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The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past

From The Journal of American History

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The Best American History Essays 2007

Abstract

The civil rights movement circulates through American memory in forms and through channels that are at once powerful, dangerous, and hotly contested. Civil rights memorials jostle with the South’s ubiquitous monuments to its Confederate past. Exemplary scholarship and documentaries abound, and participants have produced wave after wave of autobiographical accounts, at least two hundred to date. Images of the movement appear and reappear each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and during Black History Month. Yet remembrance is always a form of forgetting, and the dominant narrative of the civil rights movement—distilled from history and memory, twisted by ideology and political contestation, and embedded in heritage tours, museums, public rituals, textbooks, and various artifacts of mass culture—distorts and suppresses as much as it reveals.1

The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flawsracism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society … and suggests that radical reconstruction of society is the real issue to be faced.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Stories are wonderful things. And they are dangerous.

Thomas King

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Notes

  1. On civil rights autobiographies and histories, see Kathryn L. Nasstrom, “Between Memory and History: Autobiographies of the Civil Rights Movement and the Writing of a New Civil Rights History,” National Endowment for the Humanities Lecture, University of San Francisco, April 29, 2002 (in Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s possession); Steven F. Lawson, “Freedom Then, Freedom Now: The Historiography of the Civil Rights Movement,” American Historical Review 96 (April 1991): 456–71

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  4. Self, American Babylon, 88; Laurie B. Green, “Race, Gender, and Labor in 1960s Memphis: ‘I AM A MAN’ and the Meaning of Freedom,” Journal of Urban History 30 (March 2004): 467.

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  5. My discussion of white ethnic workers, the middle class, and the spatialization of race draws on the work of brilliant urban historians, especially Kenneth T. Jackson, “Race, Ethnicity, and Real Estate Appraisal: The Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration,” Journal of Urban History 6 (August 1980): 419–52

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  10. What Alex Lichtenstein has called the “Southern Front” was signaled by union successes in the region, a spike in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) membership and voter registration among blacks, local activism by African Americans and white workers, and an influx into Washington of prolabor, antiracist, southern New Dealers. See Alex Lichtenstein, “The Cold War and the ‘Negro Question,’” Radical History Review 72 (Fall 1998): 186

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  12. For examples of the caricature, see Wall Street Journal, July 21, 1999, p. A22; Tamar Jacoby, “A Surprise, but Not a Success,” Atlantic Monthly 289 (May 2002): 114

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  15. Quintard Taylor, “The Civil Rights Movement in the American West: Black Protest in Seattle, 1960–1970,” Journal of Negro History 80 (Winter 1995–1996): 4–5

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  16. Craig Haney and Philip Zimbardo, “The Past and Future of U.S. Prison Policy: Twenty-Five Years after the Stanford Prison Experiment,” American Psychologist 53 (July 1998): 714

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© 2007 Organization of American Historians

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Hall, J.D. (2007). The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past. In: Jones, J. (eds) The Best American History Essays 2007. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-137-06439-4_11

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-137-06439-4_11

  • Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, New York

  • Print ISBN: 978-1-4039-7660-4

  • Online ISBN: 978-1-137-06439-4

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