Celebrating the Civil Rights Act out of context misses the point

Jobs, jobs, jobs. Athena LeTrelle, CC BY-ND

July 2 2014, halfway through the second term of America’s first African American president, marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act being signed into law by US President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Polls have found that 96% of Americans believe the bill has had an important impact on American history – and the atmosphere around the milestone matches that number; with Bill Clinton crediting the bill for his election to office, and Obama comparing the Act to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, it is easy to be caught up in the current wave of self-congratulation and celebration.

However, while the Civil Rights Act is certainly to be celebrated in itself, we must be careful that our celebration does not overshadow or undermine what activists have fought for – and what a new generation of activists are still fighting for today.

Out of context

Almost 20 years ago, Angela Davis warned that political symbols of the 1960s were being reproduced in a way “disconnected from the historical context in which [they] arose”. Finding herself “remembered as a hairdo” by a younger generation of African American men and women, Davis opined that her experience demonstrates “the fragility and mutability of historical images, particularly those associated with African American history”.

Pivotal historical moments are always vulnerable to co-option, with commentators already using the Act to settle contemporary political scores, but there is a particular danger in celebrating such an important victory outside of the context in which it was won.

President Johnson’s remarks upon the signing of the Civil Rights Act, 1964.

Accordingly, the Civil Rights Act is now being remembered and venerated as the crowning glory of a president described by The Atlantic as “the era’s real hero” – rather than the work of a generation of activists, many of whom sacrificed their lives or their freedom for the cause.

More than a hamburger

The problem here is not simply that celebrating the Civil Rights Act demands a greater understanding of how its passage was achieved. More fundamentally, there is a need to question how and what we choose to commemorate.

Most of us (if not all) are familiar with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Its rhetoric and symbolism have been used by everyone from former presidents to disgruntled cattle ranchers. President Obama even spoke from the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

But when they invoke this vision of a colour-blind society, a society where children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”, many commentators forget that this was a March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom. They forget that sit-in demonstrators in the early 1960s were demanding “more than a hamburger”, that Martin Luther King Jr. died helping to organise a union strike, and that the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, deemed the infamous Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children programme as “potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities … to neutralise the Black Panther Party and destroy what it stands for”.

In other words, the dominant narrative of legal achievement forgets the socio-economic demands that the movement’s activists were fighting for. It also ignores the continuation of more subtle, insidious forms of racism, forms that make a mockery of conservative “post-racial” rhetoric.

Darker history

It would take a much more pessimistic, sombre media class to commemorate those events that don’t congratulate, but instead condemn. To memorialise the bottles and bricks hurled at citizens protesting for open housing in Chicago hardly provides politicians a platform from which to congratulate the nation and its achievements.

But this kind of commemoration – a commemoration that examines not just the achievements, but the failures as well – could foster a more positive and important dialogue, one that could shed light on current problems of racial inequality in areas such as housing and education.

Understanding why, in the late 19th Century, civil rights activist and feminist Ida B. Wells “had to prove that lynching’s primary victims, African American men, were people worthy of sympathy and citizens deserving protection” can help us understand why discussion of the vicious sexual assault of Darrin Manning often centred on his honor student status. It allows us to see the hostility generated by stop-and-frisk policies in cities such as New York in the context of decades of law enforcement involvement in, and policing of, racial discrimination.

Learning how Mississippi state congressman E. H. Hurst could claim to be standing his ground when he shot and killed Herbert Lee in 1961, can help us to understand the righteous anger directed at a legal system that continually fails to prosecute those who kill unarmed African American men and women. These kinds of conversations are being held in various forums on both sides of the Atlantic, but are conspicuously absent from mainstream American narratives.

The Kerner Commission, established in the wake of urban rioting in the late 1960s, warned that the American press “report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world”. The “white press”, it said, “repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.”

Today, while the internet has allowed a much greater diversity of voices to emerge and be heard, the mainstream media continues to highlight legislative victories rather than the darker history of the fight for equality.

To once again quote the Kerner Commission: “this may be understandable, but it is not excusable in an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society.”

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