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[Cross-published from americanstudier.blogspot.com]

[Comments, responses, thoughts, rebuttals, and all other takes very welcome!]

Compared to virtually every other complex and painful era and element of our national past and identity, we seem pretty good at collectively remembering the Civil Rights movement. And not just as an overall entity, but with some historical specificity: I think it’s pretty safe to say that Brown v. Board of Education is one of the couple Supreme Court cases with which most Americans are familiar (and unlike the other, Roe v. Wade, that’s not because it’s divisive and controversial); Little Rock and Rosa Parks and “I Have a Dream” are all I would argue in the top ten or twenty most prominent of our national narratives about the past; Eyes on the Prize remains one of our most successful and enduring documentaries and historical films; and so on. And because of those prominent presences, even the longer-term and more fully negative historical context, the system of Jim Crow segregation and its practices of institutionalized and communal racism, is to my mind certainly more a part of our national narratives than lynching or the Wilmington massacre, or then parallel events like the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Japanese Internment.  

And yet. In the years after the Civil War, Americans found ways to make the abolition of slavery a part of our triumphant, progressive narratives about our exceptional and ever-improving national identity, conveniently ignoring the continuing injustices and brutalities directed at freed slaves (and all other African Americans) in the post-war era. So too, I believe, have our most shared narratives of the Civil Rights movement become in many ways an occasion for patting our present selves on the back, paying lip service to some less than ideal past moments but noting that we have made the necessary changes and are doing a lot better these days. As many historians have noted, there’s a reason why it’s so much easier for subsequent (and, yes, especially white) Americans to remember fondly the Martin Luther King of “I Have a Dream” than the one who protested Vietnam or systemic and institutionalized poverty, much less than more consistently confrontational contemporaries like Malcolm X or the Black Panthers. Civil Rights activists like King (especially in that speech but certainly throughout his career in many ways), like Rosa Parks or the young girls in Little Rock or the marchers being hit by the fire hoses and dogs, exemplified non-violent resistance, met the hatred and bigotry and oppression with patience and commitment and even love. It’s amazing how much many activists were indeed able to live up to those ideals, and I’m entirely on board with celebrating them.

When the memories are limited to those celebrations, though, there’s both a historical and a present problem. Historically, those memories can serve to delegitimize a group like the Black Panthers or a concept like Black Power, making it seem as if they were over-reacting and giving in to their worst impulses and even embodying the excesses of the late 60s more generally; there may be some truth to those analyses, but they risk equating the Panthers with the segregationists, leading to just another narrative of “both sides went too far at times” or the like. Huey Newton was no George Wallace (much less the KKK members who killed the three workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi). And in the present, those celebratory memories can similarly delegitimize both memories and continuing presences of racism and oppression, and thus the African American anger or bitterness that can justifiably stem from those historical and ongoing realities. What got me thinking about all of this is the still-evolving saga of Shirley Sherrod, the USDA worker who was wrongly fired for giving a speech in which she had described her family’s legacy (her father killed by the Klan, her mother harassed by them; her husband, a prominent Civil Rights activist, had very similar experiences and traumas), her own difficult engagement with questions of race and justice, and her incredibly impressive attempts to move past them in her work with multi-racial farm communities. The immediate story of Sherrod’s firing is one of right-wing lies and propaganda (driven by the king of such, Andrew Breitbart) and the Obama Administration’s far too weak and accommodating response to same; but the longer story, as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues at the first link below, is one of a more complex and honest legacy of Civil Rights, a legacy that includes hatred and violence and murder and terrorism, and even more so their emotional and psychological and communal effects, just as much as it does peace, love, and understanding.

I hope we never stop remembering those good things about the Civil Rights movement, and the amazing activists and Americans who embodied them. But I hope we can also remember the darker realities, and everything they meant and caused, and the whole spectrum of responses and perspectives they help us to acknowledge and understand. When it comes to such difficult and necessary social change, then as now, love is most definitely not all you need. More tomorrow,

Ben

PS. Three links to start with:

1)    Coates’ take on Sherrod and Civil Rights: http://www.theatlantic.com/...

2)    The Black Panthers’ original Ten-Point Plan: http://www.blackpanther.org/...

3)    OPEN: What do you think?

