The Civil Rights Movement (CRM) has become an essential part of American public memory and numerous tributes to the movement’s legacy continue to shape its memory in different ways. Renee C. Romano’s and Leigh Raiford’s essay collection “The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory” focuses on this phenomenon and explores why the representation of the movement’s history and its major accomplishments is of such significance.
The way in which people remember the CRM has a powerful influence on how they will relate to the situation of African Americans or to questions of race relations today. Therefore, the emergence of what Romano and Raiford define as the “consensus memory” is noteworthy: a version of the movement that begins with the Brown-Decision of 1954 and ends with the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, portraying him as the charismatic leader who led a nonviolent protest against misguided Southern segregationists – a struggle that was supported by most whites and was aimed against legal and social discrimination rather than economic injustice. As the editors show, the adoption of this consensus memory allows Americans to understand the CRM as a shining example of the success of American democracy and its ultimate commitment to the ideals of egalitarianism and justice. But in the eyes of critics this triumphant narrative is a misconception, disregarding the movement’s complexities, especially the vital contributions of other activists as well as King’s harsh critique of American social and foreign policy. In offering an in-depth analysis of the consensus memory’s production as well as its challenges, this volume seeks to highlight the political and social consequences of different representations of the movement’s history.
The book consists of four parts. The first, entitled “Institutionalizing Memory”, looks at the various forms of official memorials of the movement. Owen Dwyer examines the “cultural landscape” of the South’s civil rights memorials and museums, Glenn Eskew discusses the establishment of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and Derek Alderman looks at the practice of naming streets after Martin Luther King, Jr. One common theme among these essays is that gaining public support and/or funding for these heritage sites is often difficult and comes at the price of disconnecting the issue of racial strife in the past from current racial problems, stressing tolerance and moderation instead. The latter also applies to the trials and convictions of the Birmingham Church Bombers, which, as Romano convincingly argues in her essay, have been used to present the bombing as the evil act of a few ardent racists who were successfully brought to justice, due to the heroic efforts of white prosecutors, with African Americans being mainly portrayed as passive victims. Thus these trials are used as proof of “the ultimate victory of justice within the American legal system” (p. 126), instead of provoking further discussion about the racist system that produced these murders and has allowed for continued racial injustices until today.
The second part, “Visualizing Memory”, analyzes the role of visual media, especially film and photography, in the commemoration process of the movement. It shows how the media have ignored the movement’s multifaceted complexities and instead perpetuate a sterilized, nonthreatening image of the “good”, King-led, nonviolent civil rights movement versus the “bad”, supposedly violent movement inspired by Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party and other “black radicals”. Edward Morgan argues that this phenomenon reflects the “ideological forces at work within a capitalist economy” (p. 138), as the mass media’s construction of the past is governed by the imperative of maximizing audiences. Strongly criticizing the marginalization of critical voices regarding the discourse about civil rights, Morgan also warns of the way in which modern media culture “erodes public conversation, balkanizes the population in think-alike enclaves, and undermines political action” (p. 162). Discussing a variety of film and television dramas about the movement produced in the 1990s, Jennifer Fuller explains how incidents such as the L.A. riots of 1992 and the O.J. Simpson trial may have fuelled fears of a growing racial divide among many Americans, who found it reassuring to focus on the more celebratory aspects of America’s civil rights history. Focusing on John Sayles’s 2002 film “Sunshine State”, Tim Libretti offers a close reading of Sayles’s interpretation of the civil rights era in Florida. Even though the movement failed to establish full economic equality here, it is still seen as a potential model for resistance to the “colonizing practices of contemporary U.S. capitalism” (218). Taking a close look at counter-cultural media, especially at social movement photography, Leigh Raiford analyzes how the black power aesthetic was created and what role images such as the famous picture of the spear and gun holding Huey Newton in a wicker chair or the FBI most-wanted poster of Angela Davis played in this process. She also shows the importance and continuing influence of this new black aesthetic from blaxploitation movies to modern fashion advertisement, such as in Vibe magazine.
Part three called “Diverging Memory” – which might have better been named “Gender and Memory” – focuses on the process by which the significance of women’s contributions as well as the question of sexism within the movement have for a long time been downplayed or ignored. Kathryn Nasstrom shows how the almost forgotten, but vital contributions of black females in community organizing and voter registration in Atlanta since the 1940s paved the way for the rise of black elected officials in that city, culminating in the 1973 election of Maynard Jackson as the first black mayor of the Deep South. Focusing on gender relations within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi, Steve Estes discusses how first-hand accounts of civil rights activists regarding this issue have changed significantly over time and are sometimes contradictory. For example, white females now often downplay the role of sexism within SNCC that they previously charged was there, for fear of discrediting the movement; black females, who held more leadership positions than whites, didn’t perceive sexism as such a big problem to begin with, and some black males have recently started to talk of their experiences in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project in terms of the achievement of manhood rather than as a result of the gender politics that emerged during the Black Power era.
The essays of the last part, “Deploying Memory”, explore different ways in which the memory of the CRM has been used by other groups to promote their own agenda. R.A.R. Edwards not only explains how deaf rights campaigners of Gallaudet University appropriated language and symbols of the CRM in their successful struggle to have a deaf president installed at their college in 1988, but also discusses why many deaf activists view their condition not as a disability, but as a form of cultural identity. The deaf movement thus defines itself as an oppressed group that needs to fight for its rights and seek “Deaf Power” as opposed to integration. Some activists therefore even criticize cochlear implants (a medical device that can restore hearing abilities of deaf children) as a form of cultural genocide (330). Another group that attempts to use civil rights rhetoric and tactics for their cause are Christian Conservatives. As David Marley demonstrates, the Christian Right has been trying to transform its public image to that of an oppressed minority struggling against the hegemony of an increasingly secular American majority. Some Christian groups, e.g. the anti-abortion “Operation Rescue” have used the movement as a model for civil disobedience and media campaigns. Their claim to be an oppressed and disadvantaged minority appears particularly problematic, since Christian conservatives used to be staunch segregationists in the 1960s and still make few efforts to reach out to the black community today. The questionability of these kind of comparisons also lies at the heart of Sarah Vowell’s short polemic “Rosa Parks C’est Moi” at the end of the volume. It beautifully elucidates how far memories of the CRM have been stretched by some people – from rappers and dairy farmers to lap dancers – to enhance the moral legitimacy of their own struggle against whatever they consider oppressive about the status quo.
Of course, in an essay collection of this size, some contributions are more exciting than others. There are a few redundancies while some other issues are not mentioned at all, e.g. the question why not only the mass media but also most academic scholars have focused their attention mostly on the CRM in the South, neglecting racial politics and red-lining strategies of northern city-planning, even though these played a pivotal role in creating white suburbia and black inner city ghettos. But on the whole, this is a truly excellent book, presenting original research, a variety of unusual perspectives and thought-provoking arguments. It is well structured and features helpful brief introductions to each part, a selected bibliography, and an index. Students as well as scholars of the CRM, public history, historical methods, and memory studies will benefit especially from this collection, which I also highly recommend to anyone interested in American popular culture and American race relations.
The CRM did indeed not end with Martin Luther King’s death. The struggle for black equality continues, and as this volume convincingly demonstrates, the memory of the movement has become a major part of the battlefield.