Published by Beacon Press on January 30th 2018
Explodes the fables that have been created about the civil rights movement
The civil rights movement has become national legend, lauded by presidents from Reagan to Obama to Trump, as proof of the power of American democracy. This fable, featuring dreamy heroes and accidental heroines, has shuttered the movement firmly in the past, whitewashed the forces that stood in its way, and diminished its scope. And it is used perniciously in our own times to chastise present-day movements and obscure contemporary injustice.
In A More Beautiful and Terrible History award-winning historian Jeanne Theoharis dissects this national myth-making, teasing apart the accepted stories to show them in a strikingly different light. We see Rosa Parks not simply as a bus lady but a lifelong criminal justice activist and radical; Martin Luther King, Jr. as not only challenging Southern sheriffs but Northern liberals, too; and Coretta Scott King not only as a "helpmate" but a lifelong economic justice and peace activist who pushed her husband's activism in these directions.
Moving from "the histories we get" to "the histories we need," Theoharis challenges nine key aspects of the fable to reveal the diversity of people, especially women and young people, who led the movement; the work and disruption it took; the role of the media and "polite racism" in maintaining injustice; and the immense barriers and repression activists faced. Theoharis makes us reckon with the fact that far from being acceptable, passive or unified, the civil rights movement was unpopular, disruptive, and courageously persevering. Activists embraced an expansive vision of justice--which a majority of Americans opposed and which the federal government feared.
By showing us the complex reality of the movement, the power of its organizing, and the beauty and scope of the vision, Theoharis proves that there was nothing natural or inevitable about the progress that occurred. A More Beautiful and Terrible History will change our historical frame, revealing the richness of our civil rights legacy, the uncomfortable mirror it holds to the nation, and the crucial work that remains to be done.
In 1966 a Gallup poll indicated that 72% of Americans had an unfavourable view of Martin Luther King Jr, unsurprising considering the mainstream media including the New York Times were vilifying him for his position over Vietnam (p.3). Jeanne Theorharis seeks to remind us of this history in her book ‘A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History’. Her key contention is that contemporary liberals attempt to own a revised version of the black civil rights movement, one that glosses over the difficulties suffered by those celebrated today.
In one early example, Theoharis exposes the hypocrisy of Bill Clinton who paid homage to those who fought racism, but still enacted three pieces of legislation drastically expanding the prison industrial complex (p.6):
“All three traded on rampant stereotypes of people of color as dependent, debauched, and dangerous—”superpredators” and “deadbeats,” in Clintons words—to amplify criminalization, limit public assistance, foreclose avenues of due process and redress, and make good on Clintons appeals to voters.” (p.7)
Theoharis is teaching us that racism is not just a historical fact, but that the lack of critical thinking about it has led to its whitewashing in the contemporary world. To help make her case, she cites Obama, who said that what happened in Ferguson was not unique, but also not endemic. This is despite the Department of Justice report into the Ferguson police department that declared African Americans are singled out by every single aspect of Ferguson Police Department. (p.13)
The celebration of legendary figures is highlighted by Theoharis as being against the spirit of what those icons sought to achieve:
“They frame the issue in the South and only in the South, as these memorials and commemorations pay almost no attention to Northern segregation or the Northern struggles that Parks, King, and many, many others also pushed forward. They celebrate a small handful of individuals rather than a broad cast of characters. They suggest that the apex of the movement was the election of a Black president, rather than the “dismantling of all forms of oppression,” as Rosa Parks put it. Memorializing the movement becomes a culminating task in the struggle for racial justice, obscuring the work needed in the present to dismantle various forms of injustice in schools, housing, jobs, policing, and US foreign policy.” (p.17)
The legacy of these activists has been misappropriated, which is the central theme of Theoharis’ book. This is particularly so when it comes to the violence perpetrated against the Black Lives Movement who are presented as terrorists. She quotes a statement published by 66 former SNCC activists from July 2016:
“Fortunately, today, as in the past, the protesters who have taken to the streets against police violence will not be intimidated by slander or mis- characterization as ‘racist1 or ‘terrorist sympathizers’ born of the fear, ignorance and malice of their would-be critics We, the still-active radicals who were SNCC, salute todays Movement for Black Lives for taking hold of the torch to continue to light this flame of truth for a knowingly forgetful world.” (p.25)
The book highlights the lie of the bad South and savior North history that is presented in American schools. Theoharis calls the Northern segregation ‘American Apartheid’:
“Many scholars and journalists since the 1960s have clung to this false distinction between a Southern “de jure” segregation and a Northern “de facto” segregation, making Northern segregation more innocent and missing the various ways such segregation was supported and maintained through the law and political process.” (p.34)
Northern white communities, in cities such as New York would oppose the forced bussing of black students into white schools, and took the view that black people were culturally inferior. (p.38) Those who sought equal rights for black people in the north were considered to be dangerous and driven out of public institutions such as schools. (p.41) The Harlem Nine who sought rights were subjected to surveillance by the FBI.
