The Civil Rights Movement and the Politics of Memory

collective memory

The Civil Rights Movement and the Politics of Memory

As opportunists try to hijack the movement's legacy, let's remember what actually occurred.

May 12, 2015

This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

Celebrate our 25th Anniversary with us by clicking here for a free download of this special issue.


Recollections of the Civil Rights Movement shape the way we comprehend and respond to a protest that remains sharply contested. The civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s aimed to remove racial barriers that confined, degraded, and marginalized racial minorities, particularly blacks. After half a century, people today recall the movement in different ways for different purposes. The filter of memory is used to contour the politics of the present.

Many conservatives, with the convenience of retrospect, affirm the movement’s insistence that racial disenfranchisement and legally required segregation were abominations wholly inconsistent with constitutional requirements and that strong remedies were needed to eradicate those evils. It is not unusual nowadays to find celebration of the defeat of Jim Crow in, say, National Review.

Of course, things were different when the movement was in the midst of the very battles that we now commemorate. Siding with segregationists in 1956, National Review denounced Brown v. Board of Education as “one of the most brazen acts of judicial usurpation in our history.” A year later, defending white supremacists who excluded blacks from the ballot, National Review averred:

The central question … is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

There are undoubtedly older conservatives who have sincerely repudiated their earlier opposition to the movement. There are also young conservatives who have never had to reverse course because they grew up after the civil rights revolution. One would be stupidly naïve, however, to forget that some conservatives who laud the movement in retrospect do so only strategically. They are closeted racial reactionaries. And occasionally they blurt out what they really think.

Mississippi Senator Trent Lott was speaking candidly in 2002 on the occasion of Senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party when he got a bit carried away and praised Thurmond’s Dixiecrat rebellion against the Democratic Party’s support for blacks’ civil rights. Lott declared that he was proud of southern support for Thurmond’s presidential bid in 1948 and that “if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems.” Lott was not simply saying that his colleague Thurmond was a fine fellow. Had Thurmond prevailed, segregation, racial suppression, denial of the right to vote, and the rest of the Jim Crow system would have persisted. Lott’s “mistake” was simply being truthful and momentarily forgetting the danger of expressing openly his real feelings and beliefs. For him, and for a hard-to-determine number of other conservatives, history took a bad turn when the movement came out on top in its struggle against Jim Crow.

(Photo: Yoichi R. Okamoto/Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum)

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that neither could have succeeded without the other.

One ploy on the part of today’s conservatives is to celebrate and exaggerate the gains of the movement precisely in order to reverse that progress. We see that in the federal courts. Exhibit A is John Roberts, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the case that destroyed a key tool of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Roberts describes the historical context from which that legislation arose—the “entrenched racial discrimination in voting,” which he described as “an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetrated in certain parts of the country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution.” Then, however, Roberts and a bare majority of justices concluded that the historical record can no longer rationally support key remedial features of the legislation. “At the time”—the mid-1960s—the key disputed provisions of the act “made sense,” Roberts declared. But he insisted that “nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically,” obviating the need for the law’s “strong medicine.” The trope of dramatic progress has become a staple of conservative opposition to progressive redistributive racial policies. They concede that back then, long ago, in the bad old days, “special” action was needed to break the hold of racist legislation and custom. But in light of “dramatic progress,” they now insist that “special” action is not only unneeded, but impermissible.

It is possible that Roberts’s understanding of the Civil Rights era is sincere. It is more likely, however, that the sympathetic historical narrative he posits is merely pretext—a way to sanitize the evisceration of civil rights legislation without appearing racially reactionary.

Am I being unduly cynical? Roberts has repeatedly spoken with feeling of his deep admiration for William H. Rehnquist, the justice for whom he clerked and the chief justice he succeeded. Rehnquist was a stubborn opponent of the civil rights revolution. He was also wily and devious. As a law clerk for Justice Robert Jackson when Brown v. Board of Education was argued, Rehnquist favored affirming the constitutionality of legally mandated segregation. He saw nothing fundamentally wrong with Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Louisiana statute that required “equal but separate” accommodations for blacks and whites on railroad cars. 

