Debunking Myths about the Civil Rights Movement

Jeanne Theoharis. A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History (Beacon Press. Kindle Edition)

[E]ven those civil rights heroes we recognize today were reviled in their day and made to feel crazy. Today’s lamentation—that we need another King—misses the fact that we have many Kings and Parkses; we just do not necessarily recognize them. “Be more like King,” commentators tell protesters today. Be careful what you wish for, this history reminds: disruption; civil disobedience; an analysis that interweaves race, poverty, and US war making; steadfast moral witness; and a willingness to call out liberals for their inaction is what it actually means to “be like King,” and many follow in his footsteps. (Theoharis, Jeanne. A More Beautiful and Terrible History (pp. 207-208). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.)

Jeanne Theoharis, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, is an important book to read if you think racism was only in the South and only involved overt bigots. If you were shocked and confused about why people would loot and burn stores and confront police over police violence and racism in 2020, you will find it important to learn about why there were urban uprisings in the 1960s. The book explains how the sanitized saint-like version of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was created in the early 1980s to persuade then-president Reagan to endorse the King Day holiday and that politicians and others have regularly weaponized a false story about the Civil Rights movement to bludgeon and discredit current Black activists. In fact, the Black movement of the 2010s and 2020 has a lot in common with the movement of the 1960s. Today’s activists and those who want to oppose racism need to attend to the real history.

President Ronald Reagan signed the bill making Martin Luther King Day a holiday as he falsely claimed that King would approve of rolling back affirmative action and social welfare programs that benefitted Black and other people. Rosa Parks was honored at her death in 2005 with a full national funeral, including lying in state in the Capitol, shortly after the debacle of Hurricane Katrina, and her statue was unveiled in the Capitol in 2013 just as the US Supreme Court was in the process of undoing the Voting Rights Act. In 2016, President Obama told Howard University graduates that Fannie Lou Hamer demonstrated the importance of compromise, exactly the opposite of what she had done in the 1964 Democratic convention. The weaponizing of Civil Rights against Black Lives Matter provoked 66 former SNCC members in 2016 to issue a pro-BLM statement.

This books is recommended reading as a push-back against all the attempts to argue that today’s Black movement ought to act more like the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In fact, Dr. King was viewed by most Whites as radical and dangerous in his own time. He was only sanitized and turned into a saint after he was safely dead. Although Theoharis emphasizes the 1980s politics around the creation of the King Day holiday, the process started almost immediately after King’s death, when White politicians attacked Black Power groups by invoking a whitewashed version of King.

Chapter 1 “Long Movement outside the South. Fighting for School Desegregation in the `Liberal’ North“ summarizes the struggles in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in New York and Boston and elsewhere around segregated schools. Residential segregation by race had been created through intentional policies including real estate practices, redlining, location of public housing, and other mechanisms. But school boards drew attendance boundaries to make the segregation even worse than it would have from residential segregation alone and intentionally provided better facilities and funding to White students. Boundaries were drawn to concentrate Black and Latino students into over-crowded and ill-maintained schools, sometimes forcing them into half-day sessions where two groups of children would share the same space. In the North as well as the South, White students rode buses as needed to balance attendance among White schools and White and Black children rode buses past the closest school to go to a school that matched their race. Black activists and their allies had fought these practices for years after the Brown decision. In New York, Boston and elsewhere, school boards announced they had no problem because they were not saying that Black children could not attend White schools. In 1964, 460,000 Black students and teachers boycotted New York schools to protest the failure to prepare a desegregation plan. In the 1960s, Black Boston parents organized Operation Exodus to pay for buses so their children could take advantage of an open enrollment policy that theoretically would allow racial integration. White politicians cynically crafted the distinction between de jure and de facto segregation, a distinction Theoharis says had not been made prior to the 1960s, to ensure that federal legislation would apply only in the South and not the North. Black activists’ research and reports and lawsuits were ignored or attacked by mainstream White media and judicial decisions requiring integration were portrayed as extremist, while White parents’ resistance to school desegregation was portrayed as a sincere concern for their children.

