Critical Narratives in Civil Rights

Peggy Cooper Davis & Aderson Francois in collaboration with Robert Moses

The subject of the course is the ongoing struggle to flesh out the meaning of what Bob Moses has described as constitutional personhood, or the dignitary status owed, as a fundamental right, to all members of a political community. We posit that it includes, at minimum, the rights to

  • literacy,

  •  economic autonomy,

  • family and cultural integrity,

  • public accommodation, and

  • political participation.

In the United States, these rights were once taken for granted by men of European descent who owned property. They began to be recognized as universal human entitlements only when antislavery, women’s rights, civil rights and labor movements claimed them explicitly and more broadly. The course examines those struggles over constitutional personhood’s breadth and meaning. It spotlights the relationship between the actions of oppressed people and the legal formalization of human rights.

The course also draws on the expertise of scholars who have documented the political and personal will of neglected actors in the history of the United States. The following scholars are regularly consulted about the course, and participate frequently in course sessions:

  • Deb Willis, New York University (photographic and other visual histories of African American people during and after slavery).

  • Eric Foner, Columbia University (history of slavery and Reconstruction),

  • Heather Williams, University of Michigan (history of African Americans’ defiant acquisitions of literacy and assertions of family autonomy,

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Harvard University (racial determinants of criminal justice and public welfare policies in the United States)

  • Robin Kelley, UCLA (history of African American labor movements),

   Legal principles are not the product of pure reasoning from fixed truths. To the contrary, legal principles are the indeterminate products of debates that occur within particular cultural settings. Legal scholars generally share this recognition that laws are products of culture and conflict, and teaching in the legal academy is adapting to that reality by encouraging students to study law, not as a set of fixed truths, but as a set of principles that evolve as competing cultural forces clash. We join this process of innovation in legal pedagogy by using rhetorical and historical analysis to unlock the meanings of evolving principles. We teach students to analyze the cultural narratives and metaphors that invisibly support legal reasoning and to make conscious use of narrative structure and metaphoric representation as they construct legal arguments. Thus, for example, we teach them to see in an important voting rights case a clash between a story of federal forces intruding on states’ territorial prerogatives and a story of federal agents guarding of individuals’ rights of national citizenship.

The course is experiential in two equally important ways:

1)    It examines and utilizes methods developed in civil rights movements for encouraging agency and organizing collective action. Students are not treated as passive vessels for the deposit of information. Rather, they are guided to draw on their own resources in the development of interpretive, collaborative and advocacy skills.

2)   During the course of the seminar - and, for selected students, in periods thereafter - students work as expert collaborators in

  •  civil rights movements ,

  • efforts spearheaded by Professor Francois and his litigation clinic at Georgetown Law to influence federal courts’ understanding of national constitutional personhood, and

  • scholarly work co-authored or supervised by Professors Davis and Francois on the law and rhetoric of national personhood.

Examples of briefs, background papers and advocacy materials produced by seminar participants can be found here:

amicus briefs

conference presentations

  • Freedom Summer Commemoration at Schomburg Center [1, 2]

  • Bottom Quartile Education Conferences [1, 2]


  • Electric Revival essays [1,2,3]

research papers