A More Beautiful and Terrible History

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“Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run. Obama’s running so we all can fly.” Rap mogul Jay Z’s words reflected not just the “Yes we can!” optimism of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, but also the orthodox view of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM).

Most commentaries present us with a series of episodes which are celebrated as part of the glorious history of the United States.

For sure, the country’s troubled past is acknowledged, slavery is widely recognised as its original sin and Jim Crow its ugly continuation, but the nation’s subsequent history is held up as proof of the adaptability and endurance of American democracy.

And so the birthday of the preacher who had such a beautiful dream is now a national holiday. Black heroes, including even Malcolm X, do appear on stamps and by 2008 America was ready to have a black president.

Unfortunately however, a decade later instead of living the dream, millions of black Americans are continuing to catch the hell that necessitated a liberation struggle in the first place.

Not surprisingly therefore many young activists are looking back at that movement with a degree of scepticism. Hence James Forman Jr declares in his brilliant book, Locking Up Our Own, that he hates the Dr King speech. Not the speech King made in August 1963 but, rather, the lecture regularly delivered by elders to a younger generation that is supposedly failing to live up to the great man’s legacy.

The great value of Jeanne Theoharis’s book is that it rescues the CRM, highlighting, in the words of James Baldwin, that “American history is longer, larger, more various more beautiful and terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it”.

Subtitled “The uses and misuses of civil rights history”, Theoharis re-examines key events, illuminates hidden struggles and re-evaluates the contribution of key individuals.

She rails against the sanitisation of the movement’s most iconic figures. Parks was not an “accidental matriarch”.

Far from being a humble seamstress who “sat” in December 1955 simply because she was tired, Parks was a seasoned campaigner. She had been involved in struggle since 1943 and mentored young activists, including Claudette Colvin, the 15 year old who defied segregation on Montgomery buses nine months before Rosa did. Moreover she continued to be active long after she and her husband were driven out of Alabama.

Similarly King wasn’t some naive pastor concerned only about Southern desegregation. Theoharis is at her most passionate when she compares the “redneck racism” of the South with that of supposedly more enlightened Northern cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles and New York.

Contrary to the received wisdom, King was not oblivious to the deeply entrenched bigotry and discrimination in the North. Long before the Watts riots in 1965 he backed Northern struggles and also increasingly spoke out against poverty and the Vietnam War. That is why FBI surveillance of him intensified in his final years.

Nor was Coretta Scott King simply Martin’s wife. King himself admitted that “she educated me” about anti-war issues and she was active in racial and peace movements both before their marriage and after his death.

More broadly Theoharis argues that “leadership, vision, marginalisation, contention and challenge all characterised the role of women on the movement”.

As Colvin’s case highlights, young people also played a crucial role. Then, as now, they were criticised for being impatient and unruly but fought for and demanded respect and inclusion. Let us hope that today’s activists learn these lessons and become part of a beautiful struggle.