Originally posted to AmericanStudier on Thu Jun 16, 2011 at 09:01 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Well Sure. In Civil Rights for Example the Few (5+ / 0-)

    great rallies and marches are iconic moments but they didn't accomplish the progress. Rosa wasn't even the first bus-seat striker.

    Most of the "demonstration" activity that moved the cause forward was forcible exercises of illegitimately denied rights, or strikes or denials of service. And of course there were decades of political organizing and activism beneath the dramatic visible moments.

    And yes there was a negative spectrum ranging from militant people or organizations to ghetto riots. An important factor in government and movement leadership being able to act was fear of violent response if the status quo were enforced indefinitely.

    It was similar for the New Deal too. There were strikes and protests then as well, and there was a credible threat in the rising popularity of an economic order that could completely upset our system if our system weren't very quickly made more just.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Thu Jun 16, 2011 at 09:14:00 AM PDT

  •  I don't give a flying freak about love. (3+ / 0-)

    I want EQUALITY and I want it NOW.

    Craft is what emerges when you hit inspiration over the head with a stick.

    by commonmass on Thu Jun 16, 2011 at 09:32:00 AM PDT

  •  Equal is Necissary (0+ / 0-)

    I think a big part of the civil rights narrative lacks a good strong kick. I will proceed to deliver (although keep in mind, its not directed at AmericanStudier or anyone commenting.)

    Any time any arbitrary group can be labelled wrong and illegal, simply because of the social standards of a single moment in time, none of us can ever be safe. Or at least, none of us can FEEL safe, which is just as emotionally devestating.

    If all it takes is one majority to undo all the rights of groups they dislike, then we are lost. Society, civilization, all become meaningless. We become animals in a state of constant fear and hypervigilance, not happy and healthy people.

    Whenever I see LGBT groups left out of civil rights talks, or sometimes even attacked by them, I worry more about our future than at any other time.

    Right now, none of us are safe. None. We simply cant be, because in a single moment, we could all lose it all.

    And thats terrifying.

    A pipe shifted half an inch to the left. A coil rewound itself and began spinning in a counter direction. A piston that had been thrusting left-right, left-right, for millennia suddenly thrust right-left. Nothing broke, but everything changed.

    by kamrom on Thu Jun 16, 2011 at 01:02:11 PM PDT

  •  Really? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Victor Laslo, AmericanStudier
    I think it’s pretty safe to say that Brown v. Board of Education is one of the couple Supreme Court cases with which most Americans are familiar ...

    From the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress in US history test -- New Statesman link

    Diane Ravitch, an education historian who was invited by the national assessment's governing board to review the results, said she was particularly disturbed by only 2 percent of 12th graders correctly answering a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education, which she called "very likely the most important decision" of the U.S. Supreme Court in the past seven decades.

    Students were given an excerpt including the passage "We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," and were asked what social problem the 1954 ruling was supposed to correct.

    "The answer was right in front of them," Ravitch said.

    That's 2% of 12th graders!  Unless we are also failing math, 2% is a long way from "most."

    •  fair enough (0+ / 0-)

      I would never dispute that our communal historical knowledge is way too weak even when it comes to the things about which we do have a basic sense. I meant mainly that most Americans have heard of the case, which is more than I can say about just about any others; but that definitely doesn't mean that we can't teach it a lot more fully and meaningfully.

      Thanks,
      Ben

  •  When Americans are conditioned to believe (5+ / 0-)

    that the creator of the universe has singled us for greatness it makes it a little difficult to acknowledge our faults much less deal with them.

    Religion mixed with nationalism is a very powerful and often toxic mix.

    Beliefs that don't appeal to reason are unreasonable.

    by Sam Wise Gingy on Thu Jun 16, 2011 at 02:54:51 PM PDT

  •  Are you seriously suggesting (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bozepravde15, AmericanStudier

    The Black Panthers weren't a separatist  movement?

    From your link:

    When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

    If ever there were a statement of secession, that would be it.

    I'm not commenting here whether or not they had cause to do so, African-Americans surely did have real grievances at that time (and still do).  

    But, history is history.  Memories cannot "deligitimize" historical facts.  Let the facts speak for themselves rather than trying, as we do with most historical events, to make them fit our own philosophy.

