How Politicians Use the Civil Rights Movement to Obscure Ongoing Racism
On the Uses and Misuses of History, by Conservatives and Liberals Alike
The national civil rights fable has been political gold in the hands of conservatives and liberals alike. From Reagan to Bush, it provided a shield against criticism of their race-based policies and approaches. A story of individual scrappiness and national progress, this tale of the civil rights movement served the nation well, underlining its ability to move past its problems with race. It held particular appeal for the Obama administration, which liked the historic resonances that framed his presidency—and for the public who elected him, to mark their own accomplishment.
The birth of the Tea Party movement, the relentless questioning of the president’s birth certificate and citizenship, the scorched-earth attacks on Obama’s economic stimulus plan, and the Affordable Care Act (often referred to as Obamacare) all kept a vicious race politics front and center from the minute President Obama entered the Oval Office, without his administration ever even tackling the ongoing scourge of racial injustice. As pollster Cornell Belcher observed upon Obama’s historic 2008 election, “A black man can’t be president in America, given the racial aversion and the history that’s still out there. However, an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.” Civil rights memorialization provided a way to approach this seemingly untenable task. Talking about racism through the history of the civil rights movement provided an easier way to speak about inequality, but then largely rendered the fight against it in the past.
This fit with the desire of many Americans to be proud of electing a Black man and to use his election to claim the country’s sordid history of racial inequality was now largely over. Many Americans embraced these sorts of historical celebrations because they—and President Obama’s presence in the White House—were feel-good moments of America becoming a “more perfect union.” But that combination produced a dangerous absolution; admiring the civil rights movement became a way to feel okay about opposing change in the present and to disregard those who insisted that the election of a Black president could go hand-in-hand with systemic racial inequality.
Part of the problem with these renderings of the movement are the ways they are steeped in American exceptionalism—and used to tell a story about the glorious evolution of US democracy and the scrappy Americans who prove its power. They cast civil rights activists in the cloak of sanctified, not-angry nobility, who struggled respectably and were destined to win because American democracy is an inspiration for the world. These tributes tell tales about the power of American values—of the disenfranchised’s ability to use the levers of democracy and of the willingness of the powerful to change. The many ways Americans by their actions and inactions enabled, protected, and continue to maintain injustice at home and abroad fade into the background.
“Admiring the civil rights movement became a way to feel okay about opposing change in the present.”
Part of what makes it difficult to see the gaps and distortions in these narratives is that these memorials operate on a very powerful set of registers. Because there is so little African American history in our schools and our public square, any bit that makes it in becomes precious. These historical tributes pay well-deserved honor to the courage and dedication of King, Parks, and their comrades, and to the significance of the civil rights movement to American history. They, importantly, encourage young people to identify with those who challenge the status quo to fight for justice, not simply to emulate and celebrate the rich and the powerful. The culmination of years of efforts to ensure the history of the movement and the legacy of these brave individuals are marked in significant public ways; they are inspiring tributes—wrongs exposed, terror defeated by courage, the power of ordinary citizens. By asserting in the most prominent spaces in the land that Black history is American history and Black leaders are American heroes, they help to desegregate the nation’s public history. Their inclusion, given how dead and white publicly commemorated US history is, marks such a long-fought victory that sometimes it seems like the best that could be hoped for. All of this, then, makes the distortions embedded in them difficult to see and their dangers harder to recognize.
But these memorials and popular recountings contain perilous silences. They largely function as celebrations of individual courage, missing the collective struggle these victories took and forgoing national accountability by relegating the history of inequality to the past. 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.
By stripping King and Parks of the breadth of their politics—which interwove economic justice, desegregation, criminal justice, educational justice, and global justice—many of these national tributes render Parks and King meek and dreamy, not angry, intrepid, and relentless, and thus not relevant or, even worse, at odds with a new generation of young activists.
These memorials purposely forget the decades when these activists were surveilled, harassed, ostracized as troublemakers, and upbraided as “extremists”—how part of the way racial injustice flourished was through the demonization of those who called it out. The movement’s heroism is also placed at a distance, rather than as a way to imagine how the young people visiting these monuments will grow up to be our next freedom-fighting heroes and heroines. By holding up a couple of heroic individuals separate from the movements in which they were a part, the ways the era is memorialized implicitly creates a distinction between the people we have today—too loud, too angry, too uncontrolled, too different—and the respectable likes of Parks and King.
These renderings make it seem as if the movement happened naturally or inevitably, missing the staggering resolve and perseverance of small groups of people who actually pressed it forward, and in so doing attracted larger groups of people to their cause. And in the process, these dilutions and distortions render the problems African Americans now face as largely their own doing, and contemporary activism as so very different from this hallowed past.
“By stripping King and Parks of the breadth of their politics, many of these national tributes render Parks and King meek and dreamy, not angry, intrepid, and relentless.”
Invoking the movement has also become a way to maintain and distract from injustice in the present. In the midst of his first month in office, Trump recognized Black History Month, lauding the “museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things.” He stumbled on: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed. Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and millions more black Americans who made America what it is today. Big impact.” As horrifying as it was that the president knew so little about Black history that he thought Frederick Douglass was still living (an error compounded by then press secretary Sean Spicer), the comments had eerie echoes of Reagan’s idea that the movement was “based on an image.” Uttering the names of these heroes was deemed useful to the agenda President Trump was pursuing.
