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January 2014

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This essay examines the theory of individual agency that propels the central thesis in Kenneth Mack's Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer (2012)-namely, that an important yet understudied means by which African American civil rights lawyers changed conceptions of race through their work was through their very performance of the professional role of lawyer. Mack shows that this performance was inevitably fraught with tension and contradiction because African American lawyers were called upon to act both as exemplary representatives of their race and as performers of a professional role that traditionally had been reserved for whites only. Mack focuses especially on the tensions of this role in courtrooms, where African American lawyers were necessarily called upon to act as the equals of white judges, opposing counsel, and witnesses. Mack's thesis, focused on the contradictions and tensions embodied in the performance of a racially loaded identity, reflects the influence of postmodern identity performance theory as articulated by Judith Butler and others. Mack and others belong to a new generation of civil rights history scholars who are asking new questions about contested identities related to race, gender, sexuality, and class. This essay offers an evaluation of this new direction for civil rights scholarship, focusing especially on its implicit normative orientation and what it contributes to the decade-old debate over how to conceive of agency in social movement scholarship. [ABSTRACT FROM AUTHOR]