The Whitewashing and Distortion of Rosa Parks and MLK’s Legacies
In February 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “The Drum Major Instinct" sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, two months before his assassination. On Sunday, 50 years later, the words of his sermon were used to in a Dodge Ram truck advertisement at the Super Bowl. The ad sparked widespread criticism for the obvious distortion of Dr. King’s message. But other revisions to civil rights history are often more subtle. For more, we speak with the author of a new book showing how the legacy of the civil rights movement in the U.S. has been distorted and whitewashed for public consumption. Professor and historian Jeanne Theoharis’s new book is titled “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.” She is also the author of the award-winning book “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Juan?
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Well, we spend the rest of the hour with the author of a new book showing how the legacy of the civil rights movement in the United States has been distorted and whitewashed for public consumption. Professor and historian Jeanne Theoharis says iconic figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks have been rendered, quote, “meek and dreamy, not angry, intrepid and relentless.” Theoharis writes, quote, “Racial injustice is America’s original sin and deepest silence. The ways the country came to honor the civil rights movement were not simply about paying tribute to these courageous acts and individuals in the past but also about sanctioning what will—and will not be—faced about the nation’s history and present.” The book is titled A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the book, we are joined by the author, Jeanne Theoharis, professor of political science at Brooklyn College, has written extensively about the civil rights and Black Power movements, author of the award-winning book The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.
Jeanne Theoharis, welcome back to Democracy Now!
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk first about the Ram ad, just what Dr. Edwards was talking about. Were you shocked when you saw it?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: I mean, it’s shocking. Right? I mean, it’s particularly shocking, as Dr. Edwards pointed out, when you actually see the speech—and certainly everyone this week should go back to the drum major speech and read it for yourselves—because King, in that very speech, is criticizing car commercials. And there it is. It was—
AMY GOODMAN: And they’re showing soldiers—
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —over his words.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: This is—
JEANNE THEOHARIS: So, the nationalistic, militaristic sort of subtext of the ad was also, I think, very disturbing, given what the drum major speech is about, given what Dr. King sort of is talking about, both in that speech and that year, you know, repeatedly. Of course, Twitter sort of takes care of these things so beautifully. So I think there was nothing sort of more fun than then watching Twitter kind of explode with this.
I think one of the things that I’m talking about in my book, though, is things that are harder to recognize—right?—a bit harder to recognize, which are national recognitions, national celebrations of the civil rights movement, because those are both important and necessary and centering the history of the civil rights movement in the history of this country. So, I’m thinking about sort of the honoring of Rosa Parks, both when she dies—her body is the first coffin of a woman, of a civilian, to lie in honor in the Capitol. There’s a statue then placed in Statuary Hall of Rosa Parks, the first full-size statue of a black woman there. These are epic honors. And yet, how she gets honored, how the civil rights movement gets honored—right?—is a form of kind of stripping and constraining. Right? So, she’s constantly talked about only for that day on the bus. She’s constantly talked about as quiet and not angry. And she’s constantly talked about as a way to celebrate our progress. And that, I think, the national and nationalistic purposes that the civil rights movement now serves in our public square, is sort of at the heart of what the book is talking about.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that anger and how that is whitewashed out. I mean, we just came from the Sundance Film Festival, where a film was just premiered called King in the Wilderness, the last three years of King’s life, when he is doubling down. He’s becoming increasingly radicalized. He’s organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. He’s speaking out against the war in Vietnam, which made this particularly—this ad—when you see the soldiers and you see war—I mean, he was risking everything, even the support of his inner circle, when he gave that speech at Riverside Church, April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before he was killed, against the Vietnam War. This came after that, the drum major speech.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right, right, and even earlier. I mean, I think, as we sit here in New York City—right?—to think about King’s challenge to New York City, to Northern liberals—and that begins much earlier than I think we often recognize. In 1960, he’s giving a speech here at the Urban League, and he’s calling for a liberalism that’s actually liberal here in the North, and not just calling for change in the South. Right? He goes to L.A. in 1963, fresh out of the Birmingham jail. What’s he talking about in L.A.? Not just Birmingham. He’s talking about police brutality, school desegregation, housing segregation in L.A. This is two years before Watts. In 1964, he goes to Boston. He joins with kind of a burgeoning school desegregation movement in Boston. The Boston School Committee meets with him and basically shuts down the meeting. Right?