Decades later, after Brown had won the day in terms of public opinion, Rehnquist deceitfully denied having argued against Brown when he was a law clerk. He lied during Senate confirmation hearings on his nomination to associate justice in 1971, and then again in hearings on his nomination to be chief justice in 1986. His prevarications constituted an integral part of what Professor Brad Snyder calls the conservative canonization of Brown—the process in which conservatives ceased attacking Brown but worked to restrict its practical reach.

Just as the conservative wing of the Court posited exaggerated racial progress to truncate the Voting Rights Act, they pursue the same strategy when it comes to remedies for racial isolation in public schools. This distorted view of history is then used to disallow racial selectivity to maintain racial integration. In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the landmark 2007 case rolling back remedies, the conservative justices wielded Brown against the ideological descendants of those who initiated Brown. Abjuring the briefs of those who now fill the shoes once filled by Thurgood Marshall, Chief Justice Roberts and the conservative wing ruled that, outside the context of higher education (where promotion of diversity may be allowed on very narrow grounds), the aim of ensuring racial integration in classrooms cannot justify race-conscious means of allocating students. “When it comes to using race to assign children to schools,” Roberts asserted, “history will be heard.”

Yes, but which history will be embraced? The one that permits the continuation of racial separation? Or the one that encourages racial integration? Roberts and his conservative colleagues chose the former.


A SECOND GROUP THAT HAS exerted considerable influence upon the public memory of the civil rights era is composed of those who seek to domesticate the movement, homogenize it, make it universally palatable. They delete from the movement’s history its troublesome radical outcroppings, subordinate its communal character to tales of individual heroism, and make the narrative into a story of American triumphalism. 

An instructive debunking of this tendency is offered by Professor Jeanne Theoharis in The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Theoharis notes that when Parks died on October 24, 2005, at the age of 92, she was accorded an extraordinary measure of public recognition. Her body lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda, where 40,000 Americans (including the President and First Lady, George W. and Laura Bush) came to pay respects. Later, pursuant to legislation, a statue of Parks was placed in the Capitol, the first honoring an African American. Senate Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist stated that Parks’s famous stand—her refusal to surrender her seat to a white man, according to racist custom—was “not an intentional attempt to change a nation, but a singular act aimed at restoring the dignity of the individual.” The New York Times described her as the “accidental” matriarch of the Civil Rights Movement.

(Photo: AP/Gene Herrick)

Rosa Parks's refusal to move to the back of the bus sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, but she was a civil rights activist long before that day.

But as Theoharis shows, the actions of Rosa Parks were neither apolitical, nor adventitious, nor individualistic. Parks had been an activist long before the day she famously refused to move to the back of the bus. She was a stalwart member of the Montgomery, Alabama, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She took pains to register to vote—a difficult undertaking for blacks in the Deep South in the 1940s. She participated in campaigns to prompt police to investigate rapes of black women by white men. She attended the Highlander Folk School, an interracial, left-wing leadership training school that fell victim to both race-baiting and red-baiting. 

Although Parks did not seek a confrontation with segregation aboard that bus on December 1, 1955, she was well prepared when the opportunity arose. She continued her activism after her arrest and throughout the subsequent 381-day bus boycott. Moreover, she continued protesting against racism after she moved to Detroit and joined the staff of newly elected Congressman John Conyers. Parks’s contribution, in other words, consisted not just of one dramatic act of defiance; it consisted of a lifetime of devoted participation in the movement for black liberation and equality. Contrary to what Frist suggested, Parks and her colleagues did indeed seek “to change a nation” and did so to a significant extent through fortitude, courage, tact, and imagination.


THE MEMORY OF THE MOVEMENT is also contested in the popular culture and in its commercial appropriation. Debate has swirled around the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson in Ava DuVernay’s feature film Selma. Some have complained that the film slights Johnson by portraying him as a grudging supporter of their movement and even, in some instances, a petty, vindictive adversary.

Some defenders of Selma charge that racism is behind much of the criticism of the film. “The real problem many critics have with this film,” declares Professor Peniel Joseph, is “that it’s too black and too strong.” It is “too black,” he implies, because of DuVernay’s self-conscious decision to make black men, and especially black women, central heroic characters of the drama. “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie,” she declared in one of the many interviews she has given pursuant to the deluge of publicity that followed Selma’s release. “I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma,” by which she meant, of course, black people of Selma. Joseph and others imply as well that DuVernay’s identity as an African American is also part of what has made Selma “too black” for the taste of certain detractors. 

