Actors in the Civil Rights Movement as Endogenous Change Agents

By Thomas Meijer

In the period after the Second World War, the fight for equality for African Americans in the United States – known as the civil rights movement – really took flight. However, while slow steps were made by executive action and judicial rulings, no major progress was made by legislative initiatives. Desegregation reforms remained slow due to the fact that many key positions, especially numerous committee chairmen, were held by southerners. Moreover, a powerful coalition of southern Democrats and northern Republicans formed a block against any reforms. Thus initially the actors that defended the status quo had relatively strong veto possibilities, due to southern agenda setting power and the strong anti-segregation reform coalition. And these were only the direct institutional veto points, let alone the extrainstitutional veto points that general racism in the south presented. 

While agents of change within the parliament faced too strong veto possibilities to make any significant changes, it were change agents pushing for desegregation outside of this institution that brought on the pressure for change to happen. Protests and racial violence – accompanied by public opinion coming alongside the fight for desegregation - finally led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1967. Change agents in the civil rights movement could not take advantage of a disjuncture between the rules and enforcement, thus sought to eliminate the existing rules on segregation and add on new rules to give African Americans civil rights. Thus one could argue that actors within the civil rights movement were insurrectionaries that sought to displace segregation laws, in ways that did not follow the rules of the political system – i.e. (violent) protest. Conversely, actors in the civil rights movement also worked with actors within the government that could be identified as symbionts. They managed to bring about endogenous change by layering new rules on civil rights for African Americans by executive action, judicial rulings and, most importantly, new legislation.