    •  I hear you, but... (0+ / 0-)

      ...I'd still distinguish even the most extreme aspects of the Panthers' principal philosophies (and this is certainly an extreme aspect, agreed) from, for example, the Confederate secessionists. The latter wanted to secede in order to continue a system of oppression and terror; the former, when they did (and I don't think all Panthers wanted to separate, but some definitely did), did so in order to escape such a system as they saw it.

      I appreciate very much the question of paying attention to facts, and try to do that as much as I can. But I would argue that a word like "secessionist" also brings into play narratives and histories that go way beyond just facts, and thus is an interpretation of yours as well. Doesn't mean that it's necessarily an inaccurate one, of course; just that we're always doing that kind of analysis when it comes to the facts, y'know?

      Thanks,
      Ben

      •  Well, I would argue (0+ / 0-)

        the Panthers were more successful than not.

        While M. L. King preached a message of inclusion, the Panthers ad more savvy politicians of the day seized upon the idea of separate-but-equal, which exists to this day.

    •  bizarre statement of secession (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AmericanStudier

      I find it odd that they copied and pasted the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence for point ten.

      Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

      by JHestand on Thu Jun 16, 2011 at 04:58:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  ... It seems (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AmericanStudier

      You picked out one offensive phrase by which to judge the whole piece.

      And then YOU separated 'African Americans' from the " OTHER PEOPLE OF COLOR, All OPPRESSED PEOPLE INSIDE THE UNITED STATES."

      They have grievances, to. At least the Black Panthers acknowledged us.

      So, from what were they separating? From  The Establishment, and, as an 'other', I ever felt excluded from their umbrella until I read your interpretation of their ten points.

      If you meant to imply they were solely a racist movement, I call BS.

      If not, carry on, pls.

      “The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people halfway” ~ Henry Boye~

      by Terranova0 on Thu Jun 16, 2011 at 05:03:21 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  "Fact" or "conclusion" (0+ / 0-)

      Were the Panther's "separatist" ?

      I dunno.  It's a good question for a History final ...

      "Compare and Contrast the Separatism of any three of the following:

      Amish
      Chabad
      Black Panther Party
      Conch Republic
      Basque
      Quebquois

      But aside from that, why bring it up?

      A friend of mine with a Phd in History and an appointment to teach Military History at  Virginia Military Academy once described his profession this way

      "History is a form of literature for writers without the imagination to construct plots or the insight to develop characters."
  •  Re: Roe v. Wade. (3+ / 0-)

    I don't remember it because it's divisive.  I remember it because it was a huge step toward freedom for women.

    I just had to say that.

  •  Weasels Ripped My Flesh (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AmericanStudier, Ana Thema
    Oh no

    I don’t believe it
    You say that you think you know
    The meaning of love
    You say love is all we need
    You say
    With your love you can change
    All of the fools
    All of the hate
    I think you’re probably
    Out to lunch

    Oh no
    I don’t believe it
    You say that you think you know
    The meaning of love
    Do you really think it can be told?
    You say that you really know
    I think
    You should check it again
    How can you say
    What you believe
    Will be the key to a
    World of love?

    All your love -
    Will it save me?
    All your love -
    Will it save the world
    From what we can’t understand
    Oh no
    I don’t believe it

    Oh no
    I don’t believe it
    You say that you think you know
    The meaning of love
    Do you really think it can be told?
    The words from your lips
    I just can't believe
    You are such a fool

    Frank zappa (lead guitar)
    Ian underwood (alto saxophone)
    Bunk gardner (tenor saxophone)
    Motorhead sherwood (baritone saxophone, snorks)
    Buzz gardner (trumpet, flugel horn)
    Roy estrada (bass)
    Jimmy carl black (drums)
    Arthur tripp (drums)
    Don preston (piano, organ, electronic effects)
    Don "sugar cane" harris (electric violin)
    Lowell george (rhythm guitar, vocals)
    Ray collins (vocals)


    It's all so clear to me now. I'm the keeper of the cheese. And you're the lemon merchant. Get it? And he knows it.

    by bernardpliers on Thu Jun 16, 2011 at 03:21:18 PM PDT

  •  rec'd but (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AmericanStudier, sunbro

    Love really is all you need, just that gettin' it can be a biatch.

    ;)

    Interesting.  Thanks.

    “The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people halfway” ~ Henry Boye~

    by Terranova0 on Thu Jun 16, 2011 at 05:04:35 PM PDT

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