The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory — A Review

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Without education, you’re not going anywhere in this world.” — Malcolm X

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” — Nelson Mandela

Romano, Renee C. and Leigh Raiford, Eds. The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2006.

The Civil Rights Movement is a very important part of American history. This was a brief period when a group of people, tired of the treatment that they had been faced with for hundreds of years, stood up and made it clear that they were no longer going to endure it. People like Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Dr. Huey P. Newton are remembered for their contributions to the Movement, whether or not those contributions are publicly perceived as good or bad. Events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Birmingham Church Bombing, and the Black Panther’s conflicts with the police are also remembered for the effects that they had on the Movement and society, whether they were also perceived to be good or bad. In The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory, how such people and events are remembered is the center of the discussion. Though the Editors, Renee C. Romano and Leigh Raiford, limit the scope of the Civil Rights Movement, in that they start with the actions of the 1950s, as opposed to the beginning of slavery, as I have advocated, they do carry it beyond the end of the “Traditional” Movement, and further advocate, as I do, that the Civil Rights Movement is still in progress.

The book is divided into four sections, Institutionalizing Memory, Visualizing Memory, Diverging Memory, and Deploying Memory. The first section explores the ways in which the historical memory of the Movement has been translated into public memory in sites such as museums, memorials, and courtrooms. The second section examines how the Civil Rights Movement has been represented in the mass media. The third section examines the role of gender in the Civil Rights Movement, and the fourth section examines how groups since the end of the “Traditional” Movement have attempted, successfully or unsuccessfully, to connect themselves to the spirit of the Movement.

The two essays in the first section that did the best job of showing how the Civil Rights Movement has been remembered by the public are “The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the New Ideology of Tolerance,” by Glenn Eskew and “Street Names as Memorial Arenas: The Reputational Politics of Commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. in a Georgia County,” by Derek H. Alderman. In his article, Eskew followed the process by which the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute came into being. He examined how it was possible for such a museum to go up in a city and state that had been known for ofttimes violent reprisals against civil rights activists. The city had seen the bombing of a local church and the release of attack dogs onto peaceful protesters. Both whites and African Americans were involved in the project, to include Governor George Wallace, a once virulent enemy of the Civil Rights Movement. He now saw the economic potential of such an institution, and along with others, saw how such an institution could serve to repair both Birmingham’s and Alabama’s tarnished image. One must admit, however, that as noble as this cause may be, and it is, Alabama is going to have to a lot more than help fund a museum, which amounts to an “our bad” payment, if they want this country and the rest of the world, for that matter, to adjust their opinion of the state.

In his essay, Alderman told the story of attempts by local organizations in Bulloch County, Georgia to name a freeway after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he explained that this showed how the Civil Rights Movement is remembered by the public. The debate was over whether to name the freeway for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or for local veterans. Alderman pointed to three issues in the debate, these being legitimacy, resonance, and hybridity. Who was more important to the people of Bulloch County, veterans or Dr. King? Who was more relevant to the people of Bulloch County? Who were the people of the county more likely to relate to. The veterans won the initial debate. The real conflict that came out in this debate, however, was the draw faced by African American veterans. What meant more to them, King or their veteran status? The real issue at stake here, whether the author would admit it or not, was not between honoring veterans or honoring Dr. King. It was with whites, who were using honoring veterans as a block because they did not want to honor an African American along the main drag of a major highway in their state.

In the second section, the essay that best described how the Civil Rights Movement has been used by the mass media is “Restaging Revolution: Black Power, Vibe Magazine, and Photographic Memory,” by Leigh Raiford. In this essay, Raiford compared the narratives of the Civil Rights Movement, and struggle of the Black Panthers through photography. She explored how images of the Civil Rights Movement were used by the media, and compared them to the Black Liberation Movement and other anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s. She then also showed how images produced by both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Liberation Movement have produced consumable memories. She used the movies that involved the character Foxy Brown to show how Black Liberation has been both used to make money and how the movies have been used to turn the narrative of Black Liberation from one of liberation to one of vengeance. She also pointed to the use of Black Panther images in Vibe Magazine by musicians and others seeking to present certain commercialized images of themselves. She discussed in detail how the rapper Nas portrayed himself as Dr. Huey P. Newton. She called this Blaxploitation.

