Thursday, September 13, 2007

The long civil rights movement

For several years, UNC history professor Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has been arguing that the received version of what constituted the "civil rights movement" is impoverished:

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.

Centering on what Bayard Rustin in 1965 called the "classical" phase of the struggle, the dominant narrative chronicles a short civil rights movement that begins with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, proceeds through public protests, and culminates with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Then comes the decline. After a season of moral clarity, the country is beset by the Vietnam War, urban riots, and reaction against the excesses of the late 1960s and the 1970s, understood variously as student rebellion, black militancy, feminism, busing, affirmative action, or an overweening welfare state. A so-called white backlash sets the stage for the conservative interregnum that, for good or ill, depending on one's ideological persuasion, marks the beginning of another story, the story that surrounds us now.

Martin Luther King Jr. is this narrative's defining figure—frozen in 1963, proclaiming "I have a dream" during the march on the Mall. Endlessly reproduced and selectively quoted, his speeches retain their majesty yet lose their political bite. We hear little of the King who believed that "the racial issue that we confront in America is not a sectional but a national problem" and who attacked segregation in the urban North. Erased altogether is the King who opposed the Vietnam War and linked racism at home to militarism and imperialism abroad. Gone is King the democratic socialist who advocated unionization, planned the Poor People's Campaign, and was assassinated in 1968 while supporting a sanitation workers' strike.

By confining the civil rights struggle to the South, to bowdlerized heroes, to a single halcyon decade, and to limited, noneconomic objectives, the master narrative simultaneously elevates and diminishes the movement. It ensures the status of the classical phase as a triumphal moment in a larger American progress narrative, yet it undermines its gravitas. It prevents one of the most remarkable mass movements in American history from speaking effectively to the challenges of our time.

It's nice to see that Hall's project has found serious traction. Harvard's Charles Warren Center is sponsoring a workshop on "Race-Making and Law-Making in 'the Long Civil Rights Movement.'"

A local footnote: At Monday night's town council meeting, we approved plans for a granite paver to be placed in front of the Old Post Office on Franklin Street to mark the space with the name Peace and Justice Plaza. Three long-time social activists, Joe and Lucy Straley and Charlotte Adams, will be honored by having their names carved on the paver. There is plenty of room for other names in the future. These three people were exceptional in their devotion to social justice, in the sheer number of hours they spent in active protest.

But of course, they were not the only ones. One notable moment of social protest was the period of 1963-64 when, despite the determined activism of Chapel Hill college and high school students in particular, the town council not once but twice refused to pass a local public accommodations ordinance. During Holy Week 1964, protesters positioned themselves in front of the Post Office and stayed there day and night for a week, fasting.

The three in the center--Quinton Baker, Karen Parker, and Braxton Foushee--reflect upon their experiences as students and protesters in Chapel Hill in 1963-64. On the right is UNC student Erika Stallings. It was a privilege to moderate this panel, to hear the panelists' brave stories.

In today's story about Peace and Justice Plaza in the Daily Tar Heel, Laura Bickford, a current-day protester, complains that "It's unfair for this one moment 40 years ago to be memorialized when there are a lot of other struggles that are going on." But that is precisely not the point. This is not a marker that commemorates the past only. By giving this space the name of "Peace and Justice Plaza" and by honoring three notable activists with the explicit acknowledgment that others may be honored in the future, the town is acknowledging its part in the long and unfinished civil rights movement. We are saying that protest is a welcome and healthy part of civic discourse--even when (as in the 1963-64 episode) it turns out that the town is on the wrong side of history.

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