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How History Whitewashed The Civil Rights Movement: The Fight For Equality is Messy

How History Whitewashed The Civil Rights Movement: The Fight For Equality is Messy

It’s been eight years since Trayvon Martin was killed. Eight years since Black Americans began to organize around the cause of police brutality and white vigilante justice. Too many Black people have been added to the list of the murdered since Martin’s death. In May alone we have the passing on Breonna Taylor, Amhaud Ambery, George Floyd and Tony McDade. These are names we are lucky to know, seeing that a lot of violence against Black people goes unnoticed. In fact Black people have been getting attacked so fast that I have to update this article in real time in order to stay up to date. It’s tiring. It is harrowing. It’s terrifying. Social media is full of exhausted people asking this country, “How much longer??”

The go-to measuring stick for Black Lives Matter is the Civil Rights Movement, though the organizers took inspiration from many movements. However, the Civil Rights Movement has a lot of similarities that are useful for comparison,  and one difference that detractors of BLM exploit; the Civil Rights Movement is a part of history. It’s essentially a story that can and has been laundered and polished to fit nicely into a respectable place in history, where all the violent opposition, detractions, in-fighting, and essential problems can be conveniently forgotten.

 I’m going to attempt to clear up some whitewashed misconceptions here, not to detract from the Civil Rights Movement but to remind the newcomers that revolution is fucking messy. It’s not always cute, polite and dressed in a nice suit. It’s sweaty, bloody, young, working-class and marginalized. It comes from the bottom up, from the abused and forgotten. Angela Davis exemplified this in her recent interview with Girl Trek when she said; “The Black women whose names we do not know are the ones who have gotten us here today. Black women organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. We are here as a direct consequence of poor Black women.”

 Misconception: The Fight for Civil Rights Didn’t Take Very Long didn’t take this long.

 The truth: If you ask Google the official Civil Rights Movement lasted for 14 years, from the time of Emmett Till’s trial in 1955 to the signing of the Civil Rights act in 1964. But if you look at the events that we often correlate with the movement, like Brown vs. Board of Education, that timeline stretches out to twenty years and further. Major moments would sometimes be separated by weeks, sometimes months, and sometimes years. Just like Black Lives Matter it would ebb and flow, with peak moments and quieter times.

Misconception: The Civil Rights Movement was nonviolent.

The truth: The Civil Rights Movement was met with quite a bit of violence. There are famous images of Black protestors being hit with high-pressure water hoses, being attacked by police dogs, and being beaten and stomped by police officers. Not only that, but the movement strategically courted violence. Its leaders understood that creating a spectacle got attention and were willing to utilize this, even though it was not preferred.

In May of 1963, after four young girls were killed in the church bombing, civil rights leaders organized what became known as the Children’s Crusade.  Organizers counted on the Birmingham police force to react with the same violence as they had been with adult protesters. They were not disappointed. For two days the Birmingham police force attacked these kids with dogs and hoses and filled the jails with them. King referred to this demonstration as “one of the wisest moves we’ve ever made”.  The resulting imagery helped to change the reception of civil rights coverage in the press. While White America could ignore adults being abused by police and even four innocent girls being killed, pictures of tiny children trying to dodge police batons was hard to take no notice of.  It was, however, controversial. Even Malcolm X lent his criticisms, saying “real men don’t put their children on the firing line”.

In fact King and the Civil Rights Movement were so synonymous with violence and chaos that even the FBI labeled King a demagogue. Open letters to him urged him to stop the violence and attempt a more civilized approach. Even other Black groups fell into this anxiety, with the NAACP only offering their endorsement if the marchers were in and out of town in a matter of hours. During King’s “I Have A Dream” speech troops were standing nearby to control the crowd if it became necessary. It did not.

There are many heinous violences that we consider a normal part of our society; sexism, racism, elitism, nationalism, ageism, and the list goes on and on. The effects of these structural violences are deadly. People die because they don’t have access to decent healthcare, good education, and safe places to live. People die because other people are threatened by their sexuality or gender expression. People die because they aren’t getting paid enough wages to meet their basic needs. People die because the color of their skin marks them as disposable. Combined these violences are responsible for millions of deaths, up to 10 or 20 million according to some experts. We as a society are so accostumed to this onslaught that these deaths are not usually sensational. They don’t usually get much notice, even though they are mostly preventable.