In “How ‘Selma’ Got Smeared,” which appeared online in Grantland, Mark Harris voices this point strongly:

The old saw that history is written by the victors is particularly relevant here, because Selma is the first mainstream movie about this era to raise the question of who, exactly, gets to claim ownership of that victory. To many historians and politicians, the triumph of civil rights is that, after much toil and strife, they were bestowed from above; to many African Americans, however, the victory is that those rights were taken—wrenched, with tremendous will, persistence, and effort, out of a system that was not in an immense hurry to offer them up. The former stance has long been the vantage point offered by most white filmmakers who have tackled this history. So it’s little wonder that DuVernay’s movie, the first on the subject by a woman of color and the first not to view mid-20th-century civil rights purely as an example of presidential, judicial, or legislative beneficence, has distressed those who, even 50 years later, would be far more at home in a room with President Johnson than with Dr. King. They are unnerved not only that Selma threatens to become “official” history, but that it represents a sea change in who has custody of that history.

Are those who defend LBJ against his portrayal in Selma overreaching? On the one hand, there is reason to be on guard against the propensity to over-praise whites and put them at the center of everything, including struggles for black advancement. All too many commentators, for instance, date the beginning of the Civil Rights era as the moment at which Chief Justice Earl Warren announced the (all-white) Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, paying little heed to the story of the plaintiffs and their supporters, the very people whose perseverance and courage brought to the justices the case that enabled them to become judicial heroes. Cultural entrepreneurs with white audiences in mind have insisted upon interjecting into virtually any setting the obligatory white savior. An egregious example is the film Mississippi Burning, in which (white) FBI agents are cast as the central, heroic characters, the protagonists who relentlessly pursue murderous Ku Klux Klansmen, eclipsing the blacks whose protests provoked the Klan’s racially motivated violence in the first place, and excusing the longtime racist role of the FBI itself.

Aware that the telling of history is itself a projection of power, politically self-conscious observers should be keenly attuned to the ways in which white privilege manifests itself in cultural productions—plays, novels, monographs, films. They rightly wince upon reading that in directing Selma, DuVernay was unable to have her MLK speak the actual words of the historical MLK because media mogul Steven Spielberg owns the rights to those words (having bought them from the notoriously avaricious King estate), and is hoarding them for his own use. 

Impatience with white narcissism and privilege, however, is no excuse for derogating the important, positive, admirable roles that some whites played in the Civil Rights era. As King declared in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” it should never be forgotten that there were whites, too, who stood up for racial justice, hazarding beatings and jailing and even death as they challenged segregation. Moreover, no matter how courageous the plaintiffs or brilliant their attorneys, good results would not have been forthcoming in desegregation suits in the absence of white judges who proved themselves willing to listen and to reform the law—jurists such as Justice William J. Brennan, and appellate judges John Minor Wisdom, Frank Johnson, and J. Skelly Wright. Similarly, no matter the bravery and persistence of protesters, their efforts would have been much less successful in the absence of friendly white politicians such as Hubert H. Humphrey, Robert F. Kennedy, and, most notably, LBJ. Johnson was a committed supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. He contributed mightily to breaking the back of congressional segregationist obstructionism, investing more of his own political capital to furthering the aims of racial justice than any previous or subsequent president thus far. We owe it to ourselves to get that history right.

(Photo: AP/Brynn Anderson)

Selma director Ava Duvernay, second from left, locks arms with rapper and actor Common (left) and David Oyelowo, who portrayed Martin Luther King Jr. in the film, as they march with Oprah Winfrey to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in January, 2015.

Johnson helped greatly to elevate the movement’s status. In his splendid speech of March 15, 1965, in which he announced that he would soon send to Congress the legislation that became the Voting Rights Act, he famously echoed the mantra “We shall overcome.” He also memorably saluted the activists who, by their tactical acumen and dogged determination, had seized the country’s attention. “At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in [humankind’s] unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was … at Appomattox. So it was … in Selma, Alabama.”

