Jasym Mireles Venegas

Jasym Mireles Venegas
Dr. William Morgan
Honors History 1302
Genre: Historiography Essay
Word Count-5456

HIST 1302: United States History Since 1877

As an overview of how and what historians have written concerning the civil rights movement, Jasym Mireles has constructed a thorough analysis that traces the evolution of how this important topic has been understood over successive generations. In examining the role of leadership versus grass roots organization, Mireles juxtaposes the “top-down” perspective of scholars highlighted by prominent individuals with a “bottom-up” approach that privileges ordinary activists. Notably, Mireles extends the two different perspectives to include mostly understudied groups and themes, such as the role of religion and bureaucrats in the civil rights movement, to add important areas of investigation to the two contrasting approaches in understanding this history. This novel organization, facilitates a more nuanced depiction of this era.

-Bill Morgan



Declan Haun
      Protester Carrying “Justice” Sign, Monroe, North Carolina, August 26, 1961
Gelatin silver print


This historiography focuses on leadership in the American 1960’s Civil Rights Movement as exposed throughout three key periods in time: the 1960s to the 1970s, the 1980s to the early 1990s, and the late 1990s to the 2000s. In order to effectively accomplish this task, multiple scholarly articles from each of the aforementioned periods will be analyzed. Overall consensus reveals that there are three ways to study civil rights leadership, beginning with the “top-down” approach that emphasizes the achievements of prominent individuals and high tier organizations, continuing with the “bottom-up” approach that focuses on the people’s struggle, and ending with the “mixed” approach that takes into account previous scholarship while adding new areas of focus. The research provided gives a comprehensive understanding of the complex nature of leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, tracing how historians have altered and modified their viewpoints throughout time. The overwhelming conclusion of this project is that ‘the people’ had the greatest impact on the Civil Rights Movement because it was they who drove the movement forward, both at a local and national level. Future analysis should continue exploring the people’s effect, particularly in relation to how the social conditions they endured impacted their desire and ability to lead.

Leading the Civil Rights Movement

Although historians oftentimes wait until a major event is over to begin writing about it, this was not the case with the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Writings and debates over which entity led the blacks’ struggle towards equality and increased freedom began to appear in the waning years of the movement, starting in the mid to late 1960s, and continuing until today. Gradual additions to the larger scholarship of civil rights leadership have resulted in an ongoing revaluation of the understanding of the Civil Rights Movement itself, particularly whether it was an elite’s movement or “the people’s movement.” These contrasting perspectives have allowed civil rights leadership to become a narrative that is simultaneously dynamic and diverse in nature. Moreover, this topic has become unique because both past and current analyses noticeably reflect the social ethos of the era in which they were written.

In response to the heated atmosphere of the 1960s, which was centered on heeding the nation’s cries for justice, the first distinct category of the historiography of leadership in the Civil Rights Movement appeared. This initial examination lasted from the 1960s to the 1970s, when students of this movement fervently argued that the correct way to interpret the civil rights is to analyze it from what has come to be called a “top down” approach. This perspective, also referred to as the traditional approach, asserts that the plethora of achievements accomplished during the Civil Rights Movement was primarily due to members of the “top” class of society, whether they be leaders, organizations, or church ministers. Without the guidance and direction these entities provided, early historians claim, the movement would not have been united enough to accomplish any of its major goals. Though these early historians agreed on the “top down” approach itself, there is widespread, noticeable disagreement when it comes to which “top” party of the Civil Rights Movement had the most authority and impact to lead.

TOP-DOWN APPROACH (1960s-1970s)

