Distinguished historian shakes up civil rights history

“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,” writes historian Jeanne Theoharis.“And the task of honoring can also be a form of stripping and silencing.”

Historian and author Jeanne Theoharis.
Photo by Tom Martinez, courtesy of Beacon Press

Theoharis is a distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She is author or co-author of seven books and numerous articles on the history of the black freedom struggle and on the contemporary politics of race in the U.S.

During Black History Month in February and in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death on April 4, America will be honoring the work of leading civil rights activists. Yet, cautions Theoharis, the civil rights movement has been turned into a national fable — one that sanitizes the radical visions of courageous leaders such as King and Rosa Parks, points to the inexorable triumph of American democracy, and puts the country’s legacy of racial injustice firmly in the past.

Courtesy of Beacon Press

In “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History,” Theoharis, a scholar of the northern civil rights movement and author of an award-winning biography of Rosa Parks, argues that now more than ever we need the full history of how black activists struggled for decades against school, housing, and job segregation, often enduring brutally violent backlashes.

Pushing back against the notion that racism was located solely in the barbaric South and personified in the violent white redneck, Theoharis traces civil rights activism in the North and the struggle there against less obvious, but highly effective racist policies. “By showing how much larger, more beautiful, and more terrifying the Black Freedom struggle was,” she writes, “this book seeks to return the movement to those of us who need it now — so we might see a way forward in these perilous times.”

Courtesy of Beacon Press

One of the nine gaps and omissions in popular renderings of civil rights history that Theoharis outlines in her book is the unacknowledged role of women and young people. The “Great Man” version of civil rights history obscures the role of high school students who often led their elders in the school desegregation fight, including staging walkouts in the North, Midwest and West throughout the 1960s. The activism of young people 60 years ago, like the activism of high school students today, notes Theoharis, provoked a lot of consternation but the country is better for it.

Further pushing back against the “Great Man” conventional wisdom about movement history, Theoharis examines Coretta Scott King’s lifelong activism on peace and economic justice issues (far exceeding her casting as only a helpmate to her husband) and looks at how Scott King and other women, including Parks, have been portrayed as passive and meek — obscuring their key leadership, organizational and intellectual contributions. She retraces how women were forced out of on-stage speaking roles during the March on Washington protest.

Theoharis’s New York Times best-selling biography “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” won the 2014 NAACP Image Award and the Lititia Woods Brown Award from the Association of Black Women Historians. Theoharis will speak about her work on Rosa Parks, as well as her more recently published book “A More Beautiful and Terrible History” at the Brooklyn Public Library‘s Central Library on Feb. 28.

Courtesy of Beacon Press
Courtesy of Beacon Press


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