I do not think that racism is behind the influential critiques that have been aimed at Selma. The most heated one was authored by Joseph Califano Jr., who worked closely with Johnson as an aide. Writing in The Washington Post, Califano seethingly charged that Selma falsely portrays LBJ and urged that the film be denied both patronage and honors. In my view, DuVernay was unduly harsh in depicting LBJ. But Califano, too, is excessive. He claims that the Selma campaign was LBJ’s idea, on the basis of a phone conversation with MLK in which the president mused that, in order to mobilize public opinion, racist disenfranchisement would have to be dramatized in a vivid, unmistakable fashion—hardly an original notion. King, moreover, had already shown himself to be a master of just that sort of dramatization. Califano’s assertion that the Selma campaign was Johnson’s idea is ridiculous overreach. 

But is his overcharging related to race? Probably not. If a white person, say Michael Mann or David O. Russell, had been the director of a film impugning LBJ, Califano would likely have responded in a similar fashion. Califano was wrong in his excessive denunciation of Selma. But he was not racistly wrong. That distinction should matter.

In some defenses of Selma, there has surfaced a strong whiff of “How dare you do anything other than praise this film by a young female African American director!” But participation at the big table of American culture will and should entail criticism as well as praise. A realistic understanding of our racial past, present, and future will require a willingness to subject everyone to criticism.

The fight over Selma is not only a historiographical dispute; it is also a conflict over the distribution of power now. It is full of reverberations that indicate the ongoing process of desegregation, the contemporary resentments inherited from our tragic past, and the current ways in which racial conflict erupts in even the most privileged sectors of our society. 


SO HOW SHOULD WE REMEMBER the Civil Rights Movement? We should recall it with admiration, attentiveness to its limitations, and renewed determination to further social justice. 

(Photo: Marion Post Wolcott/Library of Congress)

In the Jim Crow South, legislation mandated racial separation in privately owned places of public accommodation, like this movie theater in Leland, Mississippi.

Consider the situation in 1950. In the states of the former Confederacy, officials openly and unapologetically hailed white supremacy as a principle of sound governance. Through fraud, intimidation, and violence, blacks were largely eliminated as voters, jurors, or anything else associated with civic equality. White supremacists consigned blacks to public institutions, including schools and hospitals, that were separate and ostentatiously inferior. In some domains, blacks were excluded altogether. Louisiana allocated to whites 7,000 acres of parkland for recreation. Mississippi allocated 10,972 acres. Texas, 58,126 acres. Those three states allocated to blacks, by contrast, no park facilities.

In the Jim Crow South, judges ordered blacks to be seated apart from whites in courtrooms, and directed that blacks be sworn as witnesses on separate Bibles. Legislation mandated racial separation in privately owned places of public accommodation. The legal system allowed employers to organize worksites at which the highest-paid black employee could earn no more than the lowest-paid white employee. 

The South, moreover, was by no means the only region suffused by anti-black racism; the scourge was national. All of Dixie prohibited marriage across the racial lines. But so, too, did Indiana and Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Blacks faced violence in Atlanta and Birmingham if they moved into neighborhoods that whites perceived as their exclusive turf. But they similarly faced violence if they crossed residential racial boundaries in Detroit, Chicago, or Cleveland.

At that time, there had never been a black presidential cabinet officer or a black Supreme Court justice. Segregationists were congressional barons with the power and inclination to stymie any meaningful civil rights legislation. They had thwarted even the passage of federal anti-lynching legislation on behalf of members of the armed forces.

In this daunting environment, it took astonishing courage to challenge American pigmentocracy. Lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall, Robert Carter, and Jack Greenberg gathered together every shred of decency found in American law, stitched them into powerful arguments, and threw them against the racial indecencies that thickly coated social life. Scholars such as John Hope Franklin, Kenneth Stampp, and Herbert Aptheker revised inherited thinking—e.g., the myth of the contented Negro, the purported villainy of Reconstruction, or the supposed inevitability of segregation—producing new, egalitarian narratives and perspectives. Polemicists such as James Baldwin, Murray Kempton, and I.F. Stone put racism on the defensive. Crusaders such as Diane Nash, John Lewis, and Stokely Carmichael engaged in Freedom Rides to exercise, in action, rights that had been declared on paper. Managers of dissent such as Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and James Farmer created an institutional infrastructure that enabled protest to continue despite the vagaries of individuals. 

