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A More Complex Portrait of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement

Steven Sherman Apr 4

In A History More Beautiful and Terrible: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, Brooklyn College political scientist Jeanne Theoharis takes aim at what she calls the civil-rights “fable.” This fable, familiar from Martin Luther King Day and many other occasions, states that ‘Rosa Parks sat down, Dr. King delivered his inspirational speech and American democracy righted itself of its major flaw, racial discrimination.’ Theoharis highlights the misuse of this fable by those who wish to declare that the work of the civil-rights movement is finished and denigrate contemporary Black Lives Matter activists. Far from being saints who seem to float outside history, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King are here portrayed as two tough-minded, often frustrated activists struggling in a wider movement that faced serious opposition from most white people, the federal government and the national media, notwithstanding the self-congratulation all have enveloped themselves in decades after the fact. 

Theoharis devotes considerable space to repudiating the idea that the civil-rights movement before 1965 was almost exclusively focused on the South. Instead, she highlights struggles in New York City, Detroit and Los Angeles before the riots of 1964–68 made the issue of racism in the North a national concern. Far from being the product of slippery “de facto segregation,” where the preferences of multiple individuals produced segregated results without anyone really being to blame, Northern city policies repeatedly strengthened segregation in schools, delivered inferior public services to African American communities and maintained police brutality, while the local media denigrated the concerns of local activists. Struggles were sometimes intense and involved mass participation, as in the 1964 boycott of schools in New York City. Martin Luther King travelled to these cities and urged action. But the movements were met with condescension and indifference until the uprisings, at which point the tone shifted to shock and dismay. Similarly, when a court in 1974 ordered Boston to desegregate its schools, the long history of fights to integrate the schools was wiped out in favor of the pretense that the decision came out of nowhere.

Women leaders abounded and often bristled at efforts to minimize their achievements or keep them out of the spotlight.

The civil-rights fable largely excludes the role of “white moderates” in stymieing the movement, although Dr. King noted it. It highlights the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and Southern sheriffs, but glosses over the economic violence (firing activists), red-baiting, indifference and polite racism that also posed major obstacles. Similarly, while media like the New York Times have congratulated themselves for cutting through the lies and evasions that Southern elites put forth and reporting empathetically on the struggles of African Americans in the South, they didn’t do so well in the North. Theoharis emphasizes that the movement struggled not only for desegregation but also criminal justice, economic justice and global justice, clarifying continuities with present-day struggles and ways in which the civil-rights agenda was not fully achieved.

Young people played a significant role in the movement, courageously challenging power and demanding that elders overcome their caution. Women leaders abounded and often bristled at efforts to minimize their achievements or keep them out of the spotlight. These tensions were already palpable by the 1963 March on Washington. Theoharis highlights Coretta Scott King, who in some respects was more politically left than her husband. The movement was disliked, spied on and vilified by a wide swath of government institutions and white people.

In the strongest chapter, Theoharis describes the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks and organizer E.D. Nixon are recast as longtime activists, struggling in an environment where the prospects of mass struggle were bleak. Although teenager Claudette Colvin’s earlier refusal to get up from the bus is often portrayed as a struggle that didn’t qualify as “respectable,” here it is shown as partially effective, as it highlighted the restiveness of young people and spurred Parks to commit civil disobedience and trigger the citywide bus boycott. Parks’ act was also spurred by rage at the not-guilty verdict in the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, which she had heard reported at a church meeting days earlier. The boycott, an impressive feat of collective action, worked because it was disruptive, although this produced not only opposition from the white community but also tensions with the national NAACP. White people used many tactics to oppose it, from violence to claims that it was just a question of a “few bad apples” among the drivers — which should sound familiar to those following the news these days.

Theoharis’ account is revelatory and disturbing. For example, she argues that claims today that schools have “resegregated” in the last couple of decades are misleading because in some places, including New York City, genuine desegregation never happened. The fable — the worshipping of King and Parks as saints detached from their historical and political context — emerges as an obstacle to clearly understanding the past and present. Recovering the challenges and contradictions of the real history is indispensable to grounding today’s struggles. 

I do have one reservation about this book. It emphasizes the limits of the civil-rights movement in achieving economic justice, the opposition of most white people, the spying and harassment by the government so much that it obscures the movement’s achievements. A clear-eyed assessment of those achievements, neither vacuously celebrating the United States as a self-correcting democracy nor pessimistically seeing the reassertion of white supremacy as inevitable, would have strengthened it.

Similarly, it doesn’t illuminate the political context that made possible Dr. King’s visits to the White House to meet with three presidents. By 1948, an alliance of labor unions, Northern African Americans and white liberals was powerful enough to force the inclusion of civil rights in the Democratic Party platform. That alliance was able to isolate the formally segregated South, even as it had a less clear commitment to the more complex task of transforming the North, and it started to unravel from around 1964 through the late 1970s, as Northern whites voted for racist presidential candidate George Wallace and joined racially coded tax revolts. But there are only so many things one book can do, and as a guide to the beautiful, terrible history of determined, angry movement activists and the sometimes fierce, sometimes polite resistance they faced, this one is invaluable.

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Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking in Chicago, April 17, 1968. Credit: Ted Bell/Chicago Urban League Records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.