Remembering Civil Rights ‘Rightly’

Too often stories of the struggle for racial equality tell of a neat journey. But it was much more.

Mourners at the funeral for victims of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (Burton McNeely/Getty Images)

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Remembering death and destruction has a way of pulling back the curtain — of forcing us, if we are honest with ourselves, to step outside of the Wizard of Oz-like illusions that make us comfortable.

A Full Story Not Told

For instance, the 1963 March on Washington, a beautiful testament to the manner in which the civil rights movement had transformed the nation, was not a perfect political moment. Faded into the background were the women who had been the primary organizers for the march; Bayard Rustin, a gay man who had been its principal architect; and the labor organizing tradition out of which A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the March on Washington movement, had emerged.

Invisible to most were local activists, many of whom were not in attendance. They were in the bowels of the South engaged in the steady and slow work at the local level of building capacity, resources and leadership to wage battles against Jim Crow in rural areas. Viewers did not see Septima Clark or Esau Jenkins, who created Citizenship Schools across the South that connected freedom fighting to education and civic engagement.

But in many ways we forget how to tell our stories correctly. Indeed, the march in all its glory did not tell the full story. And in that failure it is too easy to misapprehend what the movement meant and what it actually achieved. The shining moment cannot tell the full story if it hides both the hard work and the collective devastation. It can too easily become a corporate brand for a domesticated form of politics.

The 50th anniversary of the march was exactly that. Behind the curtain of the celebration was a complex interplay of media, capital and Capitol Hill. Corporate sponsors spoke. Democratic politicians aligned the march with their political hopes and legislative agendas. And three democratic presidents gave voice to their sense of the aims and purposes and overall significance of the march for the nation. Irony abounds.

MSNBC brilliantly integrated its liberal brand with the commemoration of the march. At one point, MSNBC commentators declared that their fellow employee, the Rev. Al Sharpton (who also orchestrated the Aug. 24 events through his organization, the National Action Network) was now “the preeminent leader of black America” — that he emerged from the march as “peerless.” Whatever debate might exist about the veracity of this claim, it is clear we aren’t discussing a freedom-movement model of organizing.

When we fixate on who is King’s heir, often the measure is scope and size of leadership. Name recognition and platforms become proxies for prophetic advocacy. Nothing else. That sad fact diminishes the story of both the movement and of Dr. King himself.

In fact, in the waning years of his life King consistently challenged his own stature by telling inconvenient truths about war, imperialism and poverty that lost him many friends. The measure of a leader in the tradition of King cannot be status any more than the measure of the movement can be a charismatic leader.