- A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History by Jeanne Theoharis
A fable is defined as "a short tale to teach a moral lesson, often with animals or inanimate objects as characters."1 One of the most famous fables, The Tortoise and the Hare, focuses on a race between seemingly unequal opponents: a tortoise and hare. The race ends, however, with a classic fable plot twist: the tortoise wins because "slow and steady wins the race," showing that "the race is not always to the swift."2 Interestingly enough, the fable of the civil rights movement, according to renowned scholar Jeanne Theoharis, pits the freedom "race" between seemingly unequal opponents: the United States and its status quo versus African Americans, the descendants of slaves who finally won the fight for equality promised by the Reconstruction-era amendments in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, after one hundred years, slow and steady earned African Americans their citizenship rights.
In the powerful, frank, and necessary monograph, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, Theoharis argues that the popular narrative of the civil rights movement is a fable, that is, a short tale to teach a moral lesson, "a story not founded on fact," and "a story about supernatural or extraordinary persons or incidents; legend."3 This historical fable focuses on a one-dimensional, individualistic, heroic, and serendipitous retelling of the civil rights movement that disarms present-day calls for equality from African American and other marginalized communities. To combat this popular narrative, Theoharis provides a more complicated view of the movement, one that highlights how a collective of African Americans and their interracial allies fought a long struggle for numerous decades during the twentieth century against systematic and institutionalized racism. This broad and complex history of the civil rights movement serves as a call to action for historians, both academic and public, to rethink and reframe the struggle and tie it to present-day struggles against inequality.
Theoharis's research, based on a swath of sources from the civil rights era through present-day, fits with the larger trends in the scholarship that focus on the politics of memory and commemoration (216). She analyzes several primary sources, including monuments and recent events memorializing the milestones of the movement, alongside new archives such as the newest collection of Rosa Parks's papers, which were recently released by the Library of Congress. Theoharis also cites critical secondary literature that readdresses the struggles of the [End Page 198] mid-twentieth century, including works by Ashley Farmer and Michel-Rolph Trouillot. In this way, this study highlights the direction that civil rights scholarship is moving in: one that expands the timeline of the movement from the 1940s-1970s; the geographical breadth of the movement that explores numerous movements in the North and West against Jim Crow segregation; and complicates the "happy-ending" narrative of the movement by looking at the many ways that its goals continue to go unaddressed.
Theoharis's use of quotes at the start of each chapter, the way she uncovers many untold stories, and the corrections she makes to the grand narrative of the civil rights movement provide strength and continuity across the text. For example, each chapter begins with a quote that highlights the major themes to be addressed, including one by James Baldwin that also inspired the book's title. She also includes popular culture quotes and references, such as one from Chris Rock on Black History Month ("Black History Month is in the shortest month of the year, and the coldest, just in case we want to have a parade") which shows the appeal to a wider readership. Secondly, Theoharis reveals the names and stories of many of the unsung activists of the era, including Mae Mallory, Celes King, Jeremiah Reeves, and Johnnie Tillmon. In particular, the story of Jeremiah Reeves, killed by police, highlights the roots of present-day calls for...