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A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History

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Explodes the fables that have been created about the civil rights movement

The civil rights movement has become national legend, lauded by presidents from Reagan to Obama to Trump, as proof of the power of American democracy. This fable, featuring dreamy heroes and accidental heroines, has shuttered the movement firmly in the past, whitewashed the forces that stood in its way, and diminished its scope. And it is used perniciously in our own times to chastise present-day movements and obscure contemporary injustice.

In A More Beautiful and Terrible History award-winning historian Jeanne Theoharis dissects this national myth-making, teasing apart the accepted stories to show them in a strikingly different light. We see Rosa Parks not simply as a bus lady but a lifelong criminal justice activist and radical; Martin Luther King, Jr. as not only challenging Southern sheriffs but Northern liberals, too; and Coretta Scott King not only as a "helpmate" but a lifelong economic justice and peace activist who pushed her husband's activism in these directions.

Moving from "the histories we get" to "the histories we need," Theoharis challenges nine key aspects of the fable to reveal the diversity of people, especially women and young people, who led the movement; the work and disruption it took; the role of the media and "polite racism" in maintaining injustice; and the immense barriers and repression activists faced. Theoharis makes us reckon with the fact that far from being acceptable, passive or unified, the civil rights movement was unpopular, disruptive, and courageously persevering. Activists embraced an expansive vision of justice--which a majority of Americans opposed and which the federal government feared.

By showing us the complex reality of the movement, the power of its organizing, and the beauty and scope of the vision, Theoharis proves that there was nothing natural or inevitable about the progress that occurred. A More Beautiful and Terrible History will change our historical frame, revealing the richness of our civil rights legacy, the uncomfortable mirror it holds to the nation, and the crucial work that remains to be done.

278 pages, Hardcover

First published January 30, 2018

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About the author

Jeanne Theoharis

13 books104 followers
Jeanne Theoharis is professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She received an AB in Afro-American studies from Harvard College and a PhD in American culture from the University of Michigan. She is the author or coauthor of four books and articles on the black freedom struggle and the contemporary politics of race in the United States.

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Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.5k followers
February 12, 2022
Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the white kids came down and saved the day. — Julian Bond
Julian Bond’s cynical formulation of the commonly accepted—though deeply flawed—narrative of the USA’s Civil Rights struggle is just as prevalent today as it was during the Nixon administration, and—as Jeanne Theoharis argues in her necessary book, A Strange and Terrible History, it is just as wounding, just as damaging now as it was then.

I first encountered the work of Jean Theoharis when I read the Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, a biography which demonstrated that almost everything that I thought I knew about this Civil Rights icon was wrong. The tale of a patient, long-suffering, non-violent “church lady,” this woman who one day just “got tired” and thus started an entire movement, is nothing but a pleasant bedtime story. No, Rosa, a lifelong activist, had been committed since the days of the Scottsboro boys and was trained by a college course in the techniques of resistance. She doubted the wisdom of King’s strategic nonviolence, and later—when she was an enduring presence supporting the Black Power movement in Detroit--when asked the name of her favorite civil rights leader, replied “Malcolm X.”

What Ms. Theoharis once did for Rosa Parks, she does here for the entire Civil Rights movement. A More Beautiful and Terrible History shows us how America prefers its black heroes to be noble, pacifist, impractical, and isolated in their activism. They are heroes who eventually melt the hearts of the good white people—who are of course mostly from the North—white people who stepped up during the distant past and changed everything for the better. In other words, as Theoharis says:
As a nation, we honor these courageous men and women, then dismiss them as “impractical” when their example asks things of us that we do not want to provide—rendering the times and issues we confront as very different from these old injustices. In short, we prefer our heroes and heroines in the past and will cast aside the parts of the story that raise questions about our current directions.
Theoharis showed me many things. And she always backs them up with facts and statistics, and often with interesting stories. Here are just a few I remember: how agitation for social justice in the North is routinely ignored as being somehow different from the South; how discrimination in Southern schools is condemned, but redlining in real estate and white flight—the root of the problem in the still segregated schools of the North—is accepted as deplorable but inevitable; how the media routinely ignores the “polite racism” the North practices, so that issues like the black community’s “culture of poverty” and the “forced busing” that exacerbates white rage are seen as the source of the problem; how the movements broader goals of criminal justice reform, economic and global justice are rarely taken seriously as an extension of the legacy of Parks and King; how the privileged men of the Civil Rights movement have habitually marginalized young people, poor people, and especially women; and how we routinely forget—or choose to ignore—how viciously whites and their government power structures have acted toward our beloved civil rights heroes (except for a handful of bad Southern sheriffs. We condemn evertything about those sheriffs, of course.)