Countless people, remarkably, persisted in demanding racial justice even after it became frighteningly clear that premature death might be the price of their advocacy. Harry and Harriette Moore, effective organizers on behalf of the Progressive Voters’ League, were killed in Mims, Florida, in a bombing of their home on Christmas night 1951, which also happened to be their 25th wedding anniversary. Rebuffing orders that he quit urging blacks to vote, Reverend George Lee was shot to death near Belzoni, Mississippi, on May 7, 1955. Vernon Ferdinand Dahmer, a wealthy black businessman, offered to pay the poll taxes for anyone otherwise eligible who sought to register to vote. After a radio station disapprovingly publicized his offer, he was killed when his home was firebombed in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on January 10, 1966.

The accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement have been massively consequential. The movement de-legitimated legal segregation. Thanks to Brown v. Board of Education and its sequelae, no government in America can lawfully separate people on a routine basis on account of race. The movement extended anti-discrimination requirements to private activities outside the reach of federal constitutional standards. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits racial discrimination in privately owned places of public accommodation such as hotels and restaurants. Title VII of that act prohibits racial discrimination in much of the private labor market. The movement also uprooted many of the practices that prevented blacks from voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended literacy tests and similar easily abused devices in states and counties—the so-called “covered jurisdictions”—where racial disenfranchisement had been most pervasive and entrenched. The law required covered jurisdictions to seek permission from federal authorities before making new changes in voting procedures. (It is this provision of the act that was invalidated by the conservative wing of the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder). The act also authorized federal examiners to supersede local officials in the event that the latter simply refused to carry out their duties lawfully. 

The Civil Rights Movement showed repeatedly the substance of symbolism. The bus in which Rosa Parks was arrested would have taken her to her destination no matter what seat she occupied. One might say that where she sat was “merely” symbolic. But wrapped up in the symbolism of Jim Crow seating was an expression of the state’s view of blacks’ status—a dismal daily lesson that affected the hearts and minds of all who witnessed the degradation of African Americans. By nullifying segregation aboard the buses of Montgomery, Parks and her neighbors struck an important blow for black dignity. 

Mary Hamilton, an activist affiliated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), charged with a minor offense stemming from a demonstration, refused to respond to a prosecutor who insisted upon addressing her by her first name when he had addressed white witnesses by their last names. When a judge ordered Hamilton to answer, she refused, whereupon he held her to be in contempt of court and sentenced her to a jail term, which she served, though the federal Supreme Court subsequently reversed her conviction. Hamilton recognized that etiquette can be vitally important—that sometimes resisting a symbolic affront is worth the risk of imprisonment. She demonstrated that symbolism matters!

Protests of this sort elevated black Americans not only in the eyes of others; more importantly, the protests elevated blacks in their own eyes, producing a turnabout in racial consciousness. In the 1950s, “black” was bad even among African Americans. One Negro could insult another Negro simply by describing him as black. The Civil Rights Movement upended that heavy burden of racial self-loathing. By the end of the 1960s, blackness had attained a new prestige. Dark-skinned women were belatedly selected as homecoming queens at historically black colleges and universities. Straightened hair gave way to “naturals.” And soul brother number one, James Brown, reached the top of the charts with an unambiguous paean to African American racial pride: “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.” 

The legislation that arose from the Civil Rights Movement made a huge economic difference. Historian Gavin Wright, in Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, notes that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act affected labor markets dramatically, “breaking down segregation barriers and opening a wide range of job opportunities to blacks for the first time.”

The influence of the Voting Rights Act has been even more striking. More blacks were registered in the South during the five years after its enactment than were registered during the prior century. The momentum continued. In the presidential and congressional elections of 2012, African American voter turnout exceeded white voter turnout in five of the six “covered” states. There has been a 1,000 percent increase since 1965 in the number of black elected officials in those six states. Selma, Alabama, for example, has a black mayor. The ramifications of this change extend, of course, beyond one region. Obama could not have been elected president of the United States without the transformation that the Voting Rights Act both mirrored and reinforced.

(Photo: United States Information Agency)

Solidarity: The March on Washington of August 28, 1963, brought together civil rights and labor activists. On the day he was killed, MLK was in Memphis to advance the conditions of sanitation workers.