Chapter 2. “Revisiting the Uprisings of the 1960 and the Long History of Injustice and Struggle that Preceded Them” discusses the backdrop of the uprisings in Los Angeles in 1965 and Detroit in 1967, describing the years of large and sustained protests in both cities about residential and school segregation, police brutality and corruption, and urban renewal dating from the 1950s and escalating in the early 1960s. Local White groups organized to resist and local White politicians ignored the protests. Then when the uprisings/riots happened, they claimed to be shocked. King and Malcolm X held rallies in Los Angeles in 1961 and 1963, and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X were all visible in Detroit protests before 1967.

Chapter 3. “Beyond the Redneck. Police Racism and the White Moderate” emphasizes that official actions and often-polite White resistance that maintained racial segregation. Even after years of protests and reports, White people in the North claimed to be bewildered by Black protest and anger and insisted they were not racist. Only Southern states were forced to integrate their schools. Desegregation was effectively resisted in the North. The so-called “Southern strategy” of using race-coded language to gain White votes was just as much focused on the North as the South. Whites in the North would support remediation programs for Black children, but not integration. 

“While many Americans supported segregation with their actions, others supported it through their inaction—their unwillingness to see how their home, neighborhood, school, or desire for police protection derived from disparity. Many refused to prioritize antiracism, looking the other way when friends, coworkers, or politicians labored to preserve racially inequitable systems. Still, other Americans knew that this system was deeply wrong but felt there was little they could do about it or feared risking their family’s safety and security, so they hung back. This history is humbling—showing how hard it is to do the right thing and exposing the many barriers to unseating the status quo. It reveals that the perpetration of injustice is not always about hatred but often about indifference, fear, and personal comfort.” . . . “If racism is understood not just as an affair of the heart but about material advantage and personal comfort, then the remedy is much different because it means it will cost something to alter.”

(pages 85-86)

Chapter 4. “The Media Was Often an Obstacle to the Struggle for Racial Justice” demonstrates that the local news media played down Black peaceful protests about segregation, played down a record of Black grievances, played up a sympathetic portrait of Whites resisting desegregation, and seemed to possess an endless capacity for surprise when unrest erupted. Black leaders were portrayed as dangerous or ineffective. The press portrayed individual protests as isolated, not part of a larger movement. News media in Northern cities failed to treat Brown as applying to them, failed to cover segregation in their schools, failed to cover record of police brutality. Naturalized the perspectives of affluent Whites who want to protect their privileged lifestyles.

Chapter 5.  “Beyond a Bus Seat. The Movement Pressed for Desegregation, Criminal Justice, Economic Justice, and Global Justice” emphasizes the ways Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other Civil Rights activists saw the Black struggle as part of a broader struggle for economic justice and global justice. They spoke out against the Vietnam War and took criticism for it.  The movement was never just narrowly about segregation, there was always a broader vision. Criminal justice issues were always on the table: there long history of working to gain justice for Black victims and prevent injustice against Black people false accused. The welfare rights movement and the movement for jobs and economic justice were important parts of the movement. They pushed back against the dehumanization of poor people. Mexican American struggles are included as well, especially in discussions of Los Angeles in this chapter and chapter 2.

Chapter 6. “The Great Man View of History, Part I Where Are the Young People?” High school students were often important in the Civil Rights Movement. Young people often had the courage to do what the adults did not. At the time, adults often worried that the young protesters were too extreme or taking big risks. In the late 1960s lots of high school walkouts, including those by Mexican American and Black students in Los Angeles 1968-9.

Chapter 7. “The Great Man View of History, Part II Where Are the Women?” discusses importance of women in the Civil Rights Movement. Both Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks are treated as docile and empty symbols, missing the reality of their careers of activism.  Coretta Scott King was an activist in her own right before marrying King and continued to be an activist after he died.  She led the Poor People’s campaign a month after Martin King died. She was a driving force behind 1972 Black Convention became advocate of gay rights. Black women left out of March on Washington. Theoharis’s previous book about Rosa Parks describes Rosa Park’s long career of activism.   At the March on Washington, no women were allowed to speak, instead key activists were only allowed to stand while their names were read, and an attempt to highlight Rosa Parks was shut down by male organizers.  No women met with president. Women led a small side march that was ignored by the press. Other activists included Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a Black woman who worked for YWCA then National Council for Fair Employment then National Council of Churches was only woman on March on Washington committee and was responsible for getting many White Christians to the march.  Pauli Murray, challenged segregation in the 1940s, also advocated gender equality.  Gloria Richardson, who led the movement in Cambridge Maryland.

