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In 'A More Beautiful And Terrible History,' Fuel For The Fight Ahead

Feb 4, 2018

It's February, which means it's Black History Month, the time designated by Congress to focus on the contributions of African Americans to this country. Often that focus will turn to a celebration of the civil rights movement, and its many heroes and heroines: Rosa Parks, John Lewis and of course the Rev. Martin Luther King. What could be wrong with that?

According to historian Jeanne Theoharis, what's wrong with it is that the story is too often told in a way that neutralizes the past and makes it irrelevant to the present — in a word, whitewashing. She lays out her thesis in her latest book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.

Theoharis says she was inspired by "going around the country ... and feeling how hungry people were, both for more substantive histories of the civil rights movement, but also to help make sense of why we get the fables, why we get the versions we get."


Interview Highlights

On the problem with how we're retelling the civil rights movement

To me, this history should humble us. And I think the way it is used and the way it's kind of taken up in our national, sort of, public discourse, is quite the opposite. It is used to make us feel good about ourselves, to make us feel good about our progress, as opposed to kind of take stock of what it took, of how hard it was, of how many people did not do the right thing, of how hard it is to do the right thing, and of how much farther we have to go. Because I think, oftentimes, people like King and Parks, the civil rights movement — it's held up with a happy ending, right? It's painful, it's dramatic, but then we have the happy ending of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. And it's clean.

And I think what a fuller history of the civil rights movement actually shows us, is there were certainly victories, there were certainly milestones that we are now again fighting to try to uphold. But there was much more work to be done, and people like Parks and King were adamant about that. Civil rights activists have taken on a huge place in the American consciousness, which would not be a problem necessarily if we actually knew who these people were, right? If we actually had a sense of the breadth of what they stood for and what they are asking of us today.

On how this filtered version of history obscures a deeper truth

Well, we see the civil rights movement, and we see these heroes invoked at particular moments. So I think about when Rosa Parks dies in October of 2005, she becomes the first woman, the first civilian, to lie in honor in the nation's capital. But I think we cannot separate that from less than two month's earlier — Hurricane Katrina — there's growing public outrage about the kind of racial and social injustices that were laid bare during the storm, and federal inaction.

On the beautiful part of Beautiful and Terrible

I spent a lot of time in the book talking about the civil rights struggle outside the South, talking about northern activism. And I think part of what's beautiful about that is people's tenacity. It's how courageous people were, it's how steadfast black mothers were over decades in Boston in fighting for school desegregation, over decades in New York in fighting for school desegregation, over decades in Los Angeles fighting for school desegregation. And I think getting to see that is also kind of more moving, more inspiring. It gives us strength; it gives us bread and butter for the fight ahead.

Elizabeth Baker and Natalie Winston produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's February, which means it's Black History Month, the time designated by Congress to focus on the contributions of African-Americans to this country. And often, that focus will turn to a celebration of the civil rights movement and its many heroes and heroines - Rosa Parks, John Lewis and, of course, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. So what could be wrong with that?

Well, what's wrong with that, says historian Jeanne Theoharis, is the way the story is too often told, in a way that neutralizes the past and makes it irrelevant to the present - in a word, whitewashing it. She lays out her thesis in her latest book, "A More Beautiful And Terrible History: The Uses And Misuses Of Civil Rights History." And Professor Jeanne Theoharis is with us now from NPR New York. Professor Theoharis, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you are a professor of political science at Brooklyn College. And I think people might be familiar with your previous book, "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks." What gave you the idea for this book? Is there something that was just sticking in your craw as a historian and you said, I've got to get this straight?

THEOHARIS: Well, I think there were two things. One was the experience of going around the country talking about the Rosa Parks book and feeling how hungry people were both for more substantive histories of the civil rights movement but also to help make sense of why we get the fables, why we get the versions we get.

MARTIN: Well, you say in the book, for example, that civil rights mis-histories give us a pleasurable sense of accomplishment and that the U.S., in this version, is a self-cleaning oven but that the self-cleaning America fable conveniently makes it seem as if the United States was destined to have a great civil rights movement, that most people did the right thing. And you say this is a pleasurable idea to be sure but one that obscures the more sobering reality which is how hard and infrequent such courage was, how tenacious and how steadfast activists had to be and how much pressure people exerted against the movement, just how hard it was. Why do you think it's so terrible that people think that?

THEOHARIS: To me, this history should humble us. And I think the way it is used and the way it's taken up in our kind of national sort of public discourse is quite the opposite. It is used to make us feel good about ourselves, to make us feel good about our progress as opposed to kind of take stock of what it took, of how hard it was, of how many people did not do the right thing, of how hard it is to do the right thing and of how much farther we have to go. Because I think oftentimes, people like King and Parks, the civil rights movement is held up with a happy ending, right? It's painful. It's dramatic. But then we have the happy ending of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. And it's clean.

And I think what a fuller history of the civil rights movement actually shows us is there were certainly victories. There are certainly milestones, milestones that we are now, again, fighting to try to uphold. But there was much more work to be done, and people like Parks and King were adamant about that. Civil rights activists have taken on a huge place in the American consciousness, which would not be a problem necessarily if we actually knew who these people were - right? - if we actually had a sense of the breadth of what they stood for and what they are asking of us today.

MARTIN: Give us an example about the way you think that this kind of museum version, the soft-filter version, obscures a deeper truth.

THEOHARIS: Well, we see the civil rights movement and we see these heroes invoked at very particular moments. So I think about when Rosa Parks dies in October of 2005. She becomes the first woman, the first civilian to lie in honor in the nation's capital. But I think we cannot separate that from less than two months earlier, Hurricane Katrina, there's growing public outrage about the kind of racial and social injustices that were laid bare during the storm and federal inaction.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, the book is titled "A More Beautiful And Terrible History," what about the more beautiful part? Tell me about something that you think is actually more beautiful than people are giving it credit for being or that people generally acknowledge.

THEOHARIS: So I spend a lot of time in the book talking about the civil rights struggle outside the South, talking about Northern activism. And I think part of what's beautiful about that is peoples' tenacity. It's how courageous people were. It's how steadfast black mothers were over decades in Boston in fighting for school desegregation, over decades in New York fighting for school desegregation, over decades in LA fighting for school desegregation. And I think getting to see that - right? - is also kind of more moving, more inspiring. It gives us strength. It gives us bread and butter for the fight ahead.

MARTIN: Jeanne Theoharis' latest book is "A More Beautiful And Terrible History: The Uses And Misuses Of Civil Rights History." She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New Professor Theoharis, thank you so much for speaking with us.

THEOHARIS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.