The Civil Rights Movement should be a source of pride and inspiration. It should not, however, be the basis for uncritical triumphalism. Even its best leaders sometimes erred or displayed deficiencies in character or sensibility. The movement was marred by retrograde prejudices in its own ranks. Despite the contributions of Rosa Parks, Septima Clark, Ella Baker, Dorothy Height, Fannie Lou Hamer, and countless other women, no woman was allowed to give any of the major addresses at the March on Washington. Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, disliked Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin, not just because they were radical, but because they were gay. King put himself and his associates in jeopardy by recklessly carrying on extramarital affairs that gave his enemies ammunition with which to intimidate him. That they failed is partly due to sheer luck. After magnificently challenging racism in the most dangerous precincts of the Deep South, Stokely Carmichael and his colleagues in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) succumbed to the impatience, stupidity, and hubris that gave rise to the Black Power slogan, which mischievously vexed the movement from 1966 onward. Nothing in the history of the civil rights era is more doleful than SNCC’s descent. It began as an organization open to anyone committed to challenging racism through defiant, dignified, peaceful protest. It ended as a clique of narrow-minded, blacker-than-thou ideologues who, having gotten rid of all the white members, proceeded to turn on one another.

Another cautionary lesson can be derived from the story of the Black Panther Party. Its founders, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, rightly perceived police misconduct to be a major problem in black neighborhoods and aggressively sought to address mistreatment, by policing the police. Unfortunately, the Panthers discredited themselves with obnoxious rhetoric (“Off the pigs!”) and a hankering for association with third-world dictatorships (Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro). The Panthers also naïvely underestimated their enemies, dabbling with provocative gestures that gave police—local, state, and federal—all of the cover needed to rationalize a brutal campaign of repression. 

We should, by all means, recall the reformers who conducted themselves admirably in ways that beckon emulation. However, we need to remember, too, the bad behavior. The Civil Rights era teaches yet again that oppression provides to victims no magical inoculation against vice, thoughtlessness, and bigotry. 

The movement did not always succeed, even in its heyday. Movement lawyers failed to protect protesters from judicial impatience when polite forms of dissent gave way to dissent of a more assertive variety. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is now an iconic defense of civil disobedience. When the Supreme Court got around to deciding the legitimacy of King’s jailing, however, it ruled against him even though the local repressive court order he had disregarded was patently unconstitutional.

Civil rights activists were unable to protect their movement from racist terrorism. A stark indication of this vulnerability was the martyrdom of such figures as Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb, Jonathan Daniels, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and, of course, King. Activists were also unable to prevent law enforcement authorities from encroaching surreptitiously upon their leaders and organizations.

Movement advocates failed to create a consensus that overcoming racial injustice and alienation requires not only prospective prohibitions against invidious discrimination, but positive discrimination to remedy the effects of past wrongs, to counteract present but hard-to-identify racial mistreatment, and to facilitate integration. A consequence of that failure has been the long-embattled status of affirmative action. Its opponents often stress that leading racial liberals of the 1960s abjured the idea of positive discrimination favoring racial minorities; those liberals often denounced such initiatives as “reverse discrimination.” With racism still prevalent, the backlash against affirmative action is now in full swing.

The record of the Civil Rights Movement, then, is mixed. As Professor Tom Sugrue aptly observes, it “is full of paradoxes and ambiguities, of unfinished battles and devastating defeats.” How successful was it? The answer depends on the baseline of measurement. Viewed through the prism of King’s most ambitious demands, or Malcolm X’s ultimatums, or the agenda of the Black Panther Party, or the reversals being experienced today at the hands of reactionary legislators and courts, the movement’s accomplishments may seem transient and disappointing. On the other hand, viewed through the prism of the demands voiced in the important anthology What the Negro Wants (1944) or the report of President Harry S. Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights (1947), or the protests in Montgomery (1955), Birmingham (1963), and Selma (1965), the movement’s achievements appear much more impressive.

In my view, the Civil Rights Movement is one of the most inspiring examples of mass dissent in world history. It typically sought worthy ends, fought for those goals with high intelligence and laudable ethics, and succeeded in attaining major reforms that continue to benefit American society. The limitations of its achievements are evident. With respect to practically every indicator of well-being, a substantial gap continues to separate blacks and whites. Narrowing these gaps is a daunting enterprise. We can, however, take heart from what our forebears were able to achieve. The memory of the movement’s history, like all history, will remain contested. But if we are to continue to pursue the movement’s unfinished business, we need to remember accurately what cannot be denied.  

You may also like