“A More Beautiful and Terrible History” Corrects the Fables Told of the Civil Rights Movement




I’M IN A GROUP for professionals of color in the Bay Area. Many of them are younger newcomers drawn to California’s great weather, liberal political climate, and high-paying tech jobs. Since living here, a number of them are surprised by the racism — both overt and systematic. They believed the “California is not racist” myth, until they experienced it for themselves. I ask them, “Don’t you know about the Black Panther Party, the Watts Riots, the beating of Rodney King, and the L.A. Uprisings?”

I can’t totally blame them for not knowing the racial history of this state. People are still misinformed by the narrative that racism only happens in the Deep South. The common narrative of the Civil Rights movement is just as narrow as stories of racial injustice. There was more to the movement than Dr. King’s inspirational speeches and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Racial division didn’t go away in a chorus of “We Shall Overcome.” There were freedom fighters before King and Parks, after them, and well beyond Southern borders.

In A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, author Jeanne Theoharis bursts the bubble on what we’ve learned about the Civil Rights era to show a larger movement with layers. She critiques some of the tributes (such as museum exhibits, national honors, et cetera) and stories of Civil Rights icons as diluting their activism and the power of racism.

“The history of American racism has become just that … history,” Theoharis writes. “While these tributes honored the movement, they simultaneously depoliticized the scope of the struggle, distorted the work of activists honored, demonized Black anger, and obscured ongoing calls for racial justice through a celebration of a nearly postracial, self-correcting America.”

Theoharis is known for challenging what she would call “fables” of leaders. Her biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks is a 2014 NAACP Image Award winner. Her latest book is the result of 16 years of research. The book covers huge movements outside of the South, such as desegregating schools in Boston and Los Angeles. It explains how media on the coasts focused more on covering racism in the South, instead of the local injustices.

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JENEÉ DARDEN: A More Beautiful and Terrible History looks at the complexities behind other Civil Rights icons and moments during that time. I’ve read comments online from people who say, “Rosa Parks and Dr. King were quiet protesters and effective. Why can’t the activists today be like that?” But they weren’t quiet.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is often told in ways that make it hard to imagine how to do it. In part because it seems to just happen, right? It seems like Rosa Parks sits down, people are outraged, there’s a boycott, they win. We’re told that she’s just this accidental heroine when they’d been organizing for years.

I like that you used the word “fable” to describe the stories we’re fed about the Civil Rights movement.

The fable of the Civil Rights movement has a couple of different parts. It’s about courageous individuals, not community or the collective. It’s about individualism. It’s about how we had a problem, shined a light on it, and we fixed it. That’s a very simplified notion. It’s about how the problem and movement are in the past. And it’s about American exceptionalism. There’s an idea that this is possible in America and it’s not possible in other places. Reagan literally says that when he signed the legislation for the King holiday. What we’ve seen is the fable being used as a weapon against contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter, against [Colin] Kaepernick. But the criticisms being waged against them were waged against the Civil Rights movement.

You address mental health in your book. Dr. King suffered from depression. Rosa Parks did, too. Coretta Scott King went into a deep depression after President Kennedy’s assassination. I’ve read stories about activists today taking their own lives.

In some of the quotes from Rosa Parks, she’s talking about how she feels crazy, and how lonely she is. She said it’s hard to stay mentally sane in the midst of white supremacy. It’s easy for us to look back now and say what she did is so clear, so righteous. I think we missed the part of how oppressive systems maintain themselves is by making people who critique them feel crazy, feel like they’re the problem.

It wasn’t just white supremacy she had to deal with. Some black people thought she was too radical.

Definitely! It’s really hard to do the right thing. It’s really hard to press forward again and be ostracized.

How do we honor social justice leaders without depoliticizing them?

One of the things I was trying to point out in the book is: Does the commemoration become an act of justice in and of itself? Think about in 2013, putting the Rosa Parks statue in the Capitol on the same day they’re hearing Shelby County v. Holder [the 2013 Supreme Court decision dismantling voter protections in the Voting Rights Act for the elderly, poor, and people of color].

It would have been a very different thing had President Obama used that event to discuss voting rights. There are a whole host of racial justice issues that he really could have done something on. Instead it becomes a day of celebrating America. If you think about all the speeches, most of them were: “What a great day for America.”

The story of the Civil Rights movement is usually focused on the South. You wrote about movements in the North and West Coast.

The erasing of the Northern movements makes it seem like there wasn’t a racial problem in the North. From Los Angeles to Boston, public officials that saw themselves as being open and liberal said they didn’t keep records of race. Then lo and behold they come out in [desegregation] court cases in the 1970s.

I’d never heard of the Harlem Nine, a group of mothers who fought to overturn segregated schools in Harlem. The building conditions were horrible. Some schools had two bathrooms for 1,600 kids and a sheet of wood with a hole for a toilet seat.

