Why I grew tired of hearing about the civil rights movement
I hated singing "We Shall Overcome"
Three myths damage the movement's appeal
Why some whites don't want to talk about the movement
Here’s a dirty little secret about the civil rights movement:
A lot of Americans just don’t want to hear about it anymore.
They find the subject dull or it makes them angry. Some African-Americans don’t want to hear stories about their parents getting hit upside the head while singing “We Shall Overcome.” And some whites don’t want to feel guilty.
The result? We treat the movement like broccoli: It’s good for us, we’re told, but we shove it aside on our plates when no one is looking.
I know. What I’ve just said is blasphemous. But I say it not out of scorn, but concern. I was once a civil rights apostate who sneaked out of rooms early to avoid holding hands and mumbling along to “We Shall Overcome.” Then I experienced a conversion. I eventually wrote a book about the movement, and spent years talking about the subject to interracial groups.
I was reminded of my conversion when I heard that a new civil rights museum was opening in Atlanta on June 23, and that this month activists would commemorate the 50th anniversary of a dramatic civil rights campaign called Mississippi Freedom Summer. I wish them well. I’ve learned through experience, though, that civil rights museums and commemorations have a tough task. During the years that I spoke publicly about civil rights, I encountered three myths that do more damage to the movement than “for white only” signs ever did.
No. 1: It was a black thang
I didn’t go to a historically black college. I went to a hysterically black school. I attended Howard University in Washington, where the struggle of black America was drilled into students’ heads. When I was on campus, I used to see students wearing T-shirts that unwittingly reflected a huge myth about the movement. The T-shirts read:
“It’s a black thang – you wouldn’t understand.”
A quick word association test. When you hear the words civil rights, what kind of faces do you see? Only black? As I talked to various groups about the movement, I gradually realized that it was primarily seen as a black struggle instead of an American movement that helped all sorts of people.
It was a simplistic perception of the movement that someone on National Public Radio recently described this way:
“Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.”
It took me awhile to realize that white people were actually part of the movement, not just as racists or rescuers.
White labor unions helped pay for and organize the 1963 March on Washington. White federal judges in the South risked public contempt to deliver crucial decisions on behalf of the movement. Ordinary white citizens like Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife, and Andrew Goodman, a Jewish man from New York, died alongside black activists.
I saw how durable the bonds were between white and black activists when I covered a Mississippi Freedom Summer reunion years ago. I was stunned to see so many white activists hugging their black colleagues like long-lost brothers and sisters. And, in a way, they were brothers and sisters.
The movement represented one of those few moments in U.S. history where many whites and blacks were able to come together as Americans and not clash as racial antagonists.
The Rev. James Zwerg, a white man who was savagely beaten with black activists during the Freedom Rides, once told me that he never experienced anywhere else in his life the bond he felt with other Freedom Riders.
“When I heard King say in his last utterance, ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen the promised land,’ I know those of us who were in the movement can say we were there, too,” Zwerg told me.
People like Zwerg were giving us a sneak preview of a post-racial America before the term was even invented. But how many people know about him today?
As long as we reduce the movement to a “black thang,” that T-shirt will be right: People will never understand.
No. 2: We can talk openly about race now
I was talking to a pastor who was a member of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle one morning when he asked me, “Do you want to know how I define integration?”
He said that integration was a solitary black person sitting inside a school cafeteria filled with white people constantly coming up to his table to tell them that they don’t hate black people “when all he wants to do is eat his damn lunch.”
He grinned, and my jaw dropped, but I got it.
Ever watch a black person and a white person talk about a delicate racial issue? It’s like watching a bull circle a matador; there’s so much tension.
I feel that tension at work. I’m surrounded by journalists who are encouraged to embrace controversial issues. But when I talk to some of my white colleagues about race, I can practically see word bubbles forming over their heads: “Now if I say something bad about Obama, is he going to say I’m a racist? If I tell him I had a black girlfriend in college, is he going to report me to human resources?”
I don’t blame them. Say something foolish, and you can be labeled a racist. Best to avoid the subject altogether. Perhaps that is why, during my book talks, I occasionally ran into white people who would invariably say, “Why do we have to always talk about race? Can’t we just be Americans?”
Some whites have felt so bruised by the perception that they are racists that an increasing number now say that whites have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination, according to a 2011 study conducted by Harvard and Tufts universities.