In the third section, the essay that best examined the role of gender in the Civil Rights Movement was “Engendering Movement Memories: Remembering Race and Gender in the Mississippi Movement,” by Steve Estes. In his essay, Estes examined the ways in which Movement activists shaped their own accounts of the Civil Rights Movement as the dominant historical memory and historiography of the Movement changed. He pointed to how white women’s accounts of sexism in SNCC were altered later, as they came to feel that such accounts might take away from the focus of the Movement as a fight for racial equality. He also examined the reality that African American women had more opportunity in the Movement than did white women. This, however, was only because they had already been accustomed to playing such roles in Mississippi, as a result of the nature of race relations in the state, whereas, the white women in the Movement were accustomed to the lesser role afforded them in the sphere of their artificial family structure.

In the fourth section of the book, two essays stood out as examples of how groups, since the end of the Traditional Civil Rights Movement, have attempted to connect themselves to the spirit of the Movement. “Deaf Rights, Civil Rights: The Gallaudet “Deaf President Now” Strike and Historical Memory of the Civil Rights Movement,” by R.A.R. Edwards is an example of how a group successfully related itself to the Civil Rights Movement. “Riding in the Back of the Bus: The Christian Right’s Adoption of Civil Rights Movement Rhetoric,” by David John Marley is an example of how a group tried but failed to relate itself to the Civil Rights Movement. In his essay, Edwards followed the story of the Gallaudet University “Deaf President Now” Strike, and pointed out that the students were successful because they were able to mold a new image of themselves as an oppressed minority rather than a set of individuals with a medical problem. He also pointed out how their success led other disabled groups to pick up similar rhetoric in their successful push to get the Americans with Disabilities Act passed. Edwards also argued that, while deafness is now curable to some degree, this association with the Civil Rights Movement was more appropriate than creating an isolated ‘Deaf Culture.’ The overall struggle to pass the ADA was part of the continuing Civil Rights Movement that both I, and the Editors of this text, argue is still in progress.

In his essay, Marley discussed the manner in which groups classified as the ‘Christian Right’ have attempted, unsuccessfully, to take up the mantle of the Civil Rights Movement. He mentioned Pat Robertson’s comparison of Christians to African Americans forced to sit at the back of the bus. He also showed how organizations like Operation Rescue, led by Randall Terry, used tactics derived from the Civil Rights Movement to protest issues like abortion. Protesters stood outside abortion clinics and held up signs. He also talked about the battle over prayer in school. Students across the nation walked out of school to pray at their campus’ flag pole. The events were called ‘Meet You at the Pole.’ The failure of such movements stems from the power politics that people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, a former presidential candidate, tried to play in and failed. Furthermore, people like Jerry Falwell, who had directly opposed the Civil Rights Movement, were attempting to claim its legacy. People did not buy into this or the idea that they were an oppressed minority, an idea espoused by people like Pat Robertson. People must have found it absolutely hilarious when people like Terry, Falwell, Robertson, and others, claimed to part of an oppressed minority. These three men alone were were worth tens of millions of dollars. There was nothing at all oppressed about the lives they were living. They lived in huge houses, drove fancy cars, ran mega churches, and traveled the globe. The real oppressed minority in their cases were the little old ladies whose bank accounts they were cleaning out and the contractors that they were regularly shorting on new construction deals.

What do the essays in this book show, collectively? First, they show that the Civil Rights Movement has not been forgotten. Many of the people that lived the events are still alive, helping to develop the image of the Movement, and passing that image on to the next generation. They also show that the American people have taken to a more collective view of the Civil Rights Movement, in that the Movement is no longer viewed by people as the sole possession of a single race. Deaf people, LGBT people, Women, Chicanos, Asians, and even Christians have attempted, some successfully and some unsuccessfully, to use the ideals of the Movement to further their own interests in this country. One can also draw from the book the idea that the Civil Rights Movement is something that should not be considered over. The idea garnered from this collection of essays is that the struggle for civil rights is a never ending one. So, the question now is, how can one show that the Civil Rights Movement is still going. In my piece, The Civil Rights Movement as the “American Liberation Struggle”, I show how the LGBTQ movement has been able to latch on to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, which I refer to as the “American Liberation Struggle.” What I show also, however, is that the struggle for civil rights in the African American community is far from over, itself. African Americans are more likely to be pulled over by the police. African Americans are more likely to be assaulted by the police. African Americans are more to be shot, and likely killed, by the police. African Americans get stiffer sentences for lesser crimes, and the list could go on. Not to leave the rest of Americans out, they too are experiencing increased harassment at the hands of an increasingly violent police state. People need to realize now, just as Dr. King did in 1968, right before he was assassinated that this is not a race war. What is going on is a class war, and race it but one of many tools used by our disgustingly rich oppressors to divide us. We need unity not division. Too many people have not woken up this reality; though, and thus, the American Liberation Struggle continues.