A More Beautiful and Terrible History The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History

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Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the white kids came down and saved the day. - Julian Bond Julian Bond's cynical formulation of the commonly accepted-though deeply flawed-narrative of the USA's Civil Rights struggle is just as prevalent today as it was during the Nixon administration, and-as Jeanne Theoharis argues in her necessary book, A Strange and Terrible History, it is just as wounding, just as damaging now as it was then.

I first encountered the work of Jean Theoharis when I read the Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, a biography whicht demonstrated that almost everything I that I knew about this Civil Rights icon was wrong. The tale of a patient, long-suffering, non-violent "church lady," this woman who one day just "got tired" and thus started an entire movement, is nothing but a pleasant bedtime story. No, Rosa, a lifelong activist, had been committed since the days of the Scottsboro boys and was trained by a college course in the techniques of resistance. She doubted the wisdom of King's strategic nonviolence, and later-when she was an enduring presence supporting the Black Power movement in Detroit--when asked the name of her favorite civil rights leader, replied "Malcolm X."

What Ms. Theoharis once did for Rosa Parks, she does here for the entire Civil Rights movement. A More Beautiful and Terrible History shows us how America prefers its black heroes to be noble, pacifist, impractical, and isolated in their activism. They are heroes who eventually melt the hearts of the good white people-who are of course mostly from the North-white people who stepped up during the distant past and changed everything for the better. In other words, as Theoharis says: As a nation, we honor these courageous men and women, then dismiss them as "impractical" when their example asks things of us that we do not want to provide-rendering the times and issues we confront as very different from these old injustices. In short, we prefer our heroes and heroines in the past and will cast aside the parts of the story that raise questions about our current directions. Theoharis showed me many things. And she always backs them up with facts and statistics, and often with interesting stories. Here are just a few I remember: how agitation for social justice in the North is routinely ignored as being somehow different from the South; how discrimination in Southern schools is condemned, but redlining in real estate and white flight-the root of the problem in the still segregated schools of the North-is accepted as deplorable but inevitable; how the media routinely ignores the "polite racism" the North practices (so that issues like the black community's "culture of poverty" and the "forced busing" that exacerbates white rage) are seen as the source of the problem); how the movements broader goals of criminal justice reform, economic and global justice are rarely taken seriously as an extension of the legacy of Parks and King; how the privileged men of the Civil Rights movement have habitually marginalized young people, poor people, and especially women; and how we routinely forget-or choose to ignore-how viciously whites and their government power structures have acted toward our beloved civil rights heroes (except for a handful of bad Southern sheriffs. We about those sheriffs, of course.)

I'll leave you with two examples from this essential book, not because they are the most important things you should take away (I expect you-like I-have much to learn) but because both of these events were news to me and because each of them makes a good story.

First, there is the story about how Lean Horne ended up missing MLK's "Dream" speech during the March on Washington. It seems she was Gloria Richardson (leader of the Cambridge Movement) were upset because Rosa Parks and other women activists were not allowed to deliver any speeches, and that the wives of the Civil Rights leaders were not even permitted to walk with their husbands during the march. Right before Martin Luther King Jr. was to speak, richardson found herself being put in a cab along with Lena Horne and sent back to her hotel. March organizers claimed that they were worried the two would get mobbed and crushed, yet no one else was sent back to the hotel. "They did this," Richardson believed, "because Len Horne had had rosa parks by the hand and had been taking her to satellite broadcasts, saying, "This is the woman you need to interview.'" Richardson had helped her. "We got several people to interview Rosa Parks. The march organizers must have found that out." And then there is this story, about how the national leadership of the Democratic Party used the FBI to stop the MFDP (Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party) in their attempt to unseat the official delegation of the Mississippi Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention. Here the villains are President Johnson and his special assistant and (much later) liberal journalistic icon, Bill Moyers: According the historian John Ditmer, Johnson "turned to Edgar Hoover to provide his own "coverage" of the convention." Johnson ordered the bureau to spy on the MSDP and on Martin Luther King's hotel room at the Atlantic City convention, and he asked for background checks on all the participants .

FBI agents posed as NBC reporters (with full support of the network) to solicit information from the MFDP delegates, including the identities of those who supported their efforts on the credentials committee. Bill Moyers, who was a special assistance to Johnson at the time, served as a key player, and the president's ledger notes a number of calls from Johnson to Moyers at the convention to provide the FBI's information to be used by Johnson's operatives on the floor to pressure delegates to withhold support from the MFDP challenger The idea that the FBI was completely rogue, or that Johnson's work on behalf of civil rights meant that he didn't also consider the movement a threat and endorse FBI surveillance at certain points, is a convenient fiction."


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