Photo courtesy of Shivani Somaiya

It is impossible to understand the long arc of the Black Freedom Movement—from the early twentieth century to the crescendo of movement activism in 1960s to today’s Black Lives Matter movement—without integrating research on political parties and research on social movements with research on Black politics, whether that research occurs within the disciplines of political science, sociology, or history.

In recent years, experts in Black politics have focused on how movement activists have pressured the leaders of national political parties to grant more rights and more power to Black citizens. From Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush, working both inside the electoral system, and outside, by mobilizing popular support at the grass roots.

Yet, due to methodological barriers, this is not a narrative that is often integrated in the research on institutions in American politics.

Sidney Tarrow’s invaluable new study of American political parties and social movements highlights the need to rethink the separation between different subfields. Specifically, to think more critically about how scholars make decisions about whose voices and what events matter in the writing of American Political Development (APD). For example, Tarrow shows us how a serious engagement with social movement research will expand how scholars think about critical junctures and deepen understanding about the American party system.

But when we expand the analytical lens in scholarship on the American party system, what other areas of research have been silenced or overlooked?

What struck me as I read Tarrow’s book, is how few scholars of the party system and APD acknowledge the research that has been done by Black scholars on the interplay between the Black freedom movement and both political parties.

I suspect this is because most APD scholars tightly focus on institutions and political elites. However, since Black people have historically been shut out from political institutions, scholars of Black politics by contrast have often highlighted the significance of non-elite actors and social movements.

For the most part, scholars in the two subfields have often talked past each other, unless Black protests reached a level that forced elites and elite institutions to respond, whether through federal legislation, or Supreme Court decisions. To be blunt, Black protests become worthy of study for most APD scholars only when they directly affect the political lives of white people.

It’s true that there has been an outpouring of political science scholarship focused, for example, on the landmark court cases and civil rights legislation of the 1960s. But, this scholarship ignores how movements build momentum and help sustain parties in the years between these “big” moments or critical junctures. It also ignores how inclusion and exclusion from the party system shapes the strategies that Black movement activists view as viable.

Take the case of Black Lives Matter. A sharp focus on the massive protests of 2020 and their immediate effects might suggest that their most important political consequence was the backlash amongst voters alarmed by the slogan “Defund the Police,” and the subsequent drop in public opinion polls in explicit support for the movement.

Yet, viewed through the lens of a Black politics approach that treats social movements as an integral aspect of American political development, the deeper long-term impact of the movement has been legible in numerous other ways.

The 2013 and 2015 phases of the Black Lives movement transformed people’s understanding of the power they could potentially wield in the electoral process. For many Black people who had retreated or were intentionally silenced in the electoral process, the protests in the early years of the movement lowered the barriers to political engagement and created new democracy on-ramps.

At the same time, the movement opened a new space for those who were previously involved in the electoral process to share grievances and debate wider repertoires for collective action though new organizations affiliated with Black Lives Matter.

In other words, the initial achievements of Black Lives Matter continue to shape not just the future of that movement but the future of the Democratic party. Indeed, the increased focus on Black voter engagement had a direct and immediate impact on turnout in the 2020 presidential election. Voter registration drives were conducted at Black Lives Matter demonstrations during the historic 2020 protests and many leaders of Black-led get-out-the-vote organizations were also actively involved in the same protests. As a result of building new political alliances through struggle, leaders were able to bring together previously fragmented organizing work under one umbrella.

As a result, and despite violent voter suppression, Black organizers registered and helped to turn out a record number of voters in the national presidential election and in the Georgia runoffs. The voting rights organizations based in Georgia, including Fair Fight, Black Voters Matter, and the New Georgia Project, were key to turning Georgia blue and electing two Democratic senators in the run-off elections held in January 2021. The embrace of the movement by some members of the Democratic party in turn has had an impact on the movement itself. Many movement activists devote time and energy to electoral efforts and some movement veterans decided to run for office.

If the past ten years are any indication, movements in the American political system are not going away, no matter how many political scientists wrote off the Tea Party a decade ago and are attempting to write off the Black Lives Matter movement now. While these movements may not fit neatly into conventional analyses of political development, that does not mean they aren’t having an ongoing, and important, impact on America’s political institutions. In the final analysis, what the Black Freedom struggle teaches us is that institutions can be turned into places where state actors and marginalized groups renegotiate power. I believe that American political development derives its dynamism from the tension between powerful actors and those who contest and critique the projects they seek to implement. I also believe that the scholars who study it can learn a great deal from a fresh engagement, not just with scholars of social movements, but also with experts on Black politics.

Megan Ming Francis is the G. Alan and Barbara Delsman Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington. 

Click here to read Sidney Tarrow’s essay “Social Movements and Political Parties in the Making and Unmaking of Modern American Democracy.”