Prolific and prestigious sociologist and author of the award-winning book The Scholar Denied, Aldon Morris is much admired for sparking public conversation and understanding around systemic racism. An experienced activist, race scholar, and President of the American Sociological Association, Morris is a leading expert on the long Civil Rights movement.

In the following excerpt from his Feb. 3, 2021 article in Scientific American, Morris explains how social justice movements can succeed. It is published here with permission followed by a Q&A with UC Press Executive Editor Naomi Schneider.

Excerpt from “From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter

One evening nine years ago 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking through a Florida neighborhood with candy and iced tea when a vigilante pursued him and ultimately shot him dead. The killing shocked me back to the summer of 1955, when as a six-year-old boy I heard that a teenager named Emmett Till had been lynched at Money, Miss., less than 30 miles from where I lived with my grandparents. I remember the nightmares, the trying to imagine how it might feel to be battered beyond recognition and dropped into a river.

The similarities in the two assaults, almost six decades apart, were uncanny. Both youths were Black, both were visiting the communities where they were slain, and in both cases their killers were acquitted of murder. And in both cases, the anguish and outrage that Black people experienced on learning of the exonerations sparked immense and significant social movements. In December 1955, days after a meeting in her hometown of Montgomery, Ala., about the failed effort to get justice for Till, Rosa Parks refused to submit to racially segregated seating rules on a bus—igniting the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). And in July 2013, on learning about the acquittal of Martin’s killer, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi invented the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, a rallying cry for numerous local struggles for racial justice that sprang up across the U.S.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is still unfolding, and it is not yet clear what social and political transformations it will engender. But within a decade after Till’s murder, the social movement it detonated overthrew the brutal “Jim Crow” order in the Southern states of the U.S. Despite such spectacular achievements, contemporary scholars such as those of the Chicago School of Sociology continued to view social movements through the lens of “collective behavior theory.” Originally formulated in the late 19th century by sociologist Gabriel Tarde and psychologist Gustave Le Bon, the theory disdained social movements as crowd phenomena: ominous entities featuring rudderless mobs driven hither and thither by primitive and irrational urges.

As a member of what sociologist and activist Joyce Ladner calls the Emmett Till generation, I identify viscerally with struggles for justice and have devoted my life to studying their origins, nature, patterns and outcomes. Around the world, such movements have played pivotal roles in overthrowing slavery, colonialism, and other forms of oppression and injustice. And although the core methods by which they overcome seemingly impossible odds are now more or less understood, these struggles necessarily (and excitingly) continue to evolve faster than social scientists can comprehend them. A post-CRM generation of scholars was nonetheless able to shift the study of movements from a psychosocial approach that asked “What is wrong with the participants? Why are they acting irrationally?” to a methodological one that sought answers to questions such as “How do you launch a movement? How do you sustain it despite repression? What strategies are most likely to succeed, and why?”

Q&A between Aldon Morris and Naomi Schneider

NS: How did this article come about?

AM: My article, “The Power of Social Justice Movements” materialized because Scientific American magazine recognized the need for an informative article on social movements given their rising significance in America and the world. The Magazine initiated a search for an expert movement scholar who could write a scholarly informed essay that was accessible to general audiences. A scholar in Ireland, knowledgeable of my scholarship, recommended me to editors of Scientific American. It was a fortuitous moment because I felt the need to write such an article during widespread protests in midst of America’s racial reckoning. Aldon Morris writing an article for Scientific American struck me as a match made in America. I embraced the invitation and this article is the result of that match.

NS: What ground do you cover in this article?

 AM: I pursued several goals in this article. The first endeavor was to convey the important role social movements play in producing positive social change and to do so using my personal experience with Jim Crow racism and the Civil Rights Movement. Second, I wanted to explain how movements originate, develop, and how they fail or succeed. To do this, I examined social movement theories from their earliest analytic statements to current theoretical expressions to see what they teach us about movements. I assessed those theories’ viability considering empirical research and supportable evidence for their principal claims. Finally, I revealed the concrete changes achieved by the Civil Rights and Black Lives Movements and the major challenges social justice movements must overcome to increase social equality in America and across the globe.

NS: What do you hope to accomplish with it?

AM: I hope to convince large audiences that social justice movements are required to improve societies in fundamental ways. I hope people will recognize that social justice movements are rational and emotionally charged enterprises comprised of ordinary people who marshal the courage and organization to accomplish extraordinary feats of social change. I hope we will discover that it is important to join and support genuine social justice movements. It has become clear that democracy is a fragile arrangement always in the process of becoming. It is apparent that social justice is in a perilous state in America. Here is the critical question: will enough of us organize into powerful social justice movements to ensure that future generations inherit a free world, or will we acquiesce and allow undemocratic force to triumph?

NS: Are you feeling hopeful at the beginning of 2021 about social justice movements in the US?

AM: I am optimistic the BLM Movement and other social justice movements in the US will usher in fundamental change despite historic undemocratic forces that are afoot in the nation. My optimism stems from the widespread participation in social justice movements by Americans from all walks of life. Historically rare, current Americans from different races, social classes, genders, and sexual orientations are increasingly recognizing that social equality is best for us all. I am optimistic because it is Black History Month which teaches Black people about the painful triumphant from slavery to freedom. I am optimistic because it is possible that the moral arc is long but can be bent towards justice because social justice movements refuse to bow to tyranny.

Read the article in full on Scientific American.