Cooperation, not coworking

This week in North Philly Notes, Shamira Gelbman, author of The Civil Rights Lobby, writes about the history of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised many questions about how we work together: Can we still achieve creative synergy when sharing physical workspaces is impossible? How should we adjust workplace practices to accommodate modern family schedules? Do we even need meetings anymore when we have email, instant messaging, and virtual pin boards to facilitate asynchronous collaboration? Though rooted in an earlier era without twenty-first-century technological affordances and focused on inter-organizational cooperation rather than coworking relationships among individuals, The Civil Rights Lobby highlights the importance of finding effective solutions to these questions.  

The Civil Rights Lobby tells the story of the founding and early history of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which has coordinated lobbying for federal civil rights legislation since the early 1950s. The Leadership Conference today has over 200 member organizations and works on a broad array of civil rights concerns. Though it was less expansive in both respects when it was founded some 70 years ago, the Leadership Conference’s contributions to the historic laws of that era attest to the significance of its sustained efforts to coordinate minority, labor, religious, civic, fraternal, and professional groups’ civil rights advocacy.     

Previous research has shown that large coalitions of advocacy groups representing diverse interests can be a powerful tool for those seeking to secure rights and protections for marginalized groups in a political system that is stacked against them. By signaling broad support and bringing many different organizations’ lobbying resources to bear on joint efforts to shape policy outcomes, diverse coalitions can sway cautious legislators and enhance their commitment to shepherd controversial reforms through the rigors of the legislative process.    

But large, diverse interest group coalitions also embody a fundamental challenge: For all their potential to make a strong case for reform, their member organizations’ disparate priorities, resource endowments, and approaches to advocacy can make it very difficult to identify shared goals, keep groups on message, and encourage them to devote scarce resources to coalition work.  

The early history of Leadership Conference suggests that the key to surmounting this challenge lies in how diverse interest group coalitions operate—that is, in the organizational structures and procedures they use to find common ground and encourage their member organizations to mobilize grassroots and professional lobbying resources in unison to advance coalition goals.

Throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s, the Leadership Conference operated as what one participant called “a permanent ad hoc body.” It was a largely informal alliance of some 50 organizations that had come together to secure strong civil rights commitments from Democrats and Republicans in the 1952 election. That they persisted as a coalition in the ensuing decade is more a testament to inertia than to legislative momentum or able coalition management. For most organizations, no action beyond co-sponsorship of the 1952 activities was needed to remain in good standing as coalition members, nor was there coalitional infrastructure to encourage their input or participation.

This changed soon after President John F. Kennedy delivered his proposal for the legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Congress in June 1963. To capitalize on this opportunity, Leadership Conference leaders opened an office in Washington, DC and hired the coalition’s first paid staff to run it. The Washington office became the site for weekly meetings where lobbyists from all member groups were invited to discuss legislative strategy, divide up professional lobbying tasks, and consider how their home organizations might mobilize grassroots support for their direct lobbying efforts. It also produced a newsletter – the MEMO – that circulated widely to organizations’ state and local chapters and other Civil Rights Act proponents. Through the MEMO, the Leadership Conference broadcast the decisions of Washington-based strategists to Civil Rights Act supporters nationwide, mobilizing them for concerted action to pressure legislators to strengthen the bill’s provisions in line with Leadership Conference goals and resist Southern representatives and senators’ obstruction to secure its passage.       

The specific solutions Leadership Conference officials found to maximize their coalition’s capacity for coordination in the 1960s may or may not be well-suited to collaboration challenges in 2021. At the very least, technological advances have both opened new prospects and curbed people’s responsiveness to traditional modes of communication. Nevertheless, the Leadership Conference’s historical experience shows how consequential effective solutions to perennial coordination challenges can be.  

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