I’ll leave you with two examples from this essential book, not because they are the most important things you should take away (I expect you—like I—have much to learn) but because both of these events were news to me and because each of them makes a good story.

First, there is the story about how Lena Horne ended up missing MLK’s “Dream” speech during the March on Washington. It seems she and Gloria Richardson (leader of the Cambridge Movement) were upset because Rosa Parks and other women activists were not allowed to deliver any speeches, and that the wives of the Civil Rights leaders were not even permitted to walk with their husbands during the march.
Right before Martin Luther King Jr. was to speak, Richardson found herself being put in a cab along with Lena Horne and sent back to her hotel. March organizers claimed that they were worried the two would get mobbed and crushed, yet no one else was sent back to the hotel. “They did this,” Richardson believed, “because Lena Horne had Rosa Parks by the hand and had been taking her to satellite broadcasts, saying, “This is the woman you need to interview.’” Richardson had helped her. “We got several people to interview Rosa Parks. The march organizers must have found that out.”
And then there is this story, about how the national leadership of the Democratic Party used the FBI to stop the MFDP (Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party) in their attempt to unseat the official delegation of the Mississippi Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention. Here the villains are President Johnson and his special assistant and (much later) liberal journalistic icon, Bill Moyers:
According the historian John Ditmer, Johnson “turned to Edgar Hoover to provide his own “coverage” of the convention.” Johnson ordered the bureau to spy on the MSDP and on Martin Luther King’s hotel room at the Atlantic City convention, and he asked for background checks on all the participants ….

FBI agents posed as NBC reporters (with full support of the network) to solicit information from the MFDP delegates, including the identities of those who supported their efforts on the credentials committee. Bill Moyers, who was a special assistance to Johnson at the time, served as a key player, and the president’s ledger notes a number of calls from Johnson to Moyers at the convention to provide the FBI’s information to be used by Johnson’s operatives on the floor to pressure delegates to withhold support from the MFDP challenger … The idea that the FBI was completely rogue, or that Johnson’s work on behalf of civil rights meant that he didn’t also consider the movement a threat and endorse FBI surveillance at certain points, is a convenient fiction.”
Profile Image for Michelle.
651 reviews181 followers
February 7, 2018
“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” - James Baldwin

This microhistory looks at our memorialization of the Civil Rights movement and its impact on our current political atmosphere. It is a sobering indictment of what Theoharis calls “The American fable” where the Civil Rights Movement is diluted to singular events carried out by a few key individuals. In this fable these historical moments are placed against a backdrop of unwavering national morality in which the sins of the past were committed by the few, the majority of Americans rooting for the activist as they corrected these wrongs. The reality however was that figures like Martin and Rosa were considered dangerous reactionaries, troublemakers that didn’t know their place and couldn’t leave well enough alone. They were reviled by most of the public, Red-baited, threatened, and shut out of jobs and housing. In order to put forth this fable their life’s work and sacrifice has been trivialized and their identities white-washed to make them meek and palatable.

A More Beautiful and Terrible History goes further to place our treatment of the Civil Rights movement within a contemporary framework. In the section entitled ‘The Histories We Need’ Theoharis not only draws parallels to our modern day treatment of activists but also examines de facto segregation, the role of the media and ends with ten lessons learned from the Montgomery bus boycott. Theoharis’s critical eye, extensive research and passion for the truth make A More Beautiful and Terrible History a seminal work worthy of addition to any library collection.
Profile Image for Becky.
1,339 reviews1,631 followers
January 29, 2021
I found this book while browsing library lists curated around the BLM movement last year, and to be honest, I ALMOST skipped right over it. It was so very nearly a case of a bad cover preventing me from reading a great book.

I don't know WHAT it is about the cover that doesn't work for me... Maybe it's the composition of the picture that was used, and how it doesn't really seem to have a focus or theme - all of the people in the image are looking in different directions, have different expressions, and seem disjointed and disconnected from each other. And it's not really a recognizably relevant image to the Civil Rights Movement. (Plus, that white guy in the background seems to be photobombing.) Or maybe it's the text that seems like someone just chose a sans serif font, selected "center alignment" and typed it in on top of the image. In short, it feels like something an amateur would make in 20 minutes after googling a "fair use picture with black people", throwing the title on in Photoshop, and then upload along with their KDP file.

