The Legitimacy of Protest: Explaining White Southerners’ Attitudes Toward the Civil Rights Movement

Source: Kenneth T. Andrews, Kraig Beyerlein, Tuneka Tucker Farnum, Social Forces, First published online: August 17, 2015
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From the abstract:
Activists seek attention for their causes and want to win sympathy from the broader public. Why do some citizens but not others approve when activists use protest tactics? This is a crucial but poorly understood aspect of social movements. While most prior research has focused on the personal determinants of attitudes toward movements, we argue that proximity to protest may cultivate positive views about a movement. Individuals living near centers of movement activity may become more favorable to protest because they become more sympathetic to the demands of activists. We investigate public support about protest tactics among white Southerners during the early stages of the civil rights movement. To do so, we employ a representative survey conducted in 1961 with nearly 700 white adults living in the South. These survey data are combined with contextual data measuring local protest, political behavior, and civic organizations. Most scholars have focused on the ways that civil rights activity propelled white counter-mobilization, but protest also won sympathy from a small subset of white Southerners, thereby fracturing the dominant consensus in support of Jim Crow segregation. We also find that local racial political context matters: individuals living in counties with weaker support for segregationist politics, where white moderates were active, and outside the Deep South were generally more favorable. At the individual level, our strongest findings indicate that sit-in support was more likely from those with greater educational attainment, less frequent church attendance, and exposure to discussions about race relations from the pulpit.