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This Is Not Civil Rights

Discovering Rights Talk in 1939 America

Since at least the time of Tocqueville, observers have noted that Americans draw on the language of rights when expressing dissatisfaction with political and social conditions. As the United States confronts a complicated set of twenty-first-century problems, that tradition continues, with Americans invoking symbolic events of the founding era to frame calls for change. Most observers have been critical of such “rights talk.” Scholars on the left worry that it limits the range of political demands to those that can be articulated as legally recognized rights, while conservatives fear that it creates unrealistic expectations of entitlement.
Drawing on a remarkable cache of Depression-era complaint letters written by ordinary Americans to the Justice Department, George I. Lovell challenges these common claims. Although the letters were written prior to the emergence of the modern civil rights movement—which most people assume is the origin of rights talk—many contain novel legal arguments, including expansive demands for new entitlements that went beyond what authorities had regarded as legitimate or required by law. Lovell demonstrates that rights talk is more malleable and less constraining than is generally believed. Americans, he shows, are capable of deploying idealized legal claims as a rhetorical tool for expressing their aspirations for a more just society while retaining a realistic understanding that the law often falls short of its own ideals.

280 pages | 1 halftone | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Chicago Series in Law and Society

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Judicial Politics


“A masterly and potentially pathbreaking analysis of American ‘rights talk,’ a much-maligned but largely misunderstood phenomenon. Using a trove of letters written in 1939 and 1940 by ordinary Americans to the Justice Department’s then-new Civil Liberties Unit, George I. Lovell shows that many of the standard claims about American rights talk are wrong; beyond the fervent hope for a rights-regulated society lies a worldly wise realism about rights’ limited capacity to bring about real change.”

Charles R. Epp, University of Kansas

“With This Is Not Civil Rights, George I. Lovell makes an invaluable contribution to the study of ‘rights talk’ and legal consciousness in the United States. His arguments will compel scholars to rethink the relationship between ordinary people, government power, and the emancipatory potential of law.”

Keith J. Bybee, Syracuse University

“George I. Lovell has written a fascinating, important, and page-turning account of how ordinary people in American history have insisted that government take into account and respond to their vision of what constitutes fundamental rights. This is both an instant classic in law and society and a vital resource for proponents of popular constitutionalism.”

Mark Graber, University of Maryland

“In This Is Not Civil Rights, George I. Lovell uses a historical case study to challenge conventional understandings of rights-based discourse. Focusing on the period between 1939 and 1941, Lovell examines complaint letters from citizens to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Section. Although the letters cover everything from vehicle-licensing requirements for seasonal lettuce pickers to police brutality against African Americans, many writers framed their grievances in terms of civil rights and constitutional protections. After analyzing the letters and the Civil Rights Section’s responses, Lovell concludes that the writers were able to use rights-based language without losing sight of the fact that law did not live up to its expressed ideals and without succumbing to official law’s claim to set some objective or universal standard for justice or legitimacy. . . . This optimistic new view is sure to stimulate debate about the future role of rights-based discourse.”

Harvard Law Review

This Is Not Civil Rights challenges much of the conventional wisdom surrounding citizens’ use of ‘rights talk’ in the United States, making a compelling case for the need for greater research in how typical Americans use the language of rights to push for societal and governmental change. . . . George I. Lovell carefully analyzes the claims documented in a cache of letters found buried in the National Archives, written to the Roosevelt administration during the transition from the Great Depression to World War II. . . . His examination of the legal and rights language used by average citizens, who are frequently perceived to be apolitical, provides a more sophisticated understanding of the position the law plays in the lives of Americans.”

Law and Politics Book Review

"This is Not Civil Rights examines letters written by Americans in 1939 to the newly created Civil Rights Section (CRS) of the US Department of Justice. George I. Lovell finds value in these letters as informative about how citizens and the government think about rights and as indicative of a gap between the formal law and what people think the law is. A good addition to collections on American law and civil rights."


“With This Is Not Civil Rights, George I. Lovell joins a rich conversation among socio-legal scholars about the legal practices and consciousness of society’s nonelite. The freshness of his contribution comes from the slice of society that his sources capture: actors who were not engaged in litigation or organized social movements, but were nonetheless willing to challenge authority. . . . Lovell deserves credit for so thoroughly mining this unique source base, in ways that disrupt conventional narratives and suggest new research questions.”

Journal of American Studies

How deeply is ‘rights talk’ woven into everyday political discourse? How much of that talk merely indicates idealism, confusion, or complacency on the part of the democratic masses, rather than thoughtful engagement? To address these questions, George I. Lovell examines letters written by individuals to the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Section from 1939 to 1941. . . . An original, interesting, and important contribution to the study of legal discourse.”

Political Science Quarterly

"In This Is Not Civil Rights, George I. Lovell looks beyond the courts to explore how individual American understand law and rights. . . . His focus on the argumentative strategies of letter writers is persuasive, and his argument about these particular Americans’ engagement with law is strongly supported."

Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“A valuable contribution to the extant research on popular rights discourses and legal consciousness in American law and politics. . . . The stories [Lovell] shares of ordinary individuals’ struggles and their use of legal and rights discourses are compelling. This book is an important new addition to the law and society literature.”

Journal of Politics

“Among the many rewards of reading George Lovell’s This is Not Civil Rights is to see how much this skilled political scientist does with a study that appears, on the surface, distinctly modest. . . . Each of the letter writers in Lovell’s sample asked their government for something, ranging from recovering cash stolen by corrupt policemen to replacing a lost job to overturning a wrongful conviction. The requests eventually reached lawyers in the Justice Department’s newly created Civil Rights Section. These lawyers almost invariably responded that they lacked the power to help. And this is pretty much where Lovell’s story ends: a plea and a rejection. Out of this, Lovell constructs a fascinating study of how a generation of ordinary Americans formulated claims on their government, and the disappointing responses they received."

Law and Society Review

“Any scholar who has mined New Deal agency archives cannot help wondering how meaningful letters from rank-and-file citizenry, usually filed under ’general correspondence,’ are in the big scheme of things. Although correspondence with the mass citizenry is among the innovations of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, scholars have yet to fathom this deluge’s democratic implications. Lovell engagingly and creatively helps do so, [arguing] that this correspondence enables him to probe ‘the underlying beliefs and commitments of people who make idealized claims about law and rights.’”

Journal of American History

“A tremendously interesting analysis. . . . The book may do a better job of illuminating the meaning of civil rights in American society than the jurisprudential analysis that has attempted to define them over past seventy-five years. . . . Further research in a wide range of topics, including civil rights, legal consciousness, federalism, democratization, local governance, and racial politics, will greatly benefit from Lovell’s thought-provoking reading of historical evidence and novel insights on the early foundations of a civil rights consciousness.”

Kristin Bumiller | American Journal of Sociology

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Voices from Peoria
Chapter 2. The CRS’s Legal and Political Strategies for Improving Civil Rights Protections
Chapter 3. Dead Dogs, Bad Divorces, and, Dope-Peddling Sheriffs: The Subject Matter of Civil Rights Complaint Letters
Chapter 4. The Common Place of Lawyering: Using Legal and Constitutional Arguments to Support Novel Civil Rights Claims
Chapter 5. Underlying Commitments of Rights Claiming: Extralegal Persuasive Claims and Citizen Understandings of Law
Chapter 6. In Defense of Extravagant Rights Talk

Appendix: Notes on the Archival Sources


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