That feels a little unfair, but that's my first impression, and often that's all a book will get with people. We all have to vet the books that are worth our time in some way, and despite my best intentions of "not judging a book by its cover" - the cover is usually it. If it wasn't for the fact that I was actively looking for books on this and related topics, I would not have ever given this a second look. As it was, I debated several times whether to put it on hold with my library, or KEEP it on my hold list, as there are so many books I want to get to, and only so much space on my library hold list. But in the end, it prevailed, and I'm glad it did.

This book was really, really good. I learned so much from this, from how the Civil Rights Movement has been bastardized in the hindsight and narrative of history (and how the media aided and abetted this), and its leaders exploited by white supremacists and politicians (which are still all to often the same thing) to legitimize them and their very racist policies as "not racist", to how it is being used as a weapon against today's BLM Movement to silence and moderate modern activism as "doing it wrong" because they are not following the lead of the Civil Rights Movement... conveniently forgetting that the CRM was VERY unpopular and its leaders were hated and threatened and jailed and assassinated repeatedly.

I have been reading and actively educating myself on this topic quite consistently for several years now, and I am still shocked ALL THE TIME by how little I know about racism in this country. For example, I bought into the "The South Is Racist But The Progressive North Isn't" lie. I feel kind of shocked and really fucking stupid to have to have it pointed out to me that cities like LA and New York were (and are) so heavily segregated, considering that I'm well aware of "dangerous black neighborhoods" existing. I just... never stopped to think about WHY they exist. This bothers me. Why did I never think about it like that?

Because I was ignorant to the way that the narrative was re-written to prop it up is the short answer.
White Privilege is an even shorter one.

I'll be honest, as I was listening to this, I admit to wondering how this entire generation of Black people didn't end up in prison for stabbing racist assholes every damn day. I don't know that I would have been able to keep my cool and organize protests and boycotts and marches and lawsuits and such, knowing that the entire deck, plus 51 cards from another deck, are all stacked against them when they are dealing with attitudes like this:

"Your Black kids are not learning as much or as well in their overcrowded, underfunded schools using obsolete or out of date books and being taught by racist teachers that don't think they deserve a quality education in the first place? Well that's your fault because culturally, your kids are unruly, undisciplined, economically unstable (which is also your fault and not at all ours for preventing funding and assistance for you) and plus, they are just stupid, and you should be glad that they even HAVE a school, now sit down, shut up, and take your crumbs."

Ugh. Disgusting.

This book outlines how the Civil Rights Movement has been boiled down over time to a few events and marches and people, but it was so much bigger than that. It outlines how much more dangerous it was, and how history overlooks the organizing and the WORK put into the movement, making it seem effortless and accidental, like it just happened. History has sanitized it to make it seem almost inevitable, as though America was destined to have this turning point towards a slightly, nominally less racist society... It shows how the current BLM movement is a continuation of the CR movement, not something different or separate. It's the same fight, just with new fighters tagged in.

This book also outlines how female CR activists have been minimalized and marginalized, despite doing so much of the heavy lifting of organizing and fundraising and actively being the ones to put in the work of resisting and getting arrested, etc. From Claudette Colvin, who, at 15, refused to move to the back of the bus before Rosa Parks did it, and who later took part in a federal desegregation lawsuit (which they won), to Coretta Scott King who was instrumental in inspiring Martin Luther King Jr.'s activism, had been an activist before and long, long after MLK, and who refused, even after her house was firebombed with her and her newborn daughter inside, to move or quit, but to this day is merely "Martin Luther King's wife", to all of the everyday women who had reached their breaking points and stood up to say "No More" who have been entirely ignored by history. Even DURING the movement, the men refused to allow women to speak at marches, to walk with them, to have a seat at the table.

Rosa Parks' statue in the Capitol is of her, seated and demure, an artist depiction of her refusal to move to the back of the bus. But this representation is inaccurate. She was angry, and fed up with the racist rules and discriminatory segregation. This representation of her (and of MLK) as being "peaceful" and "not angry" completely whitewashes the fact that these acts of protest and resistance were desperation at having tried everything else, and having reached a breaking point of anger and frustration at the injustice they faced every single day.

The depiction of her, that can be pointed to by modern white men saying "THIS is how you protest for change!" is... really fucked up. Because Rosa was only one in a LONG line of people trying to press for change, taking a stand, and getting nowhere. Peacefully protesting and being attacked and arrested. And Rosa's action would likely have gone the exact same way... if it hadn't been for a COMMUNITY of people also fed up who had been organizing and laying the groundwork of getting support, and they were able to mobilize a bus boycott that very night. They were able to organize a rideshare/carpool system (the original Uber!) and a fundraising drive (the original GoFundMe!) to help keep it going for over a year, despite harsh opposition.

