From Original Sin to Flattering Mirror: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History

By the turn of the millennium, the history of the civil rights movement had become a national story. When asked to name a “most famous American” other than a president “from Columbus to today,” high school students most often chose Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Students chose two freedom fighters who in life had challenged the racial injustice at the heart of American society and who had often been treated as “un-American” for doing so. Now the civil rights movement had come to embody American grit, courage, and resolve, and these two activists could be invoked as the country’s most famous emblems.

Arguably beginning when President Ronald Reagan signed the bill in 1983 to make the third Monday of January a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., the political uses of memorializing the movement took on heightened possibility as a national narrative. Fifteen years of opposition to the holiday gave way to recognizing its political utility. The civil rights movement became a way for the nation to feel good about its progress—and King’s legacy became enshrined in his “dream speech.” His popularity expanded. By 1987, 76 percent of Americans held a favorable opinion of the civil rights leader, almost the reverse of his popularity at the end of his life (only 28 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of him in 1966). President after president, from Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Obama, hailed King’s “dream” in their tributes to him. With these national stamps of approval, the civil rights leader’s broader commitments to challenging the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” and his legacy of sustained struggle shrank further into the background. At the same time, memorials to the civil rights movement became national events—from President Bill Clinton’s trip to Little Rock for the fortieth anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s desegregation of Central High School, to Congress’s decision to have Rosa Parks’s coffin lie in honor in the Capitol, to the First Family’s trip to Selma, Alabama, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. These national events honored not just the work of the civil rights activists but the advancement of the nation itself. They marked the Americanness of the civil rights struggle, and held up the power of US democracy and progress to the world.

Political leaders, pundits, and citizens came to see and tell the story of the modern civil rights movement as one of progress and national redemption. Jim Crow was framed as a horrible Southern relic, and the movement to unseat it became a powerful tale of courageous Americans defeating a long-ago evil. Activists from Paul Robeson to Malcolm X—who had once been deemed national security threats—showed up on postage stamps. A movement that had challenged the very fabric of US politics and society was turned into one that demonstrated how great and expansive the country was—a story of individual bravery, natural evolution, and the long march to “a more perfect union.”

A story that should have reflected the immense injustices at the nation’s core and the enormous lengths people had gone to attack them had become a flattering mirror. The popular history of the civil rights movement now served as testament to the power of American democracy. This framing was appealing—simultaneously sober about the history of racism, lionizing of Black courage, celebratory of American progress, and strategic in masking (and at times justifying) current inequities. This history as national progress naturalized the civil rights movement as an almost inevitable aspect of American democracy rather than as the outcome of Black organization and intrepid witness. It suggested racism derived from individual sin rather than from national structure—and that the strength of American values, rather than the staggering challenge of a portion of its citizens, led to its change. The movement had largely washed away the sins of the nation, and America’s race problem could be laid to rest with a statue in the Capitol.

In the process, politicians and others shrank the progressive, expansive, challenging vision of the modern Black freedom struggle into something more passive, individualistic, and privatized—a dream diluted and distorted. The celebration of the movement became a way to avoid acknowledging the “enormous gap between [America’s] practices and its professions,” as historian John Hope Franklin had explained. And it became a way to take the beauty and power away from one of the most successful social movements of the twentieth century and the vision it offers us for today.

The recounting of national histories is never separate from present-day politics. What of the past is remembered, celebrated, and mourned is at the core of national identity—and the process of what is told and not told is often a function of power. The act of making an historical tribute necessarily resolves it and fixes it in time and place. As anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot observes, the task of commemoration “help[s] to create, modify or sanction the public meanings attached to historical events deemed worthy of mass celebration . . . to create a past that seems both more real and more elementary.” The use of the word “history” itself is slippery, Trouillot reminds us: “In vernacular use, history means both the facts of the matter and a narrative of those facts, both ‘what happened’ and ‘that which is said to have happened.’” Thus, reflection on popular uses of history is crucial as “we move closer to an era when professional historians will have to position themselves more clearly within the present, lest politicians, magnates, or ethnic leaders alone write history for them.” Memorials in their essence are for the dead, for events long since over. And the task of honoring can also be a form of stripping and silencing.

Racial injustice is America’s original sin and deepest silence. The ways the country came to honor the civil rights movement were not simply about paying tribute to these courageous acts and individuals in the past but also about sanctioning what will—and will not be—faced about the nation’s history and present. Explained former Birmingham mayor David Vann: “The best way to put your bad images to rest is to declare them history and put them in a museum.” So, paradoxically, the ways the nation has memorialized the civil rights movement has become a way to maintain such silences. The history of American racism had become just that . . . history. While these tributes honored the movement, they simultaneously depoliticized the scope of the struggle, distorted the work of the activists honored, demonized Black anger, and obscured ongoing calls for racial justice through a celebration of a nearly postracial, self-correcting America. 

This essay was excerpted from Jeanne Theoharis’ forthcoming book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, due out from Beacon Press on January 30.