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Lecture uncovers truth about the civil rights movement

| Monday, March 29, 2021

In a lecture Friday hosted by the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights, Jeanne Theoharis, author/co-author of nine books on the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, spoke about myths surrounding the movement.

Theoharis is a distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College. Her book, titled A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, was the framework for Friday’s lecture. In the book, she describes how misuses of the historical civil rights movement to curb more recent protests can be detrimental to the cause.

Courtesy of Isabella Laufenberg
Jeanne Theoharis joined the lecture over Zoom to discuss the civil rights movements and the myths of its retelling.

During the lecture, Theoharis said America has concocted a national fable of the civil rights movement — effectively hiding the truth under layers of nationalism and heroism.

Theoharis pointed out many recent uses of the historical civil rights movement being used to justify hate against the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, saying the myths are harmful to both BLM and the civil rights movement.

“These framings, I argue, traffic in a national fable of the civil rights movement that distort and obscure many aspects of the movement — weaponizing the memory of the civil rights movement, in many ways, against contemporary movements, missing in many ways what contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter are doing in the process,” Theoharis said.

The civil rights history fable tells a story of American nationalism and heroism, Theoharis said.

“The fable tells a story of a southern movement galvanized by Rosa Parks’ bus stand, led by Martin Luther King Jr., by courageous southern Black people and supported by northern white liberals, journalists and the federal government, who struggled, and then succeeded in passing two landmark pieces of legislation: the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” Theoharis said. “It is a tale filled with good guys and bad guys, and a happy ending — a powerful story about individual grit and the power of American exceptionalism.”

Theoharis said that the origins of misuse of civil rights history began with former President Ronald Reagan declaring the third Monday of every January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Theoharis mentioned Reagan used Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a way to connect with white moderates. His remarks on the day he signed the legislation into law held the beginnings of the “national fable,” she said.

There are three main parts of the fable, Theoharis explained. The first problem she identified is that the movement is portrayed as passive. Theoharis said the civil rights movement was actually anything but passive and that it was actually categorized by its disruptiveness.

The second myth of the civil rights movement fable is that racism was only present in the deep South, Theoharis said. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were both huge advocates for national awareness of racism, and that aspect of their fight was often left out of their stories, she said.

“The way that the Parks and King that we’ve been kind of told about and are celebrated, we really miss the ways that they’re calling out not just a southern problem but a national problem,” Theoharis said.

Theoharis said that the third problem she finds with how history views the civil rights movement is that support for the movement was idealized.

“The third aspect of the fable that I think needs really overturning is this idea that most decent Americans supported the civil rights movement, that kind of respectable civil rights movement, while it was happening,” she said. “Erasing how controversial the civil rights movement was, how uncomfortable, I think it erases also how change happens.”

Theoharis also addressed many questions over the course of her lecture on topics such as America’s racist institutions, how more current administrations have handled racial topics and white discomfort.

Throughout the entire lecture, Theoharis especially stressed how important an honest conversation about our civil rights history is for our present and future.

“I think we need a more honest conversation about how it happened in order to both see our history more clearly but also to see the present more clearly,” Theoharis said.

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About Bella Laufenberg

Bella Laufenberg is a sophomore biological sciences major, who likes news much more than organic chemistry. She has a supplementary major in classics and is in the journalism, ethics and democracy minor. At The Observer, she is the New Writer Editor and works production.

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