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Cascades, Slave Revolts, and Civil Rights Protests

As an Africana Studies and mathematics major, my interest was peaked when Dr. Tardos referenced the Civil Rights Movement in class today. I have always looked for ways to intersect the two disciplines, and this blog post seems like a great way to do that. With that said, I hope to analyze African American history in terms of some of the ideas discussed in class and in chapter 19.

More specifically, consider the comparison of slave revolts during the 1800’s to the protests that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. No collection of slave revolts could even come close to ending slavery in the way that the collection of protests during the 1960s contributed to the end of racial segregation. From a network standpoint, some of the more relevant reasons for the differences in results are: 1) Communication between slaves was kept to a minimum by slave owners, while African Americans were allowed to communicate freely amongst each other, which lends itself to 2) slave revolts were generally local, while civil rights protests were coordinated nationally 3)

A major difference between the two time periods is the existence “common knowledge” in the black community during the 1960’s, by way of its major social institutions. During slavery, there were many major obstacles to the “common knowledge” that would allow for a successful rebellion. Communication was limited and most organizational efforts were prohibited by slave owners – precisely to prevent revolt. The only time slaves were generally allowed to congregate was for church, under the supervision of whites. Communicating across long distances was even less likely, so that even if a revolt was planned, slaves had no real way of knowing whether or not the others would go through with it and would be less likely to join themselves. In addition, the social network of a slave was constantly shifting. As family members and friends were sold off, the strong ties that are supposed to contribute heavily to the adoption of behavior (joining a revolt) became weak or nonexistent.

In contrast, blacks were able to communicate and create organizations freely during the Civil Rights Movement. This is evidenced by the creation of the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, the Urban League, SNCC, and other civil rights organizations, many of which had chapters and followers nationally. In addition there was a natural and major force behind the Civil Rights Movement – the black church. Much of the time, civil rights organizations served to organize, offer training for, and “advertise” protests, while much of the grassroots organizing and recruiting was done by the church. While each of these churches could be considered a tightly knit community, and possibly a hindrance to cascading behavior, the fact that the leaders of these churches opened communication allowed for common knowledge. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), for example, was created by black ministers across the nation with the goal of achieving racial equality. In this way, they were able to launch various successful protests.

As an example, consider the March on Washington in 1963, which attracted 200,000 to 300,000 protestors despite possible economic and social repercussions. One leader from each of the aforementioned organizations met to plan a march that would pressure the government to end segregation.  Each of these respective leaders was then able to share common knowledge with their own organizations and by extension, black churches and the black community in general. In addition, the march was publically announced so that people with no affiliations to the planners could also decide to protest.

This type of network structure and communication allowed for a local and national coordination not achievable by slave rebels. With the involvement of so many organizations and people, and the existence of common knowledge, protesters during the civil rights era were more likely to get involved than under slavery. Even if they knew nothing about the thresholds of other, they knew at the very least that a large amount of people knew about the march due to public announcements and grassroots organizing. It would be reasonable to assume that a good amount of them – namely those associated directly with these organizations – would show up, and that it would be beneficial for everyone to show up as well.

As a side note, it is also interesting to look at slave rebellions in more detail. An especially interesting example is Nat Turner’s slave revolt. Nat Turner’s revolt, although seemingly the least organized, is considered the most successful slave revolt in the United States. Turner planned his revolt with six other slaves, and began the revolt by killing the family that owned him. They then continued from house to house killing any whites they encountered. As the original seven led the revolt, more and more slaves joined so that the group of rebels increased by upwards of 70 within one to two days. A cascade of behavior! In terms of informational effects, the next slaves that decided to join did so because they inferred that it was a “good idea” from the fact that other slaves had already joined, despite the knowledge that the punishment would be death if captured. Surely, the possibility of freedom and the lack of immediate repercussions from their owners decreased the risk aversion of most slaves. It would be interesting to delve into this more deeply.


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November 2011