Why Facile Histories of Civil Rights Are So Dangerous

Historian Jeanne Theoharis discusses myths around civil rights history and makes the case for why a more honest history is key to moving forward.
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Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey after being arrested for boycotting public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama, in February of 1956.

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey after being arrested for boycotting public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama, in February of 1956.

She refused to give up her seat on a bus.

He whistled at a white woman.

I have a dream.

Nonviolence.

By any means necessary.

These tableaux and these rallying cries have become the narrative centerpieces of the history of civil rights in America. They often feature accidental champions (Rosa Parks) or characters seemingly plucked right from a morality play (Martin Luther King Jr. and his embrace of non-violence on the one hand, Malcolm X and his ballot-or-bullet activism on the other). Yet there's something uniquely dangerous in the various ways we remember these near-mythical stories: a broad preference that this history be palatable. That it be facile. That it remain in the past: We have, at last, overcome.

The lure of this more palliative version of mid-century civil rights history is precisely what Jeanne Theoharis, a professor of political science at the City University of New York–Brooklyn College, contends with in her new book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. In this terse and straightforward volume, Theoharis parses a history that has been polished for easy consumption over the course of decades—transformed, as she puts it, into a story of "progress and national redemption" and, in turn, "a testament to the power of American democracy." In consequence, Theoharis is also interested in debunking some of the mythical truisms: She reminds us that Parks wasn't a one-off activist, but rather a radical and committed advocate for criminal justice, and how King aimed his arrows at outright racists in the South but also at genteel bigots in the North. On top of that, Theoharis argues that, when we truncate our history, there will be consequences: The fairy-tale version threatens to stymie people's understanding of the true persistence of racism.

To learn more about "the histories we get" and "the histories we need"—as well as how to reconcile the two in pursuit of racial justice—I recently spoke to Theoharis on the phone.

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What inspired you to write this book?

My book before this one was a biography of Rosa Parks, and the response to that book was beyond my wildest imagination. One of the things that really surprised me was how hungry people were not just for this different story of Rosa Parks, but also for ways to make sense of the mythology and mis-histories we get about her—to make sense of what's happening in the public square.

And then two other things inspired this book more particularly. The first was the conversation before Black Lives Matter—and I think that it's hard to remember before that. Then-President Barack Obama so very rarely talked about race. But one of the few ways he did was through the civil rights movement. I was intrigued by that, and by how the public seemed hungry for this idea of Obama as a sort of continuation of the civil rights movement and for the broader imagery around his election and his presidency. I was very interested in how central all that thinking was both to the public that had elected Obama and to his administration.

And then, almost as soon as I started to work on the book in earnest, Black Lives Matter, which had been brewing for years, catapulted into the national square. At the same time, an avalanche of distorted, weird histories of the civil rights movement was often used to chastise Black Lives Matter. Since then, there's been new urgency to the dangers of this kind of history. And you can't spend more than a decade like I have studying Rosa Parks and not see the dangers of the ways in which we honor the civil rights movement. So much of it is about making ourselves feel good as a country. Rosa Parks is perhaps the best example of this tendency: constantly honored, yet so incredibly misunderstood, so incredibly flattened, so incredibly distorted. I think that this popular usage of the civil rights movement is important, particularly when it comes to understanding the legacy of racism in these moments of, for lack of a better term, racial backlash.

A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.

A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.

This year marks 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Which makes me wonder: What, over the last half-century, have been some of the biggest misconceptions of civil rights history? You mentioned Rosa Parks. What other examples immediately come to mind in terms of how people misuse this history, or even paper over it altogether?

One of the most glaring omissions is how the civil rights movement worked outside the South. Our images of the civil rights movement are overwhelmingly Southern; our ideas of where systemic racism exists are overwhelmingly Southern. But in terms of where we are today, that's so dangerous. If we're looking at the past two years, at the larger movement against police brutality, it's not happening solely in the South. By and large, we're talking about Cleveland, we're talking about St. Louis, we're talking about Baltimore, we're talking about New York City. Places that aren't the Deep South. One danger of the national civil rights fable is the notion that we solved the problem; another is that the problem was only in the South.

There's also a tendency to think that Southern black people organized the movement but that Northern black people didn't. This thinking plays into the "culture of poverty" ideas that try to justify contemporary racial inequality. And so I think that if we see longstanding movements in New York, in Boston, in Los Angeles, in Detroit, in Milwaukee, in Philadelphia, in D.C.—if we see movements in those places and how much white resistance there was to them, how there was a lack of federal will and action to give them muscle—we're forced to confront where we are today in this country in terms of widespread racial injustice. We're forced to confront systemic racial inequality in the North: the lengths to which people there went to protect that inequality and the lengths to which people there went to challenge it.

In the book, you highlight historical omissions, but you also investigate their continued importance. I particularly like your framing: "the histories we get" and "the histories we need." Could you explain why these histories matter?

They matter for a couple different reasons. One reason is that they give us a more sober sense of where we are today. A second, related reason is that they give us a lot more in terms of how we can move toward social justice today. If we see the huge variety of people who actually led and organized—and if we see that this trailblazing happened everywhere—that matters. I do a lot in my classes around the civil rights movement in New York. That's in part because there's just something about seeing the places in which we live not only as sites of racial injustice, but also as sites of struggle. There's a sepia-tone lens through which we often see the civil rights movement: It doesn't seem like it happened in places familiar to us, and it doesn't seem like it was peopled by people we know. With a more complete history, we begin to see that these are people like us. I have a chapter on high school students, largely because when we realize, for instance, that there were two teenagers involved in the Supreme Court case that desegregated Montgomery's buses, we see that courage and leadership come in a variety of packages.

And the title of your book gets at this realization.

Exactly. These aren't all tales with happy endings, but this history is still more beautiful and more inspirational. It shows us the way. Look at the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It's something that's familiar to almost everyone, but in fact when we look at it—at what it took, at what it was like—it's really not too familiar. But an awareness of what activists actually did is useful. It's not like an injustice gets fixed the minute we call it out. Part of the reason [the boycott] succeeded was because it was incredibly organized; peopled walked, but they also carpooled. So today, while we have to tell new stories, we also have to go back to the old stories and tell them anew.

Looking ahead, what would help Americans reach a fuller appreciation of this history?

There's been a huge flowering of scholarship around histories of civil rights and black power over the past about 15 years. And so, increasingly, we're seeing not only all sorts of classes at universities that deal with this history, but also more popular engagement, with things like the Ferguson Syllabus and the Charleston Syllabus. We're seeing new ways in which people learn this history, even if they're not at a university. A longtime collaborator and I run a series at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for this reason—so that people can talk about black history in a public setting, even beyond university spaces. I've also heard that lots of Black Lives Matter chapters hold study groups and activities like that—and that draws on a long history, if we look at groups like the Black Panther Party. So I've been heartened by how these issues are increasingly front and center, and are really challenging how we tend to commemorate and historicize the past. There are lots of things to be hopeful about.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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