After centuries of slavery and formal caste subordination, in the three decades following WWII, hundreds of thousands of black people joined insurgent social movements in the U.S. Why did their insurgency thrive in these years? Classical social movement theories, founded on the study of black insurgency, assume a group actor and theorize macro-structural cleavages generating opportunities for insurgency by blacks generally. Instead, conceptualizing insurgent social movements as the proliferation of specific insurgent practices reveals not one, but three distinct black insurgent movements in these years: Black Anti-colonialism peaking mid-1940s, the Civil Rights Movement peaking early 1960s, and Revolutionary Black Nationalism peaking in the late 1960s. Following distinct temporal arcs, each movement mobilized different constituencies, advanced different ideologies, targeted different racial institutions, employed different tactics, challenged different authorities, and attracted different allies. Formal analysis of archival data, as well as interviews with movement leaders, and standard quantitative methods, reveal that in each wave, insurgent practices proliferated when they drew support from powerful allies even as they threatened the interests of authorities. In response, concessions by authorities reconfigured racial and political institutions, undercutting the resilience of the insurgent practices, and de-escalating each insurgency. Structural effects on insurgency are mediated by mutable and relatively ubiquitous meso-level political cleavages, and depend upon the development of insurgent practices that leverage them.
Joshua Bloom is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at UCLA. He is first author of Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (University of California Press, January 2013) and co-editor of Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy (Cornell University Press, 2010).