The Civil Rights movement, distorted: Weaponizing history against Black Lives Matter

The Civil Rights movement was far more disruptive, demanding, contentious, and profound than it’s often depicted

Published January 30, 2018 7:00PM (EST)

Martin Luther King Jr., flanked by his wife Coretta and John Lewis, leads a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (AP)
Martin Luther King Jr., flanked by his wife Coretta and John Lewis, leads a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (AP)

Excerpted from "A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History" by Jeanne Theoharis (Beacon Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Distorted renderings of movement history took on heightened danger as a new movement gained national attention. Galvanizing around the issues of police brutality, criminal injustice, and mass incarceration, Black Lives Matter came to national prominence after the killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, and the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. The vision of Black Lives Matter was articulated by three Black queer women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi; its various local incarnations have encompassed a broad palette of issues affecting Black lives, from enduring school inequality to living-wage struggles, and from police accountability to gender justice. Taking to the streets, blocking traffic, disrupting political events and commerce, and launching die-ins on college campuses, this new leader-full movement, organized predominantly by young Black people but joined by a rainbow of others and Black people of all ages, has forced the nation to grapple with issues of racial injustice in law enforcement and the legal system.

The Beast Side

The civil rights movement has lurked everywhere in public discussion of Black Lives Matter. While there have been notable connections and moments of camaraderie—for instance, Harry Belafonte’s Justice League, as well as by many of the former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—an undertone of concern and fear about the protesters and problems with the movement they are building have come from many corners, the criticism laced with problematic allusions to the civil rights movement. Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee outrageously stated that Martin Luther King Jr. would be “appalled” by BLM’s strategy and called on protesters to be more like King. King’s niece, Alveda King, referred to BLM’s methods as “inappropriate.” Oprah Winfrey called for “some kind of leadership to come out of this” and cautioned young activists “to take note of the strategic, peaceful intention if you want real change.” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer criticized protests in Baltimore as not being “in the tradition of Martin Luther King.” And Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed invoked the history of King to celebrate Atlanta’s tradition of free speech, but then admonished protesters: “Dr. King would never take a freeway.”

Even some former activists have gone this route. Congressman John Lewis, a former SNCC chair, initially spoke out against people critiquing BLM: “Those people should do something. Make their own movement.” But when BLM protesters disrupted a Hillary Clinton rally with Lewis in attendance, he cautioned: “Most of the things that we did back in the 1960s was good trouble; it was necessary trouble. . . . But we have to respect the right of everybody to be heard. And you do that in a nonviolent, orderly fashion.” Lewis cast these young activists’ protests as being far different from the “necessary good” trouble he and his comrades had made. In July 2016, as protests flared again following police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Lewis tweeted: “I was beaten bloody by police officers. But I never hated them. I said, ‘Thank you for your service.’” And former SCLC organizer Andrew Young, at a pep talk at a police precinct, went a step further in his criticism of the protesters: “Those are some unlovable little brats out there. . . . They’re showing off. And not even with a clear message.”

Casting the young protesters as reckless and not living up to the legacy of the civil rights movement, a number of prominent voices have measured Black Lives Matter against the movement and found it falling short. Many who claim sympathy with BLM’s purpose have used the civil rights movement to decry their tactics—putting aside the fact that King took a highway many times over his life, that the movement was disruptive and unpopular, and that it made many Americans uncomfortable. The civil rights movement has become museum history, inaccessible for our grubby use today. While the actual civil rights movement was far more disruptive, demanding, contentious, and profound than it’s depicted, the mythologies of it get in the way of seeing the continuities between these struggles, the shoulders current movements stand on, and the ways people can learn from past struggles to approach the problems we face as a nation today.

In response to the repeated invocation of the civil rights movement to criticize their work, some activists have challenged a set of older Black leaders, along with scores of white commentators, who disapprove of their approach. As Ferguson activist-musician Tef Poe retorted in his song “War Cry,” “This ain’t yo mama’s civil rights movement,” proudly distinguishing BLM from the civil rights movement (or at least from the myth being brandished against them). “Missouri is the new Mississippi,” he explained. They wanted to know what these critics were doing today and stressed the importance and distinctiveness of the movement they were building. Activist-writer Rahiel Tesfamariam donated a T-shirt with this slogan to the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture to document “the history being made” from this new movement: “This looks different; it sounds different. It’s a comment of anger.”