Although scholars and activists have been calling attention to this problem for decades now, the problem has been getting worse. The wealth gap gets larger and larger, with the top 5% of family getting richer faster and faster. All the while the rest of us are seeing cuts to our healthcare, lowered wages, defunding of schools, and defunding of important social programs. The symbols the prosperity that grow ever more untouchable stand at the center of neighborhoods of the very people they exploit. Stores full of things that their own employees cannot afford to buy. Companies that discriminate against you and your family. Corporations that slash wages and benefits to the bone, and crush anyone who speaks out against it. Shrines to capitalism that stand in the neighborhood, but that aren’t a part of the community. Aliens. Intruders that threaten to suck the whole world dry. For us, the people who the world has tuned out for decades, looting is power. Looting is a rejection of the racist, capitalist invasion that turns the poor into products. While it’s definitely destructive and potentially self-defeating, we cannot condemn looting or rioting without first condemning the injustices that invited these circumstances to begin with.

Misconception: Victims of White Supremacy were clearly victims.

The truth: Media during the Civil Rights movement engaged in the same smear campaigns against Black victims that it does today.  Emmett Till was only 14 when he was tortured and killed by (name his killers). At his funeral, his face and body were so mangled that it shocked the nation and the images became a firebrand for the Civil Rights movement. During his killers’ trial, white witnesses accused him of being aggressively flirtatious, cursing, and grabbing Carolyn. His alleged victim lied about their interaction, which she finally admitted in an interview.

After his trial, rumors began to leak about Till’s father Louis Till, who died when Emmett was four and served in the army years before then. Though Mamie was told by the army that he was killed because of “willful misconduct”, Louis Till was executed by the army for the rape and murder of an Italian woman. This became fodder for white discourse around the case, even though it certainly had no bearing on whether Till deserved to die so horribly.

 This is a pattern with Black murder victims who die at the hands of so-called “honorable” White men. We saw this with Trayvon Martin, where media used his school disciplinary record and the fact that he had trace amounts of weed in his system to portray his death as less tragic. We saw this with Mike Brown, who the New York Times declared “no angel” even though he was the one who was killed by police. And we’ve seen this with George Floyd, when AVN attempted to further sensationalize his death by announcing his connection to the porn industry. Fortunately those efforts were thwarted with so much force that AVN issued an apology soon after. This is a welcome departure from the way Black victims are usually treated, but it can’t be overstated that believing that Black victims deserve their demise is as American as apple pie. Or baseball. Or racism.

Misconception: The Civil Rights movement always made moves that advanced its cause.

 The truth: There were many demonstrations done in the name of Civil Rights, not all of them professionally organized by the offices of Dr. King. The protests that were organized by leaders were highly effective, but at the time the public didn’t think so. White people generally thought that protesting and violence hurt the Civil Rights cause, and that they would never achieve what they were fighting for. According to them, Black people protesting demonstrated that they were not ready for rights, and that they were uncivil. Those who opposed Jim Crow and segregation and considered themselves on the side of the protesters advocated for demonstrations that were less disruptive. Even the students who participated in nonviolent sit-ins were admonished to act less provocatively, even though they didn’t retaliate when angry restaurant visitors aggressed them.

Misconception: The Civil Rights movement was made up of respectable people in suits.

The truth: If by respectable you mean over 30, you would be wrong; the Civil Rights movement was made up of mostly young people, with King himself being only 26 when he was appointed president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, a group formed for the purposes of coordinating protest efforts.  Claudette Colvin, the young girl who inspired the movement’s first demonstration, was only 15 when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white woman. In general, most of the pictures you see of the Civil Rights Movement where men in suits were literally centered, is not representative of the truth; most demonstrators were working class and at least half of them were female. Sometimes civil rights leaders purposely manipulated the optics in order to appeal to white America and more upper class Black people. Other times, good old classism, sexism, and homophobia prevailed.  Yes, even Civil Rights leaders were wildly imperfect.

 Misconception: The Civil Rights movement was always on one accord.

