America and Civil Rights Historiography

In the US, there is a selective amnesia about the American Civil Rights Movement (CRM), one of the key events in the past century. While the profound moral shift in society is unquestioned even by the right, there are key problems with using this form of understanding of this historic movement. What the hell, USA?

One of the first problems about discussion of the CRM is that there are key figures excluded from discussion. While everyone is familiar with Malcolm X and Martin King Jr, few might have heard of Bayard Rustin, the initial proponent of nonviolent resistance. While King may have cited Indian activist, Mahatma Ghandi as an influence, in the moment, it was Rustin who convinced King to pursue a more moderate position on civil disobedience. Despite his moderation, Rustin was disowned by the CRM for his homosexuality and support for the Social Democrats (SDUSA). Along with Rustin in damnatio memoriae, is Asa Randolph (A. Philip Randolph), an organizer for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a leader in the midcentury labor movement. He led the March on Washington with King and other CRM leaders. However, unlike Rustin, he has more memorials in his name. Another name is the first mother of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Claudette Colvin. She was shunned by the CRM because her age as a teenager, the activists thought, would discredit the respectability of the nascent social movement.

Then there is the problem with the historical timeline of the movement. While many praise the early CRM, by the later half of the CRM, issues outside of racial discrimination were coming to the front, including opposition to the Vietnam War and labor rights. The Poor People’s Campaign was organized because there was a recognition that the issues of race had hit a barrier without resolutions to class. Several prominent African Americans spoke out, including Col. William L. Harvey who questioned the role of black soldiers in a “white man’s war”. That’s not including the famous remark by the boxer Muhammed Ali, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”

Then, there is the most fundamental problem: the depiction of King himself. Despite his status as the icon of the social movement, he was largely rejected by the leaders of the CRM by the end of his life. Despite President Barack Obama’s posturing, King would have vehemently opposed any form of war. It may seem hard to believe, but after King denounced the US as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world”, he was shunned by the CRM  and white “liberal” newspapers. President Lyndon Johnson infamously said of King, “What is that g-dd-ned n-r preacher doing to me? ” to describe King’s seeming “betrayal”. King was also not only concerned with racial discrimination, but also consistently opposed capitalism and wanted a “Grand Alliance” with White workers to oppose an unjust system.

King outlined the three greatest problems facing the US. In his own words:

“Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

These are still fundamental problems that must be tackled today, whether in the form of the prison-industrial complex or in the lack of basic rights for workers.

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