            The Prominent Few. In the immediate aftermath of the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Kenneth Clark initiates a long, ongoing debate over the impact of the Civil Rights Movement by analyzing this movement through the traditional approach, arguing that individual leaders were at the forefront of the social change initiative. However, Clark emphasizes that some leaders, namely W. E. B Du Bois, were more effective at spearheading social change than leaders like Booker T. Washington because the latter was “pragmatic and practical, but not [as] militant or crusading” as leaders like Du Bois, who were immensely active in bringing about tangible change through any means necessary, even if it meant inciting violence (244). Using this perspective, one that favors Du Bois over Washington, Clark privileges the idea that in order for an individual to be a true leader in the Civil Rights Movement, he had to be aggressive in pursuing his objectives. Moreover, Clark separates himself from other Civil Rights Movement scholars because unlike many who idolized Martin Luther King Jr., he proposes that leadership began well before King’s time, reiterating his avid support for Du Bois by claiming that, in the 1940s, Du Bois “may well have been the most important figure in the American civil rights movement in the twentieth century” (244). Determined to increase blacks’ rights well before the 1960s, Du Bois established a solid groundwork for future leaders to pursue blacks’ social goals. This point underscores the claim that all subsequent civil rights leaders owed their emergence to the support structure envisioned by Du Bois. Further providing support for his belief that the 1960s was an era of the prominent few, Clark states that “civil rights organizations were never revolutionary” (247). Instead, it was black men that had risen to fame within black communities who inspired change for generations after their time because, as Clark emphasizes, these leaders pushed for drastic social inclusion that created a ‘domino effect,’ which ultimately allowed organizations to flourish.

Following Clark’s argument that leadership in the Civil Rights Movement was composed of a few individuals, Harold Nelson makes similar claims in an effort to further emphasize the role of central figures in having the most critical impact on the movement, a contention that highlights the larger “top-down” narrative of this period.  However, while Clark was a believer primarily in leaders who were militant intellectuals, Nelson argues that civil rights leaders were charismatic, predominantly ministerial men who had “broken the traditional white-rooted black leadership structure of southern communities” (Nelson 356). Under the supervision of men in this particular category, such as Martin Luther King Jr., “the [Civil Rights Movement] achieved its…goal of gaining formal access to the full range of institutional roles within the southern social structure,” allowing the movement itself to be propelled forward into becoming a legitimate cause the country could and needed to get behind (Nelson 359). In addition, Nelson’s analysis makes it apparent that “self-proclaimed ‘activists’” and everyday citizens were not true change-makers because they “advocated either violent or separatist strategies” and were thus, in Nelson’s view, an unwanted side effect of the 1960s rather than a revolutionary force (354). In their place was a “complex structure including a cadre of leaders…representing the general…[black] community” who efficiently led the movement through their charm, motivational diction, and strategic coordination skills (Nelson 363).

            Major Organizations. While certain historians directed their attention to the leadership ability of particular men, other civil rights scholars aimed to demonstrate that major protest organizations made up the foundational structure of the movement itself. Although Kenneth Clark disagrees with the idea that organizations were the sole agent of social change, he contends that some, like the NAACP, helped remove “almost every legal support for racial segregation” and were therefore important in the movement’s attempt to acquire governmental support (Clark 249). This achievement, though, was able to occur merely because of the leadership of the individuals who, through their capacity to oversee these organizations, were able to ensure legal leaps were made to protect the African American community against discrimination.

Like Clark, Howard Nelson argues that the success of organizations such as CORE and the NAACP was because they “could unite under individual charismatic leaders who articulated what was essentially a single general demand” (Nelson 359). While the organizations’ work was a fundamental facet of the overall movement, the origin of their various successes can ultimately be traced back to the people who molded, gave direction, and instilled purpose in the organizations themselves, the leaders. Were it not for these select men, Nelson implies, the organizations would not have had that “single general demand” to pursue, which may have ended in these various organizations’ failure (359).

Moving forward into the historiography, August Meier opposes Nelson’s viewpoint, vehemently declaring that although the NAACP and other organizations were regarded as “conservative” in the 1960s, they played an immensely important role in allowing the Civil Rights Movement to be born in the first place (437). These entities, Meier claims, paved a clear-cut, unwavering path for future change to take place because they ceaselessly fought to end “segregation and other forms of racial discrimination,” unlike the “accommodating ideology of [leaders such as] Booker T. Washington” (438). It was the initial leaders, not the organizations, who were reticent and complacent when it came to civil rights activism. Thus, it was the work of pre-civil rights organizations that stirred leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King to be created. Further, Meier reveals that when the NAACP waned in popularity, organizations such as CORE and SCLC took over the leadership role, inspiring events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott (and later Freedom Summer), which revolutionized the movement’s push for social inclusion. In Meier’s viewpoint, this demonstrates that organizations were present before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement occurred, ceaselessly working and leading people while at the same time encouraging the rise of those prominent individuals Clark and Meier pledge their support to.

