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-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.

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Boston : Beacon Press [2018]
Main Author
Jeanne Theoharis (author)
Physical Description
xxv, 253 pages ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Preface: A Dream Diluted and Distorted
  • The Histories We Get
  • Introduction: The Political Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History and Memorialization in the Present
  • The Histories We Need
  • Chapter 1. The Long Movement Outside the South: Fighting for School Desegregation in the "Liberal" North
  • Chapter 2. Revisiting the Uprisings of the 1960s and the Long History of Injustice and Struggle That Preceded Them
  • Chapter 3. Beyond the Redneck: Polite Racism and the "White Moderate"
  • Chapter 4. The Media Was Often an Obstacle to the Struggle for Racial Justice
  • Chapter 5. Beyond a Bus Seat: The Movement Pressed for Desegregation, Criminal Justice, Economic Justice, and Global Justice
  • Chapter 6. The Great Man View of History, Part I: Where Are the Young People?
  • Chapter 7. The Great Man View of History, Part II: Where Are the Women?
  • Chapter 8. Extremists, Troublemakers, and National Security Threats: The Public Demonization of Rebels, the Toll It Took, and Government Repression of the Movement
  • Chapter 9. Learning to Play on Locked Pianos: The Movement Was Persevering, Organized, Disruptive, and Disparaged, and Other Lessons from the Montgomery Bus Boycott
  • Afterword: A History for a Better World
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

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 PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A hard-hitting revisionist history of civil rights activism.Theoharis (Political Science/Brooklyn Coll.; The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, 2013, etc.) argues persuasively that the reality of the civil rights movement has become a benign national fable, invoked by public officials and liberals to assert their "enlightened bona fides" and by critics of activist groups such as Black Lives Matter in an effort to silence them. Central to this fable are distorted images of Rosa Parks, depicted as a quiet, meek woman, and Martin Luther King Jr., whose achievements are attributed to his "loving, nonviolent approach." As activist Julian Bond once put it, "the narrative of the movement has been reduced to Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.' " Theoharis strongly believes that turning the civil rights movement into "museum history" promotes the false idea of "an exceptional America moving past its own racism." She also points out that racism is not limited to the South; she shows how the "polite racism" of the North "framed resistance to desegregation in the language of neighborhood schools,' taxpayer's rights,' and forced busing.' " Denying personal animosity toward blacks, Northerners revealed racism in "silence, coded language, and the demonization of dissent." Theoharis takes the media to task for their coverage of uprisings in Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York; reporters, she writes, failed to investigate the "racial inequities embedded in their city's schools, policing, or municipal structures" and presented the violence as a stunning surprise rather than the culmination "of a protracted struggle." Similarly, she criticizes the movie Detroit (2017) for "completely erasing the history of Black life and activism in the city" before the killings depicted. She also criticizes Barack Obama, who as candidate and president warned black men not to use racism as an excuse for personal failure, thereby diverting focus from civil rights organizing to "inward self-help." Chronicling the efforts of many activists, the author underscores her message that reform requires courage and hard work.An impassioned call for continued efforts for change. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.