“Whites have now come to view anti-white bias as a bigger societal problem than anti-black bias,” the authors, Michael I. Norton and Samuel R. Sommers, said in their study,
I’ve even witnessed this discomfort over race in my own family.
I am the son of an interracial couple. When my father courted my Irish Catholic mother in the 1960s, interracial marriage was illegal. Her father called the police on my father, telling them he didn’t want a “nigger” visiting his daughter.
My mother’s family disowned her after she gave birth to me and my brother. My father’s family took my mother in, and I never heard from any of my mother’s relatives until her sister contacted me out of the blue one day when I was 18.
She asked for a meeting. It was awkward but I eventually grew to like and respect my aunt. As the years rolled by, we exchanged letters and photos, and she told me how proud she was of me and my brother.
But then one day I asked her a question over the phone that had long been on my mind:
“Why didn’t you contact us earlier?” I asked. “Did it have anything to do with race?”
There was a brief silence before my aunt finally answered. She said her family’s refusal to get in touch with us when we were kids had nothing to do with race.
“It was because you weren’t Catholic,” she said.
I dropped the matter. I haven’t talked about race with my aunt since. She just can’t go there – it’s too uncomfortable.
Could the same be said for other white Americans? I wonder if all of us are so uncomfortable talking about race that we’ve tacitly agreed to talk about the movement in a certain scripted way: Stick to the “I Have a Dream” speech, sprinkle in a little Rosa Parks. But stay away from the rest.
We may avoid the uncomfortable conversations when we stick to that script, but it makes the rest of the civil rights story boring.
No. 3: It belongs to the past
I remember the night I read an article that sparked my civil rights conversion.
I was a college junior who thought King was dull. I changed the channel whenever I saw the old black-and-white footage of dogs attacking civil rights demonstrators on TV.
Then I read a sentence about King that jarred all the civil rights clichés lodged in my head.
The author was Roger Wilkins, a former civil rights leader who worked in President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. He was writing a review of a new book entitled “Testament of Hope,” which contained King’s major essays and speeches.
Wilkins described a King who was more like a Malcolm X: a restless thinker whose vision became even more daring as he became more isolated in the last years of his life. King wasn’t afraid to evolve. He talked about poverty and war when critics said these had nothing to do with civil rights, Wilkins said.
“He was a man who couldn’t abide the status quo – even in his own mind,” Wilkins wrote.
I bought “Testament of Hope,” and I quickly realized that I had only seen the movement in the past tense. But many of the issues that King and his followers grappled with are ones we still face today.
How many people know that the last campaign King planned was designed to fight income inequality and would utilize tactics later used by Occupy Wall Street?
For the “Poor People’s Campaign,” King planned to bring an interracial army of poor whites, Latinos, Native Americans and blacks to Washington to occupy the heart of the city and force leaders to do more for the growing number of poor.
Thomas Piketty, a French economist, is the author of a current mega-popular book called “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” He argues that economic inequality is wired into the machinery of capitalism.
King was making similar arguments in 1967 when he delivered a speech declaring that “the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.”
“Why are there 40 million poor people in America?” King said. “And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you began to question the capitalistic economy.”
It’s good to commemorate the movement, but anytime you encase a historical event in a museum, it implies that the movement is an artifact, like a T-Rex. I discovered that young people’s eyes light up when you show them how the movement was bigger than separate drinking fountains.
That’s why I was impressed when I took a preview tour of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the new museum in Atlanta. I was struck by how relevant the curators made the movement seem today. They tied it to human rights struggles all over the planet: the movement to abolish child labor, the Arab Spring uprising, the campaign to stop the rape of women in the Congo.
At the end of my tour, I saw a handwritten manuscript of King’s 1967 speech opposing the Vietnam War. King was roundly criticized by black and white leaders for the speech, but I noticed that he was apparently prepared. In the margins of his speech, King wrote in his sloping cursive:
“I refuse to play it safe.”
Neither should we when we talk about the movement.
If you want to talk to me about the broccoli version of the movement – superhuman leaders giving great speeches about issues that don’t upset anyone because they belong to a bygone era – well, I’m tired of hearing about that civil rights movement.
But tell me a story about a movement that matters to me today, and I’ll be ready to listen.
John Blake is the author of “Children of the Movement.”