Agreeing with Meier over the importance of civil rights institutional bodies, Bo Wirmark continues the debate by focusing specifically on the nonviolent action used by individuals in the Civil Rights Movement, emphasizing the important role organizations like the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, and SNCC (most importantly the latter three) played on bringing about change. Indeed, Wirmark states that SNCC allowed the “nonviolent struggle [to be] carried into the most remote parts of the South,” thereby empowering people, namely students, to make their demands heard (118). By providing students and other activist groups with the tools and supervision needed, organizations were effective in expanding the movement and in allowing a greater amount of people to feel included. Without these organizations, though, many fringe groups would not have had access to platforms that allowed them to raise their voices and ultimately achieve the radical impact they did.

Although not explicitly a part of the category of historians who claimed that organizations were significant, Howard Nelson makes a unique contribution to the historiography of civil rights leadership by bringing attention to the important role played by another type of institution: the government, namely black government officials. Nelson sternly proposes that the civil rights movement justly appeared to be led by “very few leaders…who were visible in direct-action campaigns, were the spokesmen of the organization[s] and were accorded leadership status by their followers,” exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr. and other appealing men (363). However, there were other people who must be heeded when understanding the historiography of the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, as the movement blossomed into the “direct-action phase” characterized by the increased activism of the 1960s, Nelson states that there emerged minor, yet necessary, social justice politicians, policy makers, and government officials who became known as “latent leaders” (363). These latent leaders took on the imperative role of ensuring that the things “charismatic leaders” were advocating for—free speech, equal rights, etc.— would be sanctioned by institutional offices and governmental departments (Nelson 363). Thus, while the prominent few were of major importance, so too were their governmental and institutional counterparts who, through their high-rank positions, managed to influence policy to reflect the 1960’s theme of social justice. This contribution brings attention back to the ‘noticeable’ men while at the same time keeping in mind that organizations, including governmental ones, were responsible for leading the legislative and judicial front of the Civil Rights Movement.

            Religion. Another crucial player in this revolutionary social movement were religious entities, and Jeffrey Hadden ties this perspective into leadership by stating that the clergy “as a group, [were] probably more deeply concerned about civil rights and social justice than any other group in [1960’s] society” (120). Though this may have been true in thought, Hadden effectively argues that despite the clergy’s concern for social justice, they failed to live up to it in practice. Indeed, this historian claims that the church “permitted people to sit in comfortable pews and reaffirm belief in brotherhood and love while escaping the implications and applications of this belief,” indicating that the clergy served more as a morale booster than an actual agent of change (Hadden 122). Thus, the 1960’s church was a ‘moral leader’, but it was not a physical leader willing to motivate churchgoers to leave the confines of the pews to actively seek an end to racism.

In an additional study conducted by Hadden, he and Raymond Rymph find that “clergymen have been at the forefront of the civil rights movement,” yet their role and stance in leading their congregations to support black equality vary greatly (Hadden and Rymph 51). These historians’ case studies found that even if in the overall picture the church played an imperative role in shaping the outcome of the civil rights movement, it is necessary to analyze individual clergymen’s motivations to become involved in civil rights because the actions taken by clergymen largely depended on “strong pressures…to conform to the expectations of their [clergy]” (52). This indicates that religious institutions were not cohesive in their stance against segregation, so Hadden and Rymph assert that it would be incorrect to assume that the church itself was an outspoken and supportive leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Rather, one must study the “range of theoretical perspectives which seem appropriate for analyzing” individual support for this movement, which means that one must look at clergy support on a case-by-case basis; there were many clergymen who led, but there were those who did not (61).

