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Making Civil Rights Harder: Literature, Memory, and the Black Freedom Struggle

From: The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 40, Number 2, Spring 2008
pp. 138-150 | 10.1353/slj.0.0000

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In a March 2005 essay in The Journal of American History entitled "The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past," Jacquelyn Dowd Hall notes how "[t]he civil rights movement circulates through American memory in forms and through channels that are at once powerful, dangerous, and hotly contested" (1233). For the most part, this circulation has resulted in a "dominant narrative of the civil rights movement [that]—distilled from history and memory, twisted by ideology and political contestation . . . distorts and suppresses as much as it reveals" (1233). With Martin Luther King as its "defining figure," this dominant narrative "chronicles a short civil rights movement" that begins with Brown v. Board and ends with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Following this "season of moral clarity" comes the collapse brought on by the "Vietnam War, urban riots, and reaction against the excesses of the late 1960s and the 1970s" (1234). According to Hall, this narrative "simultaneously elevates and diminishes the movement," for while it "ensures that status of the classical phase [of the civil rights movement] as a triumphal moment in a larger American progress narrative," it also prevents "one of the most remarkable mass movements in American history from speaking effectively to the challenges of our time" (1234). Instead, Hall proposes that we tell a "more expansive . . . more robust, more progressive, and truer story"—the story of a " 'long civil rights movement' that took root in the liberal and radical milieu of the late 1930s, was intimately tied to the 'rise and fall of the New Deal Order,' accelerated during World War II, stretched far beyond the South, was continuously and ferociously contested, and in the 1960s and 1970s inspired a 'movement of movements' that 'defies any narrative of collapse' " (1235).1 In the end, Hall wants "to make civil rights harder. Harder to celebrate as a natural progression of American values. Harder to cast as a satisfying morality tale. Most of all, harder to simplify, appropriate, and contain" (1235).

In her essay, Hall joins a chorus of historiographers who are "making civil rights harder" by compelling us to take a closer look at how we are framing the story of the movement. For instance, in their critiques of movement histories, Steven Lawson and Charles Payne have focused on the vertical dynamics of that framing, noting how civil rights scholarship has passed through three generations, the first wave taking a top-down or national focus, the second wave a bottom-up or grassroots perspective, and the third wave an interactive dimension that is trying to "connect the local with the national, the social with the political" (qtd. in Payne 414). Hall's critique is more horizontal, asking us to dismantle the Montgomery-to-Selma axis in favor of a more expansive timeline. Here, Hall echoes Peniel E. Joseph's call to construct "an alternative civil rights narrative" to challenge the "popular and historical narratives [that] have conceptualized this era literally and figuratively as the 'King years' " (7). Joseph agrees that this standardized "historical and political narrative of 'the movement' obscures and effaces as much as it reveals and illuminates," (7) but whereas Hall wants to dismantle the "King years" in order to resituate the single "short movement" into a larger narrative of multiple liberal and radical movements, Joseph wants to relocate "the black political radicalism that has been chronologically situated during the late 1960s [into] an earlier political landscape dominated by the Southern movement's struggles against Jim Crow," thereby "underscoring the fluidity of two historical time periods too often characterized as mutually exclusive" (7). Joseph too wants to make civil rights history harder—first, by noting how "the heroic period of the movement has been strategically appropriated by the state to deliver sanitized images that extol the resilience of democratic liberalism," and, second, by insisting that historians fight against the false dichotomy between King's movement and Black Power, a dichotomy that reduces "the rich and multilayered ideological tendencies within African-American political discourse to a series of clichés and false binaries that completely ignore the international dimensions of black political thought" (7–8).

For those familiar with the larger historiographical...