Professor Susan Carle - Organizing for Racial Justice and the Development of Constitutional Law

Faculty Scholarship Highlight, November 2013

Professor Susan Carle's magisterial new book, Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880–1915, traces the interaction between the activism of groups with little social privilege or power and the development of foundational doctrines underlying constitutional law principles of citizenship equality. As Carle shows through painstaking archival research and compelling narrative, the period spanning the decades around the turn of the twentieth century was much more important to legal civil rights history than many scholars believe. Legal history scholars have debated the extent to which early racial justice advocates relied on the courts as a forum to test constitutional law principles; Carle demonstrates that, upon closer inspection, the origins of national organizing for racial justice were rooted in test case litigation campaigns aimed at challenging laws that violated constitutional principles, but that this organizing took place within a tradition of philosophical and legal experimentalism that aimed to attack the many facets of racial subordination with myriad strategies, some involving law and some not.

More than just a contribution to important debates about the role of constitutional law doctrines in the legal history of civil rights advocacy, Carle's book suggests that “[a]wareness of a far richer, experimentalist past can point the way to a similarly rich, experimentalist future, one that continues to embrace ambitious objectives and refuses to be constrained by the awareness that some important goals, especially the development and application of law-related techniques to lessen economic inequality, have not yet been met.” Carle's monograph is a sustained argument for “bottom up” analysis of how even people without great power and privilege can find ways to make constitutional law.