Lecture uncovers fact concerning the civil rights motion // The Observer

Jeanne Theoharis, author / co-author of nine books about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, spoke on Friday in a lecture by the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights about myths surrounding the movement.

Theoharis is a distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College. Her book, titled A More Beautiful and Horrible Story: The Uses and Abuses of Civil Rights History, set the stage for Friday’s lecture. In the book, she describes how abuses by the historic civil rights movement to contain recent protests can adversely affect the cause.

Jeanne Theoharis attended the talk on Zoom to discuss the civil rights movements and the myths of their retelling.

During the talk, Theoharis said America invented a national civil rights movement fable – effectively hiding the truth under layers of nationalism and heroism.

Theoharis pointed to many more recent uses of the historic civil rights movement that were used to justify hatred against the current BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement, saying the myths were detrimental to both the BLM and the civil rights movement.

“These remarks, I argue, are about intercourse in a national civil rights movement fable that distorts and obscures many aspects of the movement – and in many ways arms the memory of the civil rights movement against contemporary movements that in many ways lack the contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter are there, ”said Theoharis.

The Civil Rights Story tells a story of American nationalism and heroism, Theoharis said.

“The fable tells the story of a southern movement that was galvanized by Rosa Parks’ bus stop, led by Martin Luther King Jr., by brave southern blacks and supported by northern white liberals, journalists and the federal government who fought and then succeeded in the passage of two landmark laws: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, ”said Theoharis. “It’s a story of good and bad people and a happy ending – a powerful story about the individual strength and power of the American State of Emergency.”

Theoharis said the origins of the civil rights history abuse began with former President Ronald Reagan declaring the third Monday in January Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Theoharis mentioned that Reagan used Martin Luther King Jr. Day to bond with white moderates. What he said the day he signed the laws marked the beginnings of the “national fable,” she said.

There are three main parts to the fable, Theoharis explained. The first problem she identified is that movement is portrayed as passive. Theoharis said the civil rights movement was actually far from passive and it was actually categorized according to its disruptive nature.

The second myth of the civil rights movement’s fable is that racism was only present in the deep south, Theoharis said. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were both big proponents of national awareness of racism, and that aspect of their struggle has often been left out of their stories, she said.

“The way the Parks and King we were told about and celebrated, we really miss the way they address not just a southern problem but a national problem,” Theoharis said.

Theoharis said the third problem she finds in looking at history on the civil rights movement is that support for the movement has been idealized.

“The third aspect of the fable that I think really needs to be overturned is the idea that most decent Americans supported the civil rights movement, that kind of respectable civil rights movement, while it was happening,” she said. “Erasing how controversial the civil rights movement was, how uncomfortable, I think it also erases how change is taking place.”

Theoharis also addressed many questions in the course of her talk on issues such as America’s racist institutions, how more recent governments have dealt with racial issues and white discomfort.

Throughout the lecture, Theoharis emphasized how important an honest conversation about our civil rights history is for our present and future.

“I think we need a more honest conversation about how it happened, both to see our history more clearly and to see the present more clearly,” Theoharis said.

Tags: anti-racism, building anti-racist vocabulary, Jeanne Theoharis, Klau center for civil and human rights

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