Photo credit: Tom Martinez
Two summers ago, as protests mounted across the country following the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed explained the large police presence at downtown protests to reporters: “Dr. King would never take a freeway.” Three years ago, former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee instructed Ferguson protesters to be more like Martin Luther King Jr., while Reverend Barbara Reynolds took to the pages of The Washington Post
to tell BLM activists they should learn from the civil rights movement: “We were nonviolent activists who won hearts by conveying respectability and changed laws by delivering a message of love and unity.”
Across the political spectrum over the past four years, as BLM burst into the national consciousness, many commentators have invoked the history of the civil rights movement to chastise and correct Black Lives Matter — casting today’s protesters as too angry and reckless and not living up to the peaceful, respectable, unified legacy of the civil rights movement.
These framings misrepresent the movements BLM activists are building across the country, and they greatly distort the history of the civil rights movement. King took many a highway — perhaps most famously in the Selma to Montgomery march. He believed in the power of nonviolent disruption — much like BLM protesters who have blocked streets and highways and disrupted public events.
My new book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History,
seeks to examine the creation of this national fable of the civil rights movement — a fable increasingly central to how the US defines itself — and identify its distortions and omissions.
The fable tells a story of a Southern movement galvanized by Rosa Parks’s act and the leadership of MLK, peopled by courageous Southern Black people and supported by Northern liberals, journalists, and a federal government that struggled and succeeded in passing two landmark pieces of legislation, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A powerful story of individual grit and American courage, it is a tale filled with good guys and bad guys and a happy ending. The importance of this story crosses partisan lines and began to gain national stature when Ronald Reagan’s long opposition to a King holiday gave way to seeing its political utility and he signed the legislation making the third Monday of January a national holiday.
[W]e have obscured this history, turning civil rights heroes like King and Parks into Thanksgiving Day parade balloons.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are key linchpins of the fable — honored and trotted out over and over as proof of our national progress and as a way to paper over current injustice. In October 2005, when Rosa Parks passed away at the age of 92, President George W. Bush joined with Congress to make her the first civilian and first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol. Less than two months after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, Rosa Parks’s coffin in the Capitol became a way to paper over those more unsettling images from New Orleans by celebrating a tale of American progress and individual success. In February 2013, in a rare moment of bipartisan accord, leaders of both parties — Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi — joined President Obama to celebrate her “singular act of courage” and dedicate a statue of Parks in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. “What a story, what a legacy, what a country,” Senator Mitch McConnell extolled at the close of his remarks. That very same day, the Supreme Court was hearing arguments in the Shelby County v. Holder
voting rights case and months later would dismantle a key section, claiming it “not relevant to present day.” In September 2015, during the second Republican debate, when asked which woman should be put on the $10 bill, three contenders —Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump — picked Rosa Parks.
I wrote this book in part as a repudiation of this fable — to insist that if we are constantly honoring Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and the many leaders and organizers of the civil rights movement, we actually recognize and grapple with what they did, what it took, what they stood for, and how it was received. Rosa Parks was not meek or passive or even quiet in key moments; she was a lifelong freedom fighter for decades before her bus stand and for decades after in Detroit. Martin Luther King Jr. was not simply dreaming, but acting, agitating, and getting arrested more than 30 times in his foreshortened life. He called out Northern liberals along with Southern sheriffs and saw the fight for justice as a global one.
Calling out these myths — that the movement wasn’t disruptive or angry, that its righteousness was apparent and "respectable" activists like King and Parks were appreciated, and that the public supported the civil rights movement — is more than setting the historical record straight. The “propaganda of history,” as W. E. B. Du Bois reminded us a century ago, becomes a way of “giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment” and places the struggle against racial inequality firmly in the past. Honoring Parks and King too often becomes a way to show how great we are as a nation, and strips them of their broader militancy and challenge.
Most well-meaning Americans did not support the civil rights movement while it was happening. In May 1961, in a Gallup survey, only 22% of Americans approved of what the Freedom Riders were doing and 57% of Americans said that the sit-ins at lunch counters, freedom buses, and other demonstrations were hurting Black people’s chances of being integrated in the South. Lest we see this as Southerners skewing the national sample, in 1964, a year before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a poll conducted by The New York Times
found a majority of white people in New York City said the civil rights movement had gone too far: “While denying any deep-seated prejudice, a large number of those questioned used the same terms to express their feelings. They spoke of Negroes’ receiving 'everything on a silver platter' and of 'reverse discrimination” against whites.'” In 1966, a year after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, 85% of white people and 30% of Black people polled nationally believed that demonstrations by Black people on civil rights hurt the advancement of civil rights.
Persevering, courageous, and disruptive, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and their many comrades (from 15-year-old Barbara Johns, who led a school strike in Prince Edward County that became one of the cases in Brown v. Board
to Ruth Batson, who spearheaded a 3-decade-long struggle for school desegregation in Boston) made Americans uncomfortable — just like many people engaging in BLM movements across the country do today. Civil rights activists challenged the racism of the Jim Crow North, West, and South, insisting that Northern liberalism actually be liberal in its own backyard.
My book joins an outpouring of civil rights scholarship over the past two decades to challenge the distortions replete in popular understandings of the movement: First, there was nothing natural or popular at the time about the civil rights movement. Civil rights activists were angry and disruption was key from Birmingham to Boston. Change didn’t just happen. It took doing things over and over for decades because white resistance was great in the "liberal" North as well as in the South. But we have obscured this history, turning civil rights heroes like King and Parks into Thanksgiving Day parade balloons — happy, unthreatening, larger than life, and stripped of their substance.
Many of these movements never fully realized their vision of a just and equitable society. Amidst glorious triumphs and mind-bending courage, this is not a history of happy endings, but one that challenges where we are today in this country. By expanding our understanding of who the courageous were, it suggests who will lead us today: welfare moms, high school students, and church ladies, rural and urban, men and women, teenagers to octogenarians. This more beautiful and terrible history asks us to see our past differently and our future anew — a history for a better world.
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is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of CUNY and the author of the award-winning The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
. Her new book A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History
has just come out from Beacon Press.