The Harlem Nine were surveilled because the FBI considered them a threat. They homeschooled their kids to protest [then were] charged for keeping their kids home — while white parents were willing to put their kids on buses to keep them in segregated schools. One judge found the mothers guilty. Another judge said the schools are segregated and the mothers have the right not to send their kids there. That was an important decision but what it did not do was desegregate New York schools. It protected the mothers from going to jail. There’s a compromise made where these nine families get to attend different schools. Not to the ones the mothers wanted, but that option was not made available in a large-scale way. After this, in the 1960s, is a burgeoning, broader movement to desegregate schools in New York. In the 1964 boycott, nearly half a million students and teachers stay out of school because there’s still no comprehensive plan for desegregation in New York.

Was this ever resolved?

I ask my students when did New York schools comprehensively desegregate. And the answer is never. There are pockets of it. A few years back, UCLA put out a study about the most segregated school systems in the country; New York is at the top of that list.

I was shocked by the chapter on media. You wrote that the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and The New York Times won awards for covering racism in the South. Yet, they weren’t critical of the racism in their own cities. For instance, when the Watts Riots erupted.

The L.A. Times could’ve said, “People have been raising these issues for years. We need to hold ourselves and city leaders accountable that there’s been a movement in the city for years around police brutality and nothing happened.” But you don’t see the L.A. Times doing that. In fact, the L.A. Times calls for more police.

In Los Angeles, black and Mexican students were segregated from white students. Did Los Angeles’s school desegregation movement happen before the Watts Riots?

Yes. After World War II, Los Angeles gets more segregated. As more people migrate to L.A., black people are being funneled into particular neighborhoods. The neighborhoods are getting crowded. You see high schools that were racially mixed become nearly all black.

Before Watts, you see this growing black parent movement around desegregation. The board of education responds by throwing money at programs for juvenile delinquency. The Los Angeles board, like New York and Boston, doesn’t embrace segregation on the face of it. They say these students are culturally deprived; their families don’t have the right cultural values and practices to succeed so we’re going to culturally uplift them. The education board casts black students as the problem.

You reference census data from the 1960s that shows Los Angeles schools were more segregated than Southern schools. How did people protest?

The L.A. school board readjusted the boundary lines of these schools to basically funnel the black kids into Jordan High School, into Fremont. In 1963, there are regular downtown protests, sit-ins at the board of education. People are trying to go through the system, similar to New York, and getting nowhere.

And Dr. King came to help?

Yes. King is in and out of Los Angeles multiple times between 1961 and 1964. In ’63, he comes, shortly after getting out of jail in Birmingham, and speaks to a crowd of 35,000 at Wrigley Field [originally opened in Los Angeles in 1925 after the Chicago Cubs owner bought the Los Angeles Angels, the Cubs played at Chicago’s Cubs Park] saying, “Set L.A. free!” Then he talked about police brutality and school and housing segregation.

In 1963, the Rumford Fair Housing Act reached the state level. It prohibited discrimination in the rental and sale of housing. White people rise up and get in contact with realtors and neighborhood associations to get Prop 14 on the 1964 ballot. Prop 14 returns the right of Californians to discriminate in housing. King comes multiple times to fight it and called it a vote for ghettos.

In 1964, Californians overwhelmingly send Lyndon Johnson back to the White House. And they overwhelmingly support Prop 14. It passes. Our story of Northern liberals needs to be much more complicated. On one hand Californians [voted for] Lyndon Johnson, arguably the most Civil Rights–oriented president we’ve ever had. On the other hand, they say we want the right to discriminate.

There’s a myth about white racists as poor, white men who live in rural America. But those you write about in the book are in New York, Boston, L.A.; educated and middle class who thought themselves somehow better than those who were lower income.

Lots of people who stood against the Civil Rights movement looked down upon other racists like they would never have burned a cross or called King’s house and said nasty things. Even though lots of middle- and upper middle-class people in Boston resisted desegregation in 1974.

King took on the limits of Northern liberalism and wanted his allies who praised his work in the South to look in their own backyards as well.

Dr. King visited Los Angeles to do social justice work, but his widow, Coretta Scott King, also has a legacy as an activist too.

I’m completely fit to be tied about how we commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, and she’s still getting sidelined. Her work influenced his growing internationalism and antiwar stance. She was a lifelong activist: her anti-poverty work, her antiwar work, her commitment to black voting and political power, her support for gay rights.

Days after his assassination in April 1968, she goes to Memphis to lead the march for sanitation workers he was supposed to lead. In May, she did an address in Central Park that he was supposed to give and continued to oppose US involvement in Vietnam. The FBI surveilled her for years because they were worried about how much she’s tying the antiwar movement to the Civil Rights movement. One of the ways we approach Martin Luther King’s assassination is to say the Civil Rights movement is over. If we were to center Coretta Scott King and see what she did, it is very clear the movement is not over.

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Jeneé Darden is a journalist from Oakland, California. Visit her blog CocoaFly.com to read her research series Under the Covers: The Popularity and Debate Over Black Erotic Literature


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