When King is talking about Northern injustice, even in the early 1960s—right?—Northern liberals, who are praising his actions in the South—right?—shut it down when he starts to talk about sort of what’s happening in the North. And actually, couple months after the Watts uprising, King writes a very important piece in the Saturday Review, basically taking the surprise around Watts to task and saying, for a long time—right?—he had been welcomed into the North, you know, he gets honors, he sits on these platforms, and yet, when he turns to talking about what’s happening there, only the language was polite, he says. The resistance was sort of firm and stubborn. So, I think looking at what—the more uncomfortable—right?—the angry, the ways that Dr. King is calling out people in New York, not just people in Birmingham—right?—that’s a part of King that I think we need to sort of take seriously.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion with Professor Jeanne Theoharis, author of the book A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with her in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: “The Underside of Power” by Algiers. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan GonzÃ¡lez, as we continue our conversation with historian Jeanne Theoharis, author of the new book A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. Let’s turn to a clip of President Ronald Reagan speaking November 2nd, 1983, when he signed the bill establishing the Martin Luther King national holiday.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Now, our nation has decided to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by setting aside a day each year to remember him and the just cause he stood for. We’ve made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is President Ronald Reagan in 1983, the official announcement of the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. That wasn’t always President Reagan’s view, Jeanne Theoharis.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Oh, no, no. Reagan, for many years, had felt—was very skeptical of a holiday for Martin Luther King. He thought there were too many holidays. It might be costly. He wasn’t sure if King might be a communist or communist sympathizer. So, for years, he had opposed.
Then he begins to see the political utility, for him, particularly among moderate white, like, voters. Reagan sort of has a sensitivity gap around racial issues, and he’s running for re-election, and so he starts to see sort of a political upside to sort of backing this legislation. And I think, in his speech, we see the elements of what is going to become this—what I’m calling the national fable of the civil rights movement, right? It’s about courageous individuals in the past. They saw an injustice. The injustice is fixed. Like, all herald the power of American democracy. Right? So it’s about progress. It’s about American exceptionalism. It’s about racism in the past. And that’s going to be, in many ways, from Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Bush to Obama to even President Trump, we see a kind of narrative of the civil rights movement that’s about celebrating these individual heroes as a way to celebrate the greatness of America.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And as a way to put it into—as you say, into the past, because—compare the way now that the mainstream narrative on the civil rights movement is to how Black Lives Matter is treated today.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right. I mean, one of the motivations behind the book was the ways that the narrative of the civil rights movement is marshaled to kind of chastise and correct Black Lives Matter. It’s too extreme. You know, they might agree with the goals, but not the tactics. You’re not going about it the right way. You’re not—these aren’t the right leaders. So many of these criticisms are criticisms that are waged against the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was seen as extreme. The civil rights movement was seen as going too far, too fast. Just to give you one poll, 1964, here in New York—we’re not even talking about the South—this is the year before the Voting Rights Act. A majority of New Yorkers think the civil rights movement has gone too far by 1964 in New York.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Well, and then 1966 was the Cicero March, where Martin Luther King went right into the heart of the North—
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: —and marched in Cicero, Illinois. He said he’d never seen the kind of anger and violence from the white people of Cicero than he’d—like he’d seen in the South.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Absolutely. The last time Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King see each other is in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, suburb of Detroit. He will describe it as the most disruptive indoor audience he ever encounters. He’s called a traitor so many times that night that at one point he stops and says, “We’re going to have a Q&A, and you can question me about my traitorness there,” because he’s just getting heckled the whole time. So I think we, again—right?—that we have this idea that it was popular, that most decent people—right?—supported it at the time. And regrettably, that was not the case.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to what you’re saying about today. Last summer, in the wake of the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, Black Lives Matter activists in Atlanta, Georgia, took to the streets, along with protesters around the country. This is Atlanta’s then-Mayor Kasim Reed reacting to the actions that shut down some of Atlanta’s major arteries, the streets.