In contrast to Hadden and Rymph, who are fervent believers that certain clergymen did, to a great extent, participate in the Civil Rights Movement by leading church-goers to act on their moral beliefs, Kenneth Eckhardt argues that the “relationship between religious commitment and…support of the civil rights movement remains unclear” (197). This is because, according to the data this historian has amassed, churches perform “a dual function in social life,” leading people to change their attitudes on black equality depending on the implication it has on the church (Eckhardt 197). Religious and church commitments can either inhibit “attitudes of social protest when a fatalistic orientation is held toward God” or it may “instill in individuals a concern for social change if God’s word is known” (Eckhardt 203). This signifies that churches did not necessarily play a leading role in the civil rights movement itself, even though they did occasionally inspire people to push for social change.

Bottom-Up Approach (1980s-early 1990s)

            Once the omnipresent feelings of excitement and action that permeated the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement died down, a new wave of civil rights leadership historiography emerged. This new generation lasted from the 1980s to the early 1990s and was composed of civil rights students who sought to reconfigure the historiography of leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, moving away from the traditional “top down” approach and instead replacing it with a novel “bottom up” approach, through which increased attention was placed on the role ‘the people’ played in mobilizing and spearheading the Civil Rights. Through this new perspective, revisionist historians pondered whether the civil rights movement was truly a movement that was led by the plethora of “top” entities who supposedly won major racial battles, such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, through their charisma and organizational abilities. Instead, new scholars strongly argued that the central point for civil rights research should move to local communities and grass-roots organizations. Prominent men such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and organizations such as the NAACP, would not be removed from the overall picture because they were indeed important, but they would be of secondary importance to the “bottom” groups because it was these groups who gave the movement its momentum. Without the people, these historians assert, “top” parties would have no power.

The People. Among the initial historians to direct this historiography towards the aforementioned direction is Kim Rogers, who states that when people view King as the guiding force of the Civil Rights Movement, it “obscures the local origins and strengths of the Civil Rights Movement itself [because it overlooks] the process of mobilization at local levels” (567). By focusing on the prominent few and on “top” groups, past historians profoundly “diminish the radical and populist origins of the civil rights movement” in a way that limits the general public’s perception of the repercussions the Civil Rights Movement had; it was a movement for the people, by the people, and that “expanded opportunities and possibilities for all black Americans” (Rogers 567).

Echoing Rogers’ claim that power stems from the people, Clayborne Carson fervently argues that the widespread perception of individual charismatic leaders as the principal contributors to the Civil Right Movement is fundamentally erroneous. Indeed, Carson argues that the portrayal of King as the “initiator and sole indispensable element in the…black struggles of the 1950s and 1960s” is a “myth” because it comes at the expense of the entire black movement (448). By omitting the experiences of millions of Americans who consciously chose to support the movement’s cause, argues Carson, previous analyses of this movement have been critically incomplete. Moreover, many members of the Civil Rights Movement “did not wait [for leaders] to act before launching their own movement,” underscoring that the so-called ‘top’ leaders were not essential to local forms of activism because when people had the desire to pursue equality, they would do so of their own accord (Carson 451).

            The Students. Like Carson, Doug McAdam passionately reiterates the theme of the 1980s and 1990s era that leadership of the civil rights movement was dominated by the people. However, instead of focusing on black communities in general as Carson does, McAdam specifies his scope to students, claiming they “served both as the organizational basis for much of the activism of the Sixties as well as an important impetus for the broader counterculture that emerged” during the entire movement” (Weinberg 213). Were it not for the efforts of students, many of the drastic changes that occurred throughout the 1960s, including the rise of groups who opposed the American norm in an effort to assert their individuality, would likely not have taken place. Additionally, McAdam aptly shows that students’ successful use of non-violent protest, specifically during the Freedom Summer of 1964, led both prominent leaders and the black community to realize that this form of protest, student activism, was invaluable in the struggle for equality. [1]

Further supporting the mindset that students were drastic change makers is Jack Weinberg, who asserts that “students who were radicalized in the 1960s…ended up dedicating their lives to the social movements of their time” (Weinberg 214). Thus, students not only helped the movement when they were young by being active participants like McAdams had previously proposed, they also continued the fight for equality as they grew older, likely increasing the scope and impact of the Civil Rights Movement for years after the 1960s.

