A more beautiful and terrible history The uses and misuses of civil rights history

Jeanne Theoharis

Book - 2018

The civil rights movement has become national legend, lauded by presidents from Reagan to Obama to Trump, as proof of the power of American democracy. This fable, featuring dreamy heroes and accidental heroines, has shuttered the movement firmly in the past, whitewashed the forces that stood in its way, and diminished its scope. And it is used perniciously in our own times to chastise present-day movements and obscure contemporary injustice. In A More Beautiful and Terrible History, award-winnin...g historian Jeanne Theoharis dissects this national myth-making, teasing apart the accepted stories to show them in a strikingly different light. We see Rosa Parks not simply as a bus lady but a lifelong criminal justice activist and radical; Martin Luther King, Jr. as not only challenging Southern sheriffs but Northern liberals, too; and Coretta Scott King not only as a "helpmate" but a lifelong economic justice and peace activist who pushed her husband's activism in these directions. Moving from "the histories we get" to "the histories we need," Theoharis challenges nine key aspects of the fable to reveal the diversity of people, especially women and young people, who led the movement; the work and disruption it took; the role of the media and "polite racism" in maintaining injustice; and the immense barriers and repression activists faced. Theoharis makes us reckon with the fact that far from being acceptable, passive or unified, the civil rights movement was unpopular, disruptive, and courageously persevering. Activists embraced an expansive vision of justice -- which a majority of Americans opposed and which the federal government feared. By showing us the complex reality of the movement, the power of its organizing, and the beauty and scope of the vision, Theoharis proves that there was nothing natural or inevitable about the progress that occurred.

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Subjects
Published
Boston : Beacon Press [2018]
Language
English
Physical Description
xxv, 253 pages ; 24 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN
9780807075876
0807075876
Main Author
Jeanne Theoharis (author)
  • Introduction: the political uses and misuses of civil rights history and memorialization in the present
  • The long movement outside the south: fighting for school desegregation in the "liberal" north
  • Revisiting the uprisings of the 1960s and the history of injustice and struggle that preceded them
  • Beyond the redneck: polite racism and "the white moderate"
  • The media was often an obstacle to the struggle for racial justice
  • Beyond a bus seat: the movement pressed for desegregation, criminal justice, economic justice, and global justice
  • The great man theory of history part I: where are the young people?
  • The great man view of history part II: where are the women?
  • Extremists, troublemakers and national security threats: the public demonization of rebels, the toll it took, and government repression of the movement
  • Learning to play on locked pianos: the movement was persevering, organized, disruptive, and often disparaged, and other lessons from the Montgomery Bus Boycott
  • Afterword: a history for a better world.
Review by Library Journal Reviews

Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. are national icons, memorialized in Washington, DC, and placed at the center of an uplifting story about America's struggle to overcome segregation. But do the popular stories about their lives accurately reflect their beliefs and struggles? Theoharis (The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks) examines the ways that the popular conceptions of the civil rights movement are used to present a history that is incomplete and often directly contradicts the efforts of Parks, King, and the larger movements they helped to lead. Theoharis looks at the initial reactions to the early civil rights movement, comparing the vilification of prominent activists in the 1950s and 1960s to the way that Black Lives Matter protesters are treated today. She highlights the selectivity of media coverage and popular civil rights histories in their focus on a few Southern states, largely ignoring the long-standing, organized protests by African Americans in cities such as New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. VERDICT An important illustration of the ways that history is used, or misused, in modern social and political life. Required reading for anyone hoping to understand more about race relations and racism in the United States and highly recommended for all readers interested in 20th-century American history.—Nicholas Graham, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Copyright 2017 Library Journal.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Theoharis (The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks), professor of political science at Brooklyn College, illuminates how the conventional wisdom about America's civil rights story erases much of the movement's radicalism and abounds in comforting clichés. She points out that by the mid-1980s the civil rights movement had become "a way for the nation to feel good about its progress." Theoharis discusses how focusing on Southern desegregation ignores the physically and emotionally violent controversies that accompanied attempts at greater integration in supposedly liberal Northern cities such as Boston; similarly, depicting white Southerners as racist rednecks obscures the more genteel forms of discrimination practiced by people motivated by "indifference, fear, and personal comfort." Rosa Parks is famous for having refused to give up her seat on a bus, but she and her fellow activists organized around much broader issues of social justice, many of which remain to be sufficiently addressed. Citizens and politicians of the 21st century revere Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. as heroes, yet many criticize Black Lives Matter activists as unworthy of their memory. Theoharis's lucid and insightful study challenges that view, proffering a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the civil rights movement's legacy, and showing how much remains to be done. (Feb.) Copyright 2017 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

"Jeanne Theoharis is one of our nation's finest civil rights scholars. She brings an incisive, urgent and unique critical perspective to our understanding of an era that is increasingly distorted and misunderstood. A More Beautiful and Terrible History is an important book that sheds new light on our recent past and yields a fresh understanding of our tumultuous present." —Bryan Stevenson, author of "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption."

Review by Publisher Summary 2

Examines the accepted narrative of the civil rights movement to reveal the myths and fables that diminish its scope, and reveals the diversity of activists and the immense barriers and repression they faced.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

Praised by The New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; Bitch Magazine; Slate; Publishers Weekly; and more, this is “a bracing corrective to a national mythology” (New York Times) around the civil rights movement.The civil rights movement has become national legend, lauded by presidents from Reagan to Obama to Trump, as proof of the power of American democracy. This fable, featuring dreamy heroes and accidental heroines, has shuttered the movement firmly in the past, whitewashed the forces that stood in its way, and diminished its scope. And it is used perniciously in our own times to chastise present-day movements and obscure contemporary injustice. In A More Beautiful and Terrible History award-winning historian Jeanne Theoharis dissects this national myth-making, teasing apart the accepted stories to show them in a strikingly different light.We see Rosa Parks not simply as a bus lady but a lifelong criminal justice activist and radical; Martin Luther King, Jr. as not only challenging Southern sheriffs but Northern liberals, too; and Coretta Scott King not only as a “helpmate” but a lifelong economic justice and peace activist who pushed her husband’s activism in these directions.Moving from “the histories we get” to “the histories we need,” Theoharis challenges nine key aspects of the fable to reveal the diversity of people, especially women and young people, who led the movement; the work and disruption it took; the role of the media and “polite racism” in maintaining injustice; and the immense barriers and repression activists faced. Theoharis makes us reckon with the fact that far from being acceptable, passive or unified, the civil rights movement was unpopular, disruptive, and courageously persevering. Activists embraced an expansive vision of justice—which a majority of Americans opposed and which the federal government feared.By showing us the complex reality of the movement, the power of its organizing, and the beauty and scope of the vision, Theoharis proves that there was nothing natural or inevitable about the progress that occurred. A More Beautiful and Terrible History will change our historical frame, revealing the richness of our civil rights legacy, the uncomfortable mirror it holds to the nation, and the crucial work that remains to be done.Winner of the 2018 Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize in Nonfiction