The 1960s were a time of tempestuous turmoil and stormy conflict, of racial tensions and assassinations, of sit-ins and war protests. It was this era of revolution that sparked the fires of civil rights movements all across the United States, flaring the rightful anger against discrimination and inequality that still pervaded the country.
It also provided the backdrop for Stanford sociology Professor Doug McAdam to investigate social movements and ultimately receive the 2010 Tisch Civil Engagement Prize.
“We awarded [McAdam] the Prize because of three areas in his lifetime work: understanding the effects of participating in a social movement on individuals, the success or failure of a social movement and race in America,” said Peter Levine, director of the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, a branch of Tufts University similar to the HAAS Center at Stanford.
This award has been bestowed a total of three times in the course of the College’s existence. The first recipient was Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton sociologist who studied self-help groups in modern society. The second recipient was Elinor Ostrom, an expert in how small groups can cooperate harmoniously for the greater public good, and especially in how they can benefit the environment.
“It’s given as a lifetime achievement award and for active citizenship,” Levine added.
McAdam has devoted his life to citizenship–either by participating in social movements himself in the early 1970s to trekking across the country to get an on-the-ground look at different social movements.
“I had been politically active in the anti-war movement when I was in college,” remembered McAdam, “and I decided to study social movements, which had always interested me, because of my own background.”
The Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service was particularly impressed by McAdam’s work on the civil rights project called Freedom Summer, which culminated in a “brilliant” book called “Freedom Summer.”
“In Freedom Summer, 1,000 primarily white college students were recruited to go, in the summer of 1964, to Mississippi to register black voters,” McAdam said. “That’s why I picked it as the starting point of the project, where I was interested in the links between movements. I wondered how many of them had been radicalized or trained in the civil rights movement that summer and then went on to play pioneering roles in other movements.”
McAdam went on a quest to examine the backgrounds of these recruits. While there was no actual list of the students, by a stroke of luck, he unearthed the original applications of the volunteers, both the participants and the non-participants, at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta, Ga.
“Suddenly, I had this natural experiment dropped in my lap, there were these two groups that looked very similar,” McAdam said. “On the eve of the summer, one goes to Mississippi, the other doesn’t, what difference did that choice make in their lives? The simple answer is it totally changed the biographies of the two groups.”
After a year and a half of searching through alumni associations and phonebooks, driving around the country, surveying the application owners and interviewing a randomly-picked 40 individuals, McAdam had gathered enough material to draw conclusions from the study.
“We always say that in the ‘60s, there were all these different movements, but they weren’t all different,” he said. “There was one large activist community, with its roots squarely in the civil rights struggle, and then individuals coming out of the civil rights movement were addressing other issues like Vietnam, women’s rights, the environment, so one of the really strong implications was that movements are not discrete.”
The students of Freedom Summer were from very privileged backgrounds. The largest groups of volunteers attended Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, MIT and Princeton, and were all from upper class and upper-middle class families. This was the design of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in founding Freedom Summer. They realized that they needed publicity in order to promote their cause, as they were barred from progress both by the hostile white surrounding communities as well as the general oblivion in the United States of the horrific nature of the racism in Mississippi: six or seven SNCC volunteers had already been killed.
“They reasoned that if they brought the sons and daughters of the white privileged to Mississippi, the media would follow,” McAdam said. “ And that would then make the rest of the country aware of how bad it was.”
Another goal of Freedom Summer was to burst the sheltered, naïve bubbles of idealization in which the northern students resided. The students were mainly mobilized for religious reasons, education purposes and participation in Young Democrat groups. The hostility they encountered on their expedition shocked them into action, making them the forerunners of the social movements of the 1960s, in contrast to the fairly inactive applicants who were accepted and yet declined to attend Freedom Summer.
“Doug McAdam’s work should make us think of social services, and why they are good,” Levine observed. “We are trying to understand that so we can change the world.”