The misrepresentation is not just limited to a convenient retelling of history, but also finds itself in popular culture. The movie director Kathryn Bigelow, known for her apologising for national security excesses, also has no issue in depicting black people as problematic, as her movie ‘Detroit’ starts with a riot by black people, as if there was no history of black people in the city before then. (p.62) Part of the point that is being made, is that racism is endemic in almost every part of the history, and the way the history manifests itself in the modern world – so the very idea of a ‘post-racial society’ is a complete nonsense – racism has just become ‘polite’:
“The first tool of “polite” racism involved language. While many white Southerners in the 1950s and early 1960s defended “segregation now and forever” and “states’ rights” and called Black people horrible names, a different vocabulary of race emerged in the North in the postwar period, and increasingly over the 1960s in Southern metropolises. The lexicon they employed celebrated “color blindness” and expressed “surprise” at Black anger; it cast African American and Latino youth as “problem students” whose behavior (and that of their parents) hampered their educational success and whose communities were filled with “crime;” and it highlighted “property rights” and framed resistance to desegregation in the language of “neighborhood schools,” “taxpayer’s rights,” and “forced busing.” Many of these people decried “racism” and took offense at the notion that their actions and perspectives were at all racist, in part because they too saw racism as being steeped in personal hatred.” (p.88)
For Theoharis, this polite racism is central, it is the coded language, the silence, the ‘demonization of dissent’ and the way the bureaucracy and corridors of power, while at the same time, the very people who deploy these tools, are the ones who will publicly condemn Klu Klux Klan Wizard David Duke. (p.98) Yes, liberals are seemingly against the most overt forms of racism, but when it comes to dismantling systems of structural racism, they are less inclined to remove their hegemony.
There was an aspect of the book that I had not been expecting but was refreshing to read and understand. The role played by women in the civil rights struggle. Having recently read Ilyasah Shabazz’s novel ‘Betty before X’ about the early life of Betty Shabazz, there is an important contribution being made that revists the role that these important female figures played. In particular Theoharis focuses on Corretta Scott King, the civil rights leader and wife of Martin Luther King Jr and also the legend Rosa Parks. In the case of Parks, the point is well made that her refusal to sit in the segregated end of the bus was no accident, it was after a lifetime of civil rights struggle, and this was only another chosen step for her. (p.174) With all the emphasis on Martin Luther King Jr, part of the official programme of revising history, is not acknowledging that Coretta Scott King was surveilled by the FBI’s COINTELPRO taskforce long after her husband had passed, she was still considered dangerous for her activism, and little regard is paid to her bravery in spite of that pressure. (p.179)
History is re-written through a white liberal lens, a lens that seeks to eviscerate the true legacy of those who placed themselves in the way of harm for the rights of all others. Perhaps fittingly, it is worth leaving the last word about the way in which the deaths of these leaders are remembered, and how in that remembering, we are forced to forget:
“Ali’s funeral became an occasion for a huge swath of Americans to celebrate a Muslim hero secure in their own liberalness. “Muhammad Ali became the ‘brave American who stood up for a cause,” according to anthropologist Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, “rather than the ‘black Muslim’ who stood for his religious convictions… a kind of religious whitewashing that matches a broader tendency to dilute the radical politics of most figures of the era.” Little connection was made to the treatment and monitoring of politically active Black Muslims today—or to the way Ali s proud Muslim faith and criticism of US imperialism in post-9/11 America would have been treated by the federal government, if his voice still rang out.”