The Civil Rights Movement and the Search for a Usable Past

TheoharisOver at The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill interviews Brooklyn College political scientist Jeanne Theoharis about the various ways the Civil Rights Movement has been used in present-day politics.  Some of you may recall that this issue of the Civil Rights Movement and “usable pasts” was on the forefront of my mind this summer when I took a Civil Rights-era bus tour.

Theoharis is the author of the forthcoming A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.  Here is a taste of the interview:

JS: Before we get into some of these specific examples, I’m just wondering about your overall view of how key historical figures or moments in the civil rights movement are kind of used or inaccurately portrayed in our current discourse, either by politicians or by ordinary people having arguments online.

JT: I mean I think what we’ve seen, and this has happened over the past number of decades and I would argue since really Reagan changes his position and signs the King holiday, is the kind of creation of a national fable of the civil rights movement.

And so now the civil rights movement is used to make Americans feel good about themselves. You know, from 50th anniversary commemorations of the March on Washington, to the Selma to Montgomery march, from the dedication of King’s statue on the Mall, from the statue of Rosa Parks in Statuary Hall. All of these events have become places where we now celebrate the United States, where we feel so good about the progress we’ve made.

And I think in the process, these kind of dangerous ideas about what the civil rights movement was, what it entailed, how it went forth have become cemented. And so, as you’re implying politicians, citizens, constantly invoke the civil rights movement in the present to justify certain kinds of positions, to chastise contemporary movements; whether it’s Black Lives Matter, whether it’s Colin Kaepernick’s stand that has now turned into a much broader stand by athletes. We’re constantly being bombarded with, “This is not what King would do.” You know, “Be like King, be like Parks,” that strip and utterly distort what the civil rights movement was and what people like King and Parks actually did and stood for.

Read the entire piece here.

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