MAYOR KASIM REED: Our message was that we’re respecting their First Amendment rights, but we’re the home of Dr. Martin Luther King. And the only thing that I ask is that they not take the freeways. That’s everybody. That’s your mom, my family, your families. And Dr. King would never take a freeway. … I understand that this is just this generation’s protest. But during the civil rights movement, they spent more time on making sure that everybody got home safe as they did in the actual protest itself. And so, let’s just let this be the best version of ourselves.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. King would never have taken a freeway, said Mayor Reed at the time. Professor Theoharis?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: I mean, it’s just hard to even know where to begin. I mean, probably the most iconic event—right?—the Selma-to-Montgomery March, what is that? Right? The Montgomery bus boycott, it’s not taking a freeway, but it’s absolutely disruptive. It’s meant to be disruptive. It’s supposed—it’s meant to both disrupt the functioning of the bus company, but also, shortly after they begin to boycott the buses, they also, that Christmas, boycott stores. It’s meant to shut—it’s meant to say there can be no business as usual.
And so, part of, I think, the danger of these mis-histories, the danger of this fable, is the ways then it’s used to shut down sort of conversation and protest, you know, in this constant wishing—you know, Mike Huckabee saying to Ferguson protesters, you know, that he wished they would be more like MLK. And in my head, I’m thinking, “You know, be careful what you wish for, because, you know, they are, right? And you don’t like it, right?” It is disruptive. It is uncomfortable. It is relentless. It doesn’t—it’s not just injustice exposed is injustice changed. That’s not how the civil rights movement actually proceeded. It was injustice exposed and exposed and exposed and exposed, and you move the needle slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And you talk also about sort of the selective recollection of what the civil rights movement stood for. Clearly, with Dr. King, it was more about his insistence on equal rights than it was about his railing against income inequality or his attacks on militarism and the war. And you also, in your previous book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, talk about what’s left out of the stories about Rosa Parks, as well.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Absolutely. I mean, one of the ways that I’ve come to see the Montgomery bus boycott is as much about criminal justice as it is about bus segregation, because this is December 1955 when she makes her bus stand. In August of 1955, Emmett Till gets lynched. This case gets much more attention than many of the cases that Montgomery activists, like Rosa Parks—because Rosa Parks had been active for more than a decade by this point, around cases like Emmett Till’s. And with Emmett Till, they get enough attention to get an indictment. Four days before she’s going to make her bus stand, she goes to a huge mass meeting at King’s church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, because the lead organizer in the Till case has come to town, because the two men have just been acquitted. So they get an indictment, right? And this—
AMY GOODMAN: And again, Emmett Till is the 14-year-old boy who went to the summer—went to the South for the summer. His mom, Mamie Till, sent him there to be out of Chicago. And he’s lynched by a white mob.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: He’s lynched by—yeah, and by two men—right?—for making a comment to a white woman. And these two men, because of the attention to the case, actually are indicted and stand trial, but then they are acquitted. And so, the organizers come to Montgomery to tell people that they have to keep the faith and keep pushing on this. And Rosa Parks is there. E.D. Nixon is there. King is there. They’re all there. And the anger and the sadness—right?—that this case, which seemed like the possibility to get justice—still no justice.
And so, I think we cannot understand what happens four days later, both why she makes her stand—she talks about thinking about Emmett Till—but also why Montgomery’s community is in a breaking point at that point, and why we see a boycott sort of flower after that. And so, I think that part of the story—right?—that this is about criminal justice and segregation.