 The truth: While demonstrations kept the same goals of integration and equality in mind, there was disagreement over the methods. The Black Power movement that produced notable figures like Malcolm X was a result of such a disagreement. Many people believed that King’s methods weren’t efficient or moving fast enough.  They also argued that focusing on integration ignored systemic racial oppression and the powerlessness it created in the Black community.  “By any means necessary” became the credo of this new group. Within the Civil Rights movement there were also clashes. Although men were often placed at the forefront to the public eye, the Civil Rights Movement simply would not have happened without Black women. Women were not just present; they were the lifeblood and backbone, and most often the organizational leaders of demonstrations.  Despite this their efforts were often co-opted by men in the movement, while issues that were specific to them were dismissed. Activists Pauli Murray and Anna Arnold Hedgeman dubbed this tendency “Jane Crow” and criticized these sexist dealings. Frustrations like these led to the forming of the Black Feminist Movement.  Leaders hoped that by focusing on the concerns of Black women, everyone would enjoy liberation. Since the Black woman inhabited at least three intersections of marginalization, poor people, all women, and all Black people would benefit from their victories.

No group embodied this more than the Combahee River Collective. This was a group of queer and trans women who just like heterosexual Black women, believed that their issues were being ignored while they withstood abuse from their very own. Under the leadership of Barbara Smith they decided to define their own politics. The statement they wrote details the sentiments of total liberation, where they argued that  “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free, since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.” The statement they wrote famously became the basis of modern Intersectional Feminism.

Misconception: Everybody believed in the Civil Rights Movement

The truth: This actually wasn’t true for Black or White people, though the percentages vary greatly. With White people the opinions were fairly mixed. White people believed that the Civil Rights movement would fail to accomplish any of the change it wanted and would eventually fizzle out. They believed the extreme measures King took would end the movement. For the most part, they didn’t believe that racial inequality was a major issue facing Black people or the nation, disapproved of the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement, and were generally very uncomfortable with protests.  Surprisingly 30% of Black people agreed with them according to a poll conducted by Newsweek.  The assassination of King helped to change public opinion and sway it in the direction of demonstrators, with 69% of Americans agreeing that nonviolent demonstrations were indeed a useful tool for effecting change.

 Misconception: Change came quickly for the Civil Rights Movement

The truth: No. Even after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act it took a long time for White America to accept desegregation. In the months leading up to the signing public opinion was mixed, with many White Americans viewing the bill with suspicion.  States put forth enormous effort to maintain segregation and deny Black people the rights they had just won. Black people who ate at newly integrated restaurants were met with angry mobs, no chairs, or extra-expensive prices.  Black families who moved into White neighborhoods would wake up to burning crosses on their lawns, or worse. Many pools and hotels suddenly became “private” so that they could continue to service Whites only. Cities mostly sided with the White majority, saying that it was up to each individual whether they wanted to integrate. According to polls, most Americans didn’t necessarily oppose integration, but they wanted it to happen slower. Many efforts were employed to ensure this, and many Black Americans didn’t get to enjoy full racial integration until years after the Civil Rights Act was signed. It wasn’t until nearly an entire generation later that at least half of White Americans began to believe that the effects of the movement were real and significant.

 The Civil Rights Movement was fought and won not by its leaders, but by the people that put themselves on the line for the cause. The vast majority of them were young, just like Black Lives Matter. They were poor and they were marginalized. Many of the peaceful protests ended in complete violence agitated by police, just like social media videos are revealing about recent protests. And the movement was viewed with extreme skepticism by the rest of America, just like Black Lives Matter is today.

 Black protest has never been welcome in this country. Agitators of the status quo will always be a threat, and people will come up with all manner of reasoning in order to discredit them. It’s a tale as old as time. However if we critically examine the Civil Rights Movement, an uphill battle fought by our fore parents for the better part of twenty years, we can better gauge our own journey. We can look back at the intense criticism they faced, the ways they risked and even lost their lives, and marvel at what they were able to accomplish in the face of such adversity.

The fight promises to be long but there is hope; if we are still fighting the battle then that means that we can still win it. This is going to take some of our lives, but ensure better lives for future generations. This is going to be hard, but not impossible. And this is going to take a long time, but it will not forever.