The Mixed Approach (late 1990s-2000s)

            Bureaucrats. Leaving behind the era that concentrated solely on the “bottom” participants of the 1960s fight for equality, historians in the late 1990s to 2000s revisited the historiography of leadership in the civil rights and, instead of moving forward with a completely novel approach as revisionist historians did, came up with a “mixed” approach. Under this style of assessment, scholars tend to recall both traditional and revisionist perspectives while adding new focal points to each of these major categories. Post-revisionist historians do not limit themselves to a specific “top-down” or “bottom-up” approach, instead preferring to remember past scholarship and adding necessary revisions to the historiography of the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement.

Spearheading the mixed approach, Gavin Mackenzie & Robert Weisbrot analyze the traditional approach, but not by bringing attention to ‘prominent or charismatic’ men. Rather, these historians place significant emphasis on another dimension of the top-down viewpoint, the political level. They argue that Lyndon B. “Johnson’s commitments made him the nation’s foremost champion of civil rights reform” because he was able to mobilize bureaucrats around the nation to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among other pieces of legislation, which allowed social progress to be backed by the legal entities of the United States (Mackenzie & Weisbrot 365). By doing this, Johnson gave meaning and immortalized the work being performed by Civil Rights leaders and activists. Thus, Johnson’s administration was able to rally enough support to pass the bills that ultimately revolutionized the movement as a whole.

Like Mackenzie and Weisbrot, Aldon Morris echoes the top-down opinion that bureaucrats were an irreplaceable addition to the Civil Rights Movement. However, while Mackenzie and Weisbrot argue the entire movement relied greatly on Lyndon B Johnson’s skills and diplomacy, Morris makes it thoroughly clear that government representatives were solely important in the judicial front. Like revisionists had previously argued, Morris proposes that black masses led the movement’s overall direction because of their noteworthy numbers and unwavering support, yet nonetheless, it was “the actions of elites external to the Black community, [such as]…white judges and court justices” that ultimately turned civil rights goals into laws (524). It was therefore neither charismatic black leaders nor black bureaucrats, as previous top down governmental historians claimed, who led the judicial frontier of the Civil Rights Movement; it was sympathetic white officials who were responsible for the passing of major bills such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

            Local communities. Agreeing with Mackenzie and Weisbrot that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a crucial piece of legislation, Nancy Maclean highlights that this act paved the way for the broadening of equality to women, Mexican Americans, and other minorities. Unlike Mackenzie and Weisbrot though, Maclean does not accredit the passage of this act to bureaucrats, but rather revisits the 1980s to 1990s approach by proposing that the “prime mover [of the Civil Rights Movement] was the black freedom movement’s fight for jobs and justice” (Maclean 370). Local black communities, implies Maclean, became impossible to ignore when they realized they had the power to ensure that the blood and sweat shed throughout the early 1960s could be rewarded if the civil rights bills were passed.

Remaining true to the mixed approach, Aldon Morris reemphasizes “bottom-up” ideas by highlighting the leadership efforts of the people themselves, claiming that the Civil Rights Movement was not truly initiated until after the mid-1950s, when “Southern Black leaders…[grasped] that the fate of the [movement] rested in the hands of the Black masses” (Morris 524). Once leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X comprehended that the power to create drastic change was in the hands of the black community, events such as the Montgomery “mass-based bus boycott” were able to take place (Morris 525) Along with events such as the one previously mentioned that helped drive the movement forward, the black community was incredibly effective at strategizing, and, Morris argues, this capacity to organize is what allowed the Civil Rights Movement, in its entirety, to succeed.

Women Power. Although women belong to the category previously mentioned because they shouldered major responsibilities when it came to getting communities organized, Maclean makes a noticeable effort to distinguish women from the communities themselves. Further, by studying women’s role in the 1960s civil rights, Maclean contrasts traditional ideologies that claimed the civil rights movement was led mainly by charismatic men (Clark), male politicians (Nelson), or clergymen (Hadden). Within her analysis, Maclean passionately argues that “when white women…chose African Americans as allies, the culture of exclusion started to give way as it never had before” (376). Though these white women may not have led the entire Civil Rights Movement, they were, in Maclean’s opinion, outspoken and zealous believers in equality. By striving to achieve gender equality, women became unintentional leading forces in the push for racial equality, ultimately winning “results that mattered to millions, even those oblivious to the source of the changes” (Maclean 376) This indicates that women played an imperative role in the Civil Rights Movement because through their efforts to ban sex discrimination, they allowed blacks (and other minorities) to move closer to banning race discrimination.