Many saw the invocation of the civil rights movement against BLM as a way for critics to stand on the sidelines. “The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander,” actor-activist Jesse Williams made clear at the 2016 BET awards, in a speech that went viral. “If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression.” “What I’ve learned from the [BLM] activists and what is going on today is, those of us who have lived almost a century, have no right to cynicism,” Harry Belafonte joined in. “Mostly, the people who turn away from radical thought are people who don’t like to be uncomfortable.” Recognizing the need to steep themselves in fuller histories of Black struggle, popular education and study groups have become an important but much less covered aspect of the many Black Lives Matter groups and mobilizations. And many BLM activists have partnered with a set of elders willing to build on those lineages. But that has not caused commentators to stop using the civil rights movement to chastise the work of BLM activists.

Fed up with the prominent misuse of history against Black Lives Matter, sixty-six former SNCC activists published a statement in July 2016 marking the continuities of struggle:

“Fortunately, today, as in the past, the protesters who have taken to the streets against police violence will not be intimidated by slander or mischaracterization as ‘racist’ or ‘terrorist sympathizers’ born of the fear, ignorance and malice of their would-be critics. . . . We, the still-active radicals who were SNCC, salute today’s Movement for Black Lives for taking hold of the torch to continue to light this flame of truth for a knowingly forgetful world.”

As these SNCC activists made clear, memorializing a civil rights movement without young people in the vanguard, without anger, without its long-standing critique of the criminal justice system, missed what the movement was actually about. Julian Bond, visiting a class at Morehouse College in 2009, critiqued the respectability politics being pushed on this new generation, which many young activists were also rejecting: “A nice suit is a nice suit. Get one. But it won’t stop a bullet, son.”

Key similarities exist between the civil rights movement and BLM— from the forces they are up against to the criticisms they encounter to the expansive vision of justice they seek. Like the young activists propelling BLM, civil rights activists were regarded as dangerous and reckless by many and as downright seditious by others. The movement was pushed forward by young people, who made many people nervous sixty years ago, just as they do today. Thus, substantively considering new movements for racial justice in the context of the civil rights movement means seeing the ways they are tied to, rather than set apart from, this longer movement history.

More significantly, these mis-histories of the civil rights movement impoverish people fighting for social justice today by separating them from the perspectives and experiences of a long line of courageous freedom fighters. Sixty years ago, Rosa Parks drew solace and sustenance from the long history of Black resistance before her time, placing her action and the Montgomery bus boycott in the continuum of Black protest. Her speech notes during the boycott read: “Reading histories of others—Crispus Attucks through all wars—Richard Allen—Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Jr. Women Phillis Wheatley—Sojourner Truth—Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune.” For Parks, the ability to keep going, to know that the struggle for justice was possible amidst all the setbacks they encountered, was partly possible through reading and referencing the long Black struggle before her. By denying a new generation their place in that lineage, a key form of sustenance is taken away.

And perhaps most consequentially, the mythologizing of the civil rights movement deprives Americans of honest history that shows us where we are today in this country. The task, as James Baldwin put it, is “to describe us to ourselves as we are now”—to honestly reckon with the way the country feared the civil rights movement and its disruptiveness; to fully grasp the movement’s scope and tenacity; to understand the diversity of freedom fighters and what they did and imagined; to grapple with the robust resistance to change, not just in the redneck South but in the liberal North; and to examine what learning from that struggle shows us about the country today.

By Jeanne Theoharis

Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and the author or coauthor of seven books and numerous articles on the civil rights and Black Power movements, the politics of race and education, social welfare, and civil rights in post-9/11 America. Her widely acclaimed biography "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks" won a 2014 NAACP Image Award and the Letitia Woods Brown Award from the Association of Black Women Historians, and appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

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