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  • Rescuing Civil Rights from Black Power:Collective Memory and Saving the State in Twenty-First-Century Prosecutions of 1960s-Era Cases
  • Dan Berger

History, I contend, is the present—we, with every breath we take, every move we make, are History—and what goes around, comes around.

—James Baldwin

Recent historical studies have shown that the movement for black power significantly predated its 1966 emergence as a slogan during a protest march in Mississippi. Scholarly texts and memoirs have excavated numerous projects to show that radical perspectives of black power—politically, culturally, strategically—defined the post–World War II period in multiple ways.1 This revisionist literature has already helped rewrite the standard narrative of the postwar period in at least two crucial ways: these monographs discuss the movement as always being a national phenomenon, rather than one distinctly southern and then discretely northern. The explicit articulation of "black power" in the late 1960s and early 1970s is thus presented as a more explicitly militant iteration of the black freedom struggle rather than as a deviation from the civil rights movement. Such a presentation further challenges the dichotomous view of civil rights as noble and nonviolent, black power as vicious and violent. [End Page 1] These contributions trace a constantly evolving movement targeting deeply entrenched structures of white supremacy in the politics, culture, economics, and values of the United States writ large. The manifestations of the black freedom struggle—its goals and strategies—shifted over time, and several of these studies have documented the nuances of these ebbs and flows. But this more fluid view of the black freedom struggle eschews rigid periodization in favor of an approach emphasizing change along a continuum of repression, imagination, and resistance.

This historical intervention comes at a critical time, as the civil rights movement becomes enshrined in U.S. popular memory through films, monuments, museums, street names, and cultural kitsch.2 Although memory is always a terrain of struggle, the current moment is a pivotal one in shaping how society perceives the history and impact of the black freedom struggle and postwar race relations at a time when participants in and out of authority positions join scholars and others in shaping the collective memory of a recent yet bygone period.

As an era still shaping U.S. policy and culture, the post-WWII movement for racial and economic justice is being debated in the academy as it is being memorialized and mobilized in daily life. That many veterans of the movement are still alive and active participants in these processes imbues both the history and memory of the time with excitement and urgency. This urgency now finds itself in court, with the legal apparatus constituting a vital mechanism of state efforts to shape collective memory through trials, incarceration, and the discourse these legal endeavors generate. These trials express struggles with and by the state over what attributes of that era will be officially embraced in this one. Several Sixties veterans, of both the Left and Right, now find themselves at the center of legal cases on thirty-plus year-old charges emanating from their activism at the time. These courtroom battles are particularly bringing the civil rights–black power movement(s) back into focus—and putting some key figures of that time, now in their 60s and 70s, in prison. Occurring simultaneously, these trials of white supremacists and black militants constitute a vital part of memorializing the period; these retroactive trials are the clearest state intervention in collective memory of the 1960s era. Various officials, from judges and state attorneys general up to Alberto Gonzalez and FBI head Robert Mueller, have said that these trials serve to punish long-ago crimes and right the wrongs of yesterday—the [End Page 2] eternal truth of justice making itself known. These proclamations are echoed by the families of the deceased and, in the cases of ex-Klansmen, various civil rights organizations.

Theorists of collective memory insist that the past is invoked to shape the present; collective memory, writes Barbie Zelizer, is "a graphing of the past as it is used for present aims, a vision in bold relief of the past as it is woven...