That boycott was crucial. That disruption was key. But also necessary was the court challenges at the FEDERAL level, which Rosa wasn't a part of (due to concerns about conflict of interest muddying the waters), and THAT is what actually effected the change. Rosa was a figurehead that could be rallied behind (as opposed to a 15 year old Claudette Colvin), and history will always thank her for that catalyst, but implying that SHE ALONE was responsible for the desegregation of busses is flat out revisionist history.

Anyway, all that is to say that I appreciated the intersectionality of this look at history. I thought it was incredibly interesting.

I only had two criticisms of this book. One is that it was rather repetitive. The book was broken up into topics, and each topic often covered some of the same ground, but from a slightly different perspective. But explaining and providing context meant that things were often rehashed again and again. It was like these chapters were written separately, and then pieced together to make a full book, without revising the entire book to avoid repetitiveness. This was a smallish pet-peeve, because sometimes I actually really appreciated the reminder of some aspects. But other times it was like "Yeah, I get it already!"

The other is the reader, Kim Staunton. I did not enjoy her reading of this. She tended to pause or change inflection in strange places, which made a sentence sound like it had ended and then she was starting a new one, only for it to not make sense as two sentences and for me to realize that it was a single sentence she read badly. This happened A LOT. The content of the book (and my desire to knit while I was reading it) was enough to keep me going, but honestly, if you can, avoid the audiobook for this one. It is worth the read, but the audio is not great.
84 reviews5 followers
February 26, 2018
I wanted to like this book more than I did. I enjoyed the author's biography of Rosa Parks, and I'm interested in the premise of this book - essentially the ways in which the narrative of the civil rights movement has been over-simplified and -sanitized, and how that impacts current political discourse. It's well-researched and I certainly learned a few things, but I was hoping for a more nuanced analysis as well as more info on the "overlooked" elements of the history. Also, I felt that the book became less engaging as it went along, as the writing was needlessly repetitive in general, and the author really hammered her main points over and over again, so I ended up skimming large sections. Recommended with caveats.
Profile Image for Brian.
313 reviews49 followers
January 27, 2021
In this important book, Professor Harris argues that the common and “official” narrative of the civil rights movement in the United States is wrong—she calls it a “fable.” The fable is neatly summarized in Julian Bond’s quip: “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.” In other words, after a couple of high-profile actions by a couple of well-known leaders, the white majority embraced the cause and everything changed.

Theoharis explores numerous ways in which this narrative is false, including, among others, the following: The common view that the civil rights movement was confined to the South, because it was only necessary in the South, ignores the racism in the North and other parts of the country, which led to school boycotts and other struggles. The idea that the movement consisted of the well-known boycotts, marches, riots, and other events of the 1950s and 1960s obscures the long history of activism that preceded them. The popular view that “fat Southern sheriffs” and other bigoted Southerners were the only people who kept Black people down lets a lot of people off the hook, even white liberals whose complacency gave silent assent to racist systems. The notion that the media lent its support to the movement and helped popularize it is wrong, especially as it pertains to the early years, when the media largely supported the status quo. And, most tellingly, the identification of the movement with Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and a few other leaders ignores the longstanding and essential activism of the Black community as a whole.

Theoharis notes that the national narrative of U.S. civil rights history frames the movement as a part of history, a struggle in the past, the success of which entitles us to self-congratulation. In this telling, civil rights progress demonstrates America’s essential goodness. “A movement that had challenged the very fabric of US politics and society was turned into one that demonstrated how great and expansive the country was—a story of individual bravery, natural evolution, and the long march to ‘a more perfect union.’” For many people, the success of the movement was demonstrated by Barack Obama’s election, which “made many of his supporters feel like we had overcome.”

Theoharis makes it clear that her critique is intended not only to set the historical record straight as an academic matter, but also to demonstrate that current expressions of the struggle, such as Black Live Matter, are consistent with the true history of the movement. She argues that the fable that America tells itself is dangerous. It’s easy to be complacent if we believe the struggle is essentially over and little or nothing more needs to be done. And with a sanitized vision of the past, it becomes easier to demonize BLM and other activists now because they are allegedly “not like Martin” or “not like Rosa.”

There are many important ideas in this book, and I learned a lot by reading it. I especially enjoyed and learned from the sections about Rosa Parks (Theoharis has also written a political biography of Rosa Parks), Coretta Scott King, and the women who were marginalized at the March on Washington, as well as about some of the school boycotts in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. And the final chapter, in which she summarizes ten lessons to be learned from the true history of the civil rights movement, is excellent.