On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2017, faced with criticism from Congressman John Lewis, who described him as not a “legitimate president,” President-elect Trump hit back at Lewis. The congressman should fix his “crime-infested” district, Trump tweeted. “All talk, talk, talk—no action or results. Sad!” The controversy that ensued was important but predictable—Twitter exploded and Trump’s slur of Lewis dominated the news all weekend (including the front page of the New York Times). But it was also useful bait amidst a week of exploding revelations on collusion with Russia and during the madcap rush to confirm Trump’s nominees (many of whom had made direct racial appeals and supported practices steeped in racial inequality). While some claimed Trump “doesn’t care that people think the civil rights movement was important,” more likely, Trump, skilled in the politics of distraction—and waiting a day before responding—used its public importance to generate a massive, useful diversion.
Trump’s tweet did inspire some congressional representatives to “stand with John Lewis” and sit out the inauguration. But even then, the controversy centered on the heroism of the individual man. It was “standing with Lewis,” rather than standing with the voting rights that Lewis had risked his life to try to ensure. Lewis himself had centered his comments not “around” the illegitimacy of Trump’s presidency and the role of the Russia during the election—and had not included the significant voter disfranchisement and new voter ID laws that had certainly enabled Trump’s victory. None of the members of Congress standing with him highlighted it either. This controversy could have been an opportunity to attack the dismantling of voting rights protections—fourteen states had new voting restrictions in place for the 2016 election—that had led to Trump’s “illegitimate” win. But the movement was placed in the past; what was to be defended was the honorable Congressman Lewis, not an enduring commitment to securing voting rights.
The misuse of history often provides distorted instruction on the process of change. In his commencement address at Howard University in 2016, President Obama explained to the graduates how change happens in the United States. He invoked the power of Mississippi freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer’s challenge at the 1964 Democratic convention, which contested the racial exclusion embodied in the Mississippi Democratic Party, and her grassroots organizing in Mississippi. But he ended with this admonishment: “And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. . . . If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want.”
What the president did not mention to those Howard graduates was that a similar lecture had been given to Fannie Lou Hamer and other Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party activists by establishment civil rights leaders and Democratic Party operatives to encourage them to take a meager compromise in 1964, but they had rejected it. It was this willingness not to bend to political expediency, but to insist on full rights, that characterized Fannie Lou Hamer’s heroism that we now laud 50 years later.
At the same time, many civil rights memorials refigured civil rights history through a language of personal responsibility—what legal scholar James Forman has called the “politics of responsibility.” Increasingly, Black-on-Black crime and the need for the Black community to take responsibility for internal problems were cast as the new civil rights issue. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 1995, then US attorney Eric Holder announced a massive crime-fighting initiative called Operation Ceasefire: “Did Martin Luther King successfully fight the likes of Bull Connor so that we could ultimately lose the struggle for civil rights to misguided or malicious members of our own race?”
“The misuse of history often provides distorted instruction on the process of change.”
In 2004, Bill Cosby, speaking at an NAACP gala honoring the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, delivered a “blistering” diatribe on the behaviors and actions of Black parents and children to a mix of “astonishment, laughter and applause,” according to the Washington Post. Namechecking civil rights heroes from Dorothy Height to Julian Bond, Cosby lamented, “These people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education and now we got these knuckleheads walking around who don’t want to learn English.” Much criticism of his remarks followed. But Cosby and Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint took the show on the road, underscoring how discipline, values, and personal responsibility were key to Black power today—to move Black people from “victims to victors.”
Political scientist Fred Harris has described “the shift in the century-old ideology—the politics of respectability—to a public philosophy directed at policing the black poor” in the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in the campaign of Barack Obama. Personal responsibility was also interwoven with his discussion of the movement in speeches candidate Obama made to Black audiences. At Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, in 2007, when he talked about the progress made by the movement and what it would take to complete the last 10 percent of the task, Obama pointed partly to individualized personal responsibility. Calling for responsible Black fatherhood (decrying “daddies not acting like daddies”), he demanded a fictional, unreliable cousin Pookie “get off the couch,” register, and go to the polls—locating much of the work in Black people themselves.
Months later, at a speech to the NAACP, Obama again reiterated the “need to demand more from ourselves.” And as president, when he delivered the commencement address at Morehouse College in 2013, he made clear to Black men graduating that “there’s no longer any room for excuses. . . . Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured. . . . And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.” His allusion to “we shall overcome” as a message of “toughening up” and “not making excuses of racism” was aimed squarely at young Black men themselves (and was far different from the message he delivered at Barnard College’s commencement the year before, in which he did not tell the young women graduates “there’s no longer any room for excuses”). As historian Tom Sugrue observed, Obama’s vision of the struggle turned on “individual initiative and self-transformation.” In many ways, this call was a perversion of the civil rights movement’s outward organizing tradition (change “has to start with your action”) into an inward self-help tradition (“we have to transform ourselves first”).
Horrified by the ways popular histories of the movement have distorted its legacy for contemporary political interests, historians and social justice activists have sounded the alarm for years. SNCC organizer Julian Bond quipped that the narrative of the movement has been reduced to “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.” In 2004, the Organization of American Historians president at the time, Jacqueline Dowd Hall, delivered a powerful address, later turned into an article, warning that popular histories of the movement “prevent one of the most remarkable mass movements in American history from speaking effectively to the challenges of our time.” Asserting that the dominant narrative “distorts and suppresses as much as it reveals,” she argued for the need “to make civil rights harder. Harder to celebrate as a natural progression of American values. Harder to cast as a satisfying morality tale. Most of all, harder to simplify, appropriate, and contain.”
From A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. Used with permission of Beacon Press. Copyright © 2018 by Jeanne Theoharis.