Then, her life continued, right? She’s forced to leave Montgomery shortly after the Montgomery bus boycott. She’ll spend more of her life in the North, in Detroit, fighting the racism of the Jim Crow North, right? She’s an early opponent of the war in Vietnam. She’s talking about, alongside many other Detroit activists, poverty, income inequality, segregation, urban renewal, police brutality. Rosa Parks will serve on a people’s tribunal after the 1967 Detroit uprising, because of the police brutality during the uprising and because of the police killings of three young men at the Algiers Motel, that police are not indicted for those murders, the newspapers aren’t following the case, and so the people of Detroit convene a people’s tribunal to hold the cops accountable. Rosa Parks serves on the jury of that tribunal alongside black—sort of an emerging Black Power movement. So, her life, her political life, is far more expansive, I think, than the kind of one day on the bus.
AMY GOODMAN: The title of your book, Jeanne Theoharis, is A More Beautiful and Terrible History. Explain.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: So, the title is taken from James Baldwin’s “Talk to Teachers,” where he says, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” And I chose this title because certainly reckoning with this history is more terrible, it is more sober, it is more uncomfortable, it asks things of us today. But it is also, I think, more beautiful, right? When you see what people did, when you see the power of kind of grassroots organizing, when you see how courageous the courage was—right?—it’s more beautiful. And I think it gives us much more for where we are today.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And the lesson about why there’s such an attempt to sanitize this history and, in essence, clean it up for people to digest?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: I mean, I think partly because it does offer so much. I talk, in one of the chapters, about the activism of high school students, right? From the high school student strike in Prince Edward County, led by 15-year-old Barbara Johns, that becomes one of the cases in Brown, to the walkouts in L.A. Black and Chicano students walk out in L.A. in 1968 to protest conditions in schools, to protest the sort not enough black and Latino history in school, to protest policing in school, to protest the lack of college classes in school. When you see that—right?—many of these problems we face today. And you look at high school students—right?—leading the way on that—right?—and you see—and I think that gives us a much more fertile kind of starting point for where we—where we go from here.
But I think that’s part of why—I mean, if we only see the leaders as adults, if we only see the leaders as having to be charismatic speakers—right?—that doesn’t leave a place at the table for most of us. And when you see that leaders came of all ages—right?—tweens to eighties—right?—when you see it’s men and women, when you see it’s welfare recipients, public housing residents, church ladies—right?—the whole gamut—right?—there’s a lot—I think there’s a lot more to give us in terms of sort of where we struggle today.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about how Black Lives Matter activists are compared unfavorably to civil rights leaders, and you talk specifically also about John Lewis, who started as a young, young man in that march from Selma to Montgomery, the first march over the bridge—King was not there—and he had his head bashed in.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right. And, I mean, I think one of the things that you see when you look at the civil rights movement is sort of groups like SNCC—right?—made up of young people.
AMY GOODMAN: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right. Some sort of adults in the community are welcoming this militancy—Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, right? But many adults are very scared, anxious, trepidatious about SNCC, about this young people organizing, 50 and 60 years ago, right? So, you know, I think we also see the echoes of the kinds of criticisms. And many SNCC—former SNCCmembers put out a statement making the continuities between SNCC and Black Lives Matter clear, precisely because sort of many of the criticisms of Black Lives Matter were criticisms that they had faced 50 years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: Your criticisms of the King Memorial in Washington, D.C.?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: A couple of things. If you’ve seen the King Memorial, he towers over us, right? He’s sort of unapproachable. There are quotes all around. Not a single quote mentions racism, race, segregation. If you were to like come in from Mars and land, you would think he was sort of all about peace and love, right? And the kind of fundamental questions of race and racism and racial inequality—right?—that he spoke about over and over and over—right?—and a kind of pride, a black pride, that he speaks about over and over and over, are sort of erased in that memorial. So, both that he is this singular figure—right?—the original plans had included sort of honoring many people—right?—that he towers above us, but also that the quotes sort of are deracinated and they’re stripped of their context. So, it wouldn’t have been hard to put under each quote sort of the context—right?—that these come in movements, that they come at moments. But they’re sort of hodgepodged. You know, it’s 1963, 1967, 1957.
AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: So, we miss kind of the power. And so many people visit it. And I just wish that we had a—we had a memorial that honored King the way he was.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will leave it there. Jeanne Theoharis, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.