In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I have spent the weekend finally reading Jeanne Theoharis’s A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. Following up on her celebrated biography of Rosa Parks, Theoharis now turns her critical eye toward the civil rights movement at large. A More Beautiful and Terrible History, she writes, “revisit[s] a set of events we think we know. The goal is to analyze gaps and omissions in how we have come to understand the civil rights movement, not to tell a comprehensive history of the movement” (p. xxiii).
According to Theoharis, when Ronald Reagan signed the bill creating the King holiday in 1983, “Fifteen years of opposition to the holiday gave way to recognizing its political utility. The civil rights movement became a way for the nation to feel good about its progress—and King’s legacy became enshrined in his ‘dream speech’” (p. x). She examines his rapid political rehabilitation among conservatives, noting that “By 1987, 76 percent of Americans held a favorable opinion of [King], almost the reverse of his popularity at the end of his life (only 28 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of him in 1966)” (p. ix-x).
As time passed, presidents from Reagan to Obama “hailed King’s ‘dream’ in their tributes to him. With these national stamps of approval, the civil rights leader’s broader to commitment to challenging the ‘giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism’ and his legacy of sustained struggle shrank further into the background” (p. x). Reading this reminded me of Timothy Tyson’s comment about King in Blood Done Sign My Name: “In the years since his murder, we have transformed King into a kind of innocuous black Santa Claus, genial and vacant, a benign vessel that can be filled with whatever generic good wishes the occasion dictates. Politicians who oppose everything King worked for now jostle their way onto podiums to honor his memory” (p.107).
At the core of Theoharis’s book, then, is a contrast between what she sees as “the histories we get” and “the histories we need.” Why do we need these histories? Because our understanding of the civil rights movement is deeply flawed. Exhibit A (fast forward to 3:47):
Another case in point, this one hitting closer to home: A couple of weeks ago, as I was introducing a new unit on the “American Dream” in my U.S. History classes, I mentioned Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, known to most as his “I Have a Dream” speech. “What was King’s dream?” I asked my students. To my horror, one responded, “He wanted his kids to play with white kids.” I may have snorted with laughter at the obvious absurdity of this response, but judging from the looks on some of my students’ faces, this was not so obvious to them. Not my finest moment in the classroom. Regaining my bearings, I thought, Well, I guess I have my work cut out for me.
Reading A More Beautiful and Terrible History reminds me that I should not be surprised by my students’ unfortunate misconception of King’s “dream.” It reflects a broader cultural misunderstanding about the aims and achievements of civil rights activism. As Theoharis writes, “Key to popular understandings of the civil rights movement is a view of racism as personal hatefulness” (p. 84). In this view, the “Dream,” as much of America has come to understand it, was (past tense) to help white people “get over” their racism—and allow their children to go to school with and play with black children. But “[b]y making racism only about bombing, blocking, and spitting, the nation gets off easy” (p. 84).
In our historical memory, the movement has become a call for “being nice to black people,” and forgotten is the longer-term project which demanded true political, economic, and social equality. To show how much we have forgotten, Theoharis quotes King’s 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here?:
Negroes have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says, and they have taken white America at their word when they talked of it as an objective. But most whites in America, including many of goodwill, proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement.
Because the kind of virulent “redneck racism” (Theoharis’s term) of the 1950s and 1960s is no longer so commonplace, however, and because the status of African Americans has improved, many view the movement as a success, full stop.
This explains the broad inability—or unwillingness—to recognize structural, systemic racism as a matter requiring public policy reform. As Theoharis writes, “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” (p. 86). Or, as Derrick Bell wrote, “The question is how to remedy inequity. It is whether and how much whites must give up so as to restore balance to a society founded, developed, and maintained on white supremacy” (quoted in George Noblit, ed., School Desegregation: Oral Histories Toward Understanding the Effects of White Domination, p. 10). Or, as this painfully funny post from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency puts it, “How Can I Help to Promote Diversity Without Relinquishing Any of My Power?”
In part, I think, this helps explain the sense of bewilderment felt by white liberals over the past couple of years. Following the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008, many Americans understandably wanted to believe that America finally had overcome. Even those skeptical about claims of a “post-racial” society were inclined to believe that the civil rights movement had been largely successful—because they had bought into the mythology of an America on the march toward ever-greater equality.
If we think of this Whiggish conception of history as a dream, Election Night 2016 was perhaps the point when things started to go a little weird. (You all know that point in a dream—usually right before you wake up—when you start to ask, “Wait, what was that? Is this a dream?”) And for some of those who didn’t wake up in November 2016, the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was like a cold-water bath. No—we have not overcome.
And yet there is a danger even in this metaphor.
“Charlottesville,” which has become synonymous with racially charged conflict, still fits the traditional narrative. Like Charleston, Charlottesville can be played with a southern accent, and it enables us to put a face on the evil. Even if the hate mongers carried tiki torches instead of Confederate flags, we can denounce them for failing to learn the lessons of the civil rights movement. “The histories we get” are like so much soma.
Following the narrative, we denounce the “personal hatefulness” of the polo shirt wearing alt-right. We buy Michelle Obama’s book in droves. We promote “diversity” in our schools and offices (except, of course, in those cases where it might disadvantage our children, at which point we believe in “fairness”). And once a year—or more if the situation calls for it—we celebrate a denatured King. This enables us to feel good about ourselves, to see ourselves as playing some small part in bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Meanwhile, schools in Charlottesville—and all across America—still bear the scars of the Jim Crow era.
The histories we need, indeed.