Evelyn Simien slightly echoes Maclean and brings attention to the plight of black women who were arduous activists in the African-American freedom struggle. Past historians, claims Simien, incorrectly assumed that “black leadership and civil rights movement participants [were]… a largely monolithic group” because these historians focused their studies solely on men, which resulted in a flawed indifference to “movement experiences determined by…sexuality” (747). While men played an important role in leading the movement, so too did women, and it is necessary, argues Simien, to include women in the historiography of a movement that not only affected blacks, but women as well. Without the efforts of strong female role-models such as Daisy Bates, the president of the Arkansas NAACP who ensured the successful integration of the Little Rock Nine into an all-white high school, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, and Rosa Parks, all of whom made impressive strides towards the achievement of social justice, the Civil Rights Movement would not have triumphed. It is therefore imperative, argues Simien, that both the traditional and revisionist approaches toward the study of black leadership within the civil rights, which extensively proposes that “black men led and women organized,” be revisited (747). New analyses must reflect an inclusive model that conveys that both “African American men and women influenced the political process via public persuasion, litigation, grassroots mobilization, and direct action” (Simien 747). While Simien contends that men undoubtedly also led the Civil Rights Movement, she makes it comprehensively evident that it was a sore mistake not to have included them in earlier analyses of the leadership in the civil rights.


By analyzing the historiography of leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, it is possible to infer that all three major time periods studied above contain valuable and adequate additions to the overall implications of the movement. Beginning with the “top-down” approach, there is stark disagreement as to how to correctly decipher “top down” leadership. Nevertheless, traditional historians like Clark, Nelson, and Hadden have accepted that the most important participants of the movement were those who were either at the national spotlight or those who had more power than the common man. While the idea set forth by this initial approach reveals that the ‘prominent few’, major organizations, and religion were all excellent at providing moral and/or emotional guidance, it fails to convincingly argue how it is justifiable to place the people and the local communities in the shadows when these men and women were responsible for the status those “top” entities received. On the other hand, the “bottom-up” approach clearly portrays local communities and students as the rightful leaders of the civil rights, claiming that these two groups had a massive national presence that, when correctly organized, had the power to demand and bring about drastic social change. Revisionist historians, including Rogers, Carson, and McAdams, were effective in showing the true authority of the people not only to lead locally, but also to make their voices heard to the point where national entities listened to their outcries. Lastly, the “mixed” approach has no central idea other than its desire to analyze prior scholarship in order to build upon past ideas. Thus far, it is evident that Mackenzie, Weisbrot, Maclean, Simien, and others have made valuable additions to the historiography that expand the reach of both the traditional and revisionist approaches. Because there is no overwhelming consensus of who led the Civil Rights Movement in the “mixed” approach, it does not efficiently reveal which civil rights entity was most crucial in moving the movement forward. However, this last wave of scholars has been successful in revitalizing this historiography and in providing new pathways for it to continue to develop. Future analysis should continue exploring the people’s effect, particularly in relation to how the social conditions they endured impacted their desire and ability to lead.

Bringing the historiography of leadership in the Civil Rights Movement to a larger context, it is imperative to recall that past misconceptions about this movement, primarily “1) that it accomplished everything that was needed for equality among the races and 2) that it failed to accomplish anything since racism and glaring inequities persist,” are still pervasive among the general population today (Hunter 64). Because this is so, further debate over the Civil Rights Movement is necessary in order to increase awareness of the movement’s numerous implications; though racism and other forms of discrimination still occur in the 21st century, one must acknowledge that it was through the leadership efforts of various entities, including prominent individuals, black communities and other minorities, churches, organizations, and governmental institutions, that America’s inherent prejudices were brought to light.


[1] See reference to McAdam in: Weinberg, Jack. “Students and Civil Rights in the 1960s.” History of Education Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 2, 1990, pp. 213–224. Web.

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