Chapter 8. “Extremists, Troublemakers, and National Security Threats The Public Demonization of Rebels, the Toll It Took, and Government Repression of the Movement”. Movement activists were repressed, not only by death threats, bombs, and police surveillance, but also by job loss. Life during and after the bus boycott was difficult for Rosa Parks. She did not think infinite forbearance was possible. The community was not unified. Many women activists were criticized by their own families. Many lost their jobs. Many families told their children to stay away from SNCC. Being jailed repeatedly took its toll. Most Whites in the 1960s, including in the North, thought the Civil Rights Movement had gone too far. In 1968, 73% of Whites said Blacks in their community were treated the same as Whites. In their time, King and Parks were viewed as extremists and targeted by the government targeted as dangerous and un-American. The FBI saw the Black movement as dangerous, but was unconcerned about the bombings of homes of Civil Rights activists. The FBI monitored Coretta Scott King after Martin’s death. It also sought to widen rift between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. The COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program) targeted activists and hired Black people to spy on Black organizations. The FBI passed along evidence of King’s adultery to reporters. The FBI assumed that Black people were under foreign influence and a national security risk. Theoharis asks us to reflect: Who do we fear and monitor today?

Chapter 9. “Learning to Play on Locked Pianos The Movement Was Persevering, Organized, Disruptive, and Disparaged, and Other Lessons from the Montgomery Bus Boycott”. In this chapter, Theoharis revisits the Montgomery Bus boycott and draws important lessons. 1) Perseverance. The Montgomery movement started before the boycott. It was difficult to get people to act. Parks worked on getting justice for Black women raped by White men. There were a number of prior arrests of women for refusing to give up seats, including Viola White in 1944 whose case was tied up; in state court. There had been ongoing negotiations and protests about the buses.  2) Role of anger, and fashioning anger into action. Rosa Parks is portrayed as not angry, but she was very angry. She was upset about acquittal a few weeks before of the men who lynched Emmet Till. 3) Sense of possibility grows by being in action. After Parks’s arrest, Joann Robinson and the Women’s Political Caucus decided to call a boycott without asking for Parks’s permission. Parks was working class, known to be brave, was doing harrowing work. Parks not viewed as respectable by Whites. She was seen as a NAACP/Communist plant, rumored to be new to town. 4) Power of collective organizing. The car pool system was central to the boycott. Fund raising, donating cars, coordinating. Women provided a lot of the labor. A few key White allies. They were subject to White harassment. Black women supported King, protected him.  5) Power of disruptiveness. The bus company lost money. The boycott unsettled the status quo. Whites saw it as dangerous. 6) Activism entails cost and sacrifice. Kings’ house was bombed during the boycott. Many were harassed. People lost their jobs. Alcoholism, ulcers, and economic deprivation were all tolls of the movement. 7) Mentoring and building community support. People taught other people. Parks was mentored and mentored others in her turn. 8) Importance of learning from others. 9) There were multiple ways Whites resisted. This included violence, but also discrediting. Whites tried to portray boycotters and the White Citizens Council as equivalently radical. 10) They used multiple strategies. Federal lawsuit bypassed state court, used plaintiffs who were not involved in state charges to avoid being tied up in state court. Fundraising. Protest was important but it was tied to many other strategies.

In the Afterword Theoharis stresses that today’s movement and activism looks a lot like the past. There was nothing clear or pre-destined about the outcome of the Civil Rights Movement. It was hard work and it was often discouraging.

As a literary work, I did find some flaws in the execution of Theoharis’s book in terms of some redundancy in the writing. Her work is not unique. Her footnotes document the many sources she is drawing on, in addition to her own research. But I still think the book is well worth reading.

Using a falsely romanticized and white washed version of the Civil Rights movement as an excuse to criticize modern Black movements is both wrong and dangerous. In the 1960s, there were lots of disagreements among Black activists about what strategy was best, just as there are today.

For White people like myself the important lessons are: (1) look to your own house, look to the ways polite intransigence is an important White moderate/liberal approach to maintaining White dominance and White interests; (2) pay attention to the real costs that Black activists and their more extreme White allies are paying in advocating for Black equality and humanity; (3) pay attention to the importance of “radicals” in their time.

I first listened to the audio version and then took notes from the Kindle version. The book works well in audio if you are not trying to take notes.

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