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[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,


PS. Three links to start with:

1)    Coates’ take on Sherrod and Civil Rights:

2)    The Black Panthers’ original Ten-Point Plan:

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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