A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History by Jeanne Theoharis

Summary: A retelling of civil rights era history noting ways in which traditional framing distorts the history. 

I am very interested in how framing and bias can distort history. Some books I have read that have informed my perspective on this are Battle for Bonhoeffer (about how this works with an individual, not just more extensive history), and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction by John Fea (which looks at a historical topic and the ways that Christian nationalism, in particular, distorts historical analysis) and Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David Blight (which looks at how there was an intentional misremembering at the end of the Civil War to reunify the United States by orienting the US toward a vision of white racial superiority instead of orienting the country toward the rights of newly freed Black citizens.) I have heard about A More Beautiful and Terrible several times, but some quotes from Jamar Tisby in one of his newsletters caused me to pick it up finally.

Once I read for a little while, I looked up some background on the author. Jeanne Theoharis is a political science professor at Brooklyn College. She is the daughter of Athan Theoharis, a historian who specialized in the history of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, and other US intelligence agencies, which is a fascinating background for a father when Jeanne specializes in civil rights history. Liz Theoharis is Jeanne’s sister, a professor at Union Seminary, an ordained minister in the PCUSA, and co-chair of the modern Poor People’s Campaign, along with William Barber. Again, it is essential background to know that Jeanne Theoharis is writing about the use and misuse of civil rights history while her sister is helping to lead one of the most important civil rights organizations that is actively organizing for civil and economic rights. (I also know locally active people in the Poor People’s Campaign.)

Each chapter is about one aspect of the civil rights story and how the traditional framing can distort the way we remember and think about civil rights history. I think this is a reasonable organizational method, but it also leads to some repetition because the chapters have overlapping content.

Chapter one is about desegregation, but instead of telling the story of a Southern Brown v Board, it tells of a failed story of integration in Boston. The Massachusetts legislature passed the Racial Integration Act in 1965, eleven years after Brown. But school boards refused to acknowledge school segregation. Nearly 25 years after the NAACP chapter in Boston created an Education committee and organized around desegregation, there was a federal lawsuit and an order to use bussing to integrate Boston schools and federal supervision of the plan until the late 1980s. Resistance to busing was strong, and White flight reduced the city’s White population. The 1974 Supreme Court case limited the desegregation busing to municipalities, effectively limiting busing and allowing residential segregation and white flight to continue school segregation. Primarily, we think of school desegregation as a success story in the US.

The year 1989 was the high point of school integration, and like in Boston, federal oversight largely had stopped by the late 1980s. Schools have been segregating again so that the likelihood of a Black or Hispanic student going to an 80% or more Black or Hispanic school was roughly the same as in the late 1960s to early 1970s when many districts were only starting their desegregation efforts. As I have said before, the Louisville school district, where my mother spent part of her elementary years (she is a couple of weeks younger than Ruby Bridges), did not desegregate until the school year I was born. School segregation today is different from school segregation in the past. It is not overtly legal for one reason. It is also not complete in the same way. Historically, school segregation was universal; no Black students were in a White segregated school. Today’s schools are technically integrated, but most white students attend majority-white schools, and most minority students attend majority-minority schools. Part of this is that schools are economically isolated and that class and economics have a racial dimension. It is also that neighborhoods are still largely racially segregated because of historic housing patterns. But all of that is background, which gives context to how we tell the story of school desegregation efforts as a hero story.

The second chapter is about how the view of race riots of the 1960s tends to ignore resistance to community organizing that had often gone on for decades before riots. Primarily focusing on LA and Detroit, I learned about the Detroit Great March in 1963, several months before the March on Washington, which had at least 125,000 in attendance (using Wikipedia’s numbers) and maybe as many as 200,000 (using the book’s estimate). When riots are framed as starting out of the blue, instead of contextualizing them within a larger civil rights movement, often a failed one, it further diminishes how civil rights history is a history of many local movements, not just a few big players. The other part of this is that most racial riots in the civil rights and post-civil rights era are in northern or western cities, where civil rights gains were much less tangible. One of the book’s central themes is that while southern racism was more overt, the more subtle racism of the North and West was more likely to be sustained and unchanged.

The third chapter was about polite racism and the “white moderate” and how geography class and economics matter to how racism was viewed. In many ways, this is the message of the Letter From a Birmingham Jail. But it also matters to the following chapters. It is easier to portray overt racism with batons and firehoses than polite racism of zoning restrictions and media bias.

The fourth chapter is about the problems of civil rights media coverage. Generally, national media was based in the North, covering civil rights in the North as a local story, while civil rights in the South was a national story—resisting using similar words to describe similar situations in the North as the South. In the South, the media portrayed school segregation as a problem of racism but tended to both not use the word segregation when describing schools in the North and to frame the story as a result of housing choice, as if housing segregation was not also a systemic reality. While media coverage was essential to the civil rights gains in the South, the lack of nationalized media coverage in northern civil rights protests also contributed to the lack of progress. The northern media was also much more favorable toward government officials and white counter-protestors in northern cities than against southerners, even when many of the issues were very similar.

The fifth chapter is about how we tend to forget that the civil rights movement was not solely about race. It was also about economic justice, criminal justice reform, and global justice issues. The Montgomery bus boycott was not just about riders; it was also about the refusal of the bus company to hire black workers. The 1963 March on Washington was officially titled the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Martin Luther King Jr’s popularity was never high, but it moved significantly lower when he argued that the Vietnam War was unjust. The US State Department and intelligence agencies worked to hinder international cooperation between the civil rights and peace movements in the US and other peace and justice movements worldwide.

Chapters six and seven discuss the “Great Man View of History” and how youth and women were significant to the civil rights movement. These chapters also touch on how many think of the modern youth-oriented BLM and anti-police brutality movement differently from the historic youth-oriented restaurant and transportation protests. (The quote from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed suggesting that MLK never shut down a highway is shockingly historically ignorant.) SNCC leadership was very young. John Lewis was the head of SNCC from the ages of 23 to 26. And he was replaced by Kwame Ture (Stokley Carmichael), who was 25, and then H Rap Brown, who was also 25. The historic Civil Rights movement was dependent upon women as organizers. Still, the leadership as a whole, partly because it was oriented around clergy, was almost entirely male and tended towards overt sexism. The March on Washington only included male speakers. And only allowed men to come to the White House after the march. Post-1963, women were more resistant to sexist leadership. They took more visible roles in civil rights organizations, but stories still focus on the movement’s few “great men” and ignore how many local actors were required for a mass movement.

Chapters eight and nine are about the ways that systems work. Government systems, political officials, the FBI, and the police mattered to keeping segregation and oppression in place. Lyndon Johnson may have signed many of the most important Civil Rights bills, but he also used the FBI to subvert the civil rights movement in ways that were very much illegal by law at the time. He also used the FBI as a political source of information for his 1964 campaign and to discredit political opponents. Many of the rumors that the FBI planted in the media are still believed. The modern civil rights movement systems, a decentralized and largely leaderless movement, are lessons learned from the historic civil rights movement. There are weaknesses to a decentralized movement, but also strengths.

There are weaknesses to A More Beautiful and Terrible History. It probably relies on educational desegregation a bit too much. But like her frequent references to Rosa Parks and MLK, the history that people know influences historical memory. And so, in trying to reframe a historical story, it is necessary to reference the parts that people know best. It is harder to reframe a reasonably well-known “hero story” like the civil rights movement than to tell a relatively unknown story. To reframe a story, you must show why the traditional story is inadequate or inaccurate and then build the case for the new framing. That is a slow and necessarily repetitive process. But this type of reframing is essential, and I highly recommend A More Beautiful and Terrible History.

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