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Occupational Activism and Racial Desegregation at Work: Activist Careers after the Nonviolent Nashville Civil Rights Movement

Race, Identity and Work

ISBN: 978-1-78769-502-3, eISBN: 978-1-78769-501-6

Publication date: 7 November 2018


As a site of contestation among job seekers, workers, and managers, the bureaucratic workplace both reproduces and erodes occupational race segregation and racial status hierarchies. Much sociological research has examined the reproduction of racial inequality at work; however, little research has examined how desegregationist forces, including civil rights movement values, enter and permeate bureaucratic workplaces into the broader polity. Our purpose in this chapter is to introduce and typologize what we refer to as “occupational activism,” defined as socially transformative individual and collective action that is conducted and realized through an occupational role or occupational community. We empirically induce and present a typology from our study of the half-century-long, post-mobilization occupational careers of over 60 veterans of the nonviolent Nashville civil rights movement of the early 1960s. The fourfold typology of occupational activism is framed in the “new” sociology of work, which emphasizes the role of worker agency and activism in determining worker life chances, and in the “varieties of activism” perspective, which treats the typology as a coherent regime of activist roles in the dialogical diffusion of civil rights movement values into, within, and out of workplaces. We conclude with a research agenda on how bureaucratic workplaces nurture and stymie occupational activism as a racially desegregationist force at work and in the broader polity.




We are deeply grateful to all interviewees, veterans of the southern civil rights movement, who gave so generously of their time and knowledge of “the movement.” Without them, so much would have been impossible including this project. We also gratefully acknowledge financial support from the Vanderbilt Center for Nashville Studies, Vanderbilt University College of Arts and Science, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt endowment, and Vanderbilt Commons. We thank the following people who played important roles in the project: Kathy Conkwright (videography), Rosevelt Noble (videography); Cathy Kaiser (interview transcription); Stephanie Pruitt (Center for Nashville Studies, Vanderbilt University); and students in several Vanderbilt University seminars. Finally, we are grateful to George Becker, Hannah Cornfield, Holly McCammon and Hedy Weinberg for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this chapter, and to Jane Osgerby for facilitating the research. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Seattle.


Cornfield, D.B., Coley, J.S., Isaac, L.W. and Dickerson, D.C. (2018), "Occupational Activism and Racial Desegregation at Work: Activist Careers after the Nonviolent Nashville Civil Rights Movement", Race, Identity and Work (Research in the Sociology of Work, Vol. 32), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 217-248.



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