whether mass demonstrations by blacks were likely to help or hurt the fight for equality. Nearly three-fourths of Americans said they would hurt.

    “People have a great view of what happened in the 1960s,” said Courtland Cox, a one-time SNCC field organizer and is now chairman of the SNCC Legacy Project, “and this country has moved forward and we’ve done all these things. We even elected a [black] president. We thought we were post this, but the reality is we’re not.”

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