On the negative side, I found the book to be somewhat repetitious (even to the point of repeating quotes) and unnecessarily polemical. To cite one small example of the latter, Theoharis notes that former FBI Director James Comey initiated the practice of including a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial and a discussion of a King quote in FBI agent training, in order to help understand what happens when power is abused. But instead of giving Comey some credit for this initiative and discussing it in more detail, she just dismisses it and complains that it’s inadequate for understanding how abuse of power occurs.

With those caveats, I recommend the book as a worthwhile resource for understanding the history of the U.S. civil rights movement.
Profile Image for Carmel Hanes.
Author 1 book133 followers
June 11, 2019
This is a very enlightening book. It might cause a variety of feelings in the reader--anger, disgust, embarrassment, dismay, indignation, and remorse, to name a few. As the title suggests, it tackles the history of the civil rights movement--you know, the one we were all taught in school or read about in the papers and saw on the news....or not.

I'd been fed the familiar parts of this history without realizing I was given a doctored and incomplete version. I had been served the palatable parts, the red, green and yellow jellos of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, Martin Luther King Jr. promoting peaceful protesting, and that the protests against forced busing was a "noble" effort to protect neighborhood schools--the things that slide down easily without having to chew on them much. Comfortable and soothing.

This book forces you to gnaw on all the backstory gristle. Like the busing issue as a coverup for white resistance to desegregation; like civil rights advocates having their homes bombed, losing their jobs, being subjected to violence of all kinds in their efforts to gain the same rights afforded whites; like the northern states being as entrenched in discriminatory practices as the south they criticized without recognizing their own complicit practices; like how our newspapers, evening news and textbooks presented such a skewed picture of these critical events (and still do); like how long and hard many people battled before and after Parks and King, without being heard.

If this book does nothing else, it will open your eyes to how much what we know can be controlled by those in "power". I used to think I could trust the news. I thought the current culture of "fake news" was a new phenomenon. This book changed my thinking about that. I'm sure it only addresses the tip of a very ugly iceberg. If you're interested in a more complete look at the history of the civil rights movement, this is an enlightening read.
Profile Image for Andy.
1,377 reviews467 followers
November 6, 2018
Instead of telling us the "beautiful and terrible history" advertised in the title, the author goes on redundantly for most of the book about how everyone else has failed to get the history right. This is a shame, because at the very end the reader finally gets a chapter of useful lessons from the civil rights movement. Clearly there could have been more about "uses" vs. "misuses" of the history.

Still, it was better overall than Twitter and Teargas, which was also recommended for covering the lessons of the civil rights movement.
Profile Image for Kristy Vargo.
100 reviews
March 13, 2023
I didn't finish the whole book (and merely skimmed a few of the chapters), but here are some of my thoughts:

-This is an extremely well-researched book. Theoharis meticulously assembles her information and does a respectable job of integrating it.
-The concept is fascinating. I learned so much about the Civil Rights Movement. This is a valuable read simply because it addresses widespread misconceptions about the movement (Rosa Parks was chosen to refuse to give up her seat. There was nothing accidental about it.)
-You may get called out in this book if you're a white moderate.
-My favorite chapters were about the role young people and women played in the movement.
-Coretta Scott King was a GIRLBOSS
-My one complaint is that it's extremely repetitive/cyclical, which is supposedly characteristic for dissertations.
513 reviews220 followers
April 15, 2018
Best taken in small chunks, a lot to be absorbed here. As the author shows, although certainly the high profile people in the civil rights movement such as King and Parks deserve praise, there were many people who contributed to the cause and enduring suffering. Many of them were women whose work got obscured in the grander narrative, and many were crucial in advancing the movement at the organizational level.
I highly recommend the chapter on Rosa Parks near the end, the story has been mangled over the years and there is a great deal more to the boycott movement beyond her just sitting on a bus and refusing to move.
57 reviews17 followers
February 19, 2018
If this book had been printed on sticks of dynamite, it could not have done more to blow wide open my perception of our current national fable about the Civil Rights movement and whose purpose it serves. What the author makes quite clear is that the sanitized version we have of the people and events in the movement is far too limited, tidy, and self-congratulatory to get to the essential truth that the work of desegregation and racial justice is incomplete and that white resistance to change across the nation is the reason.

Ms. Theoharis' main contention is that there is a difference between the "history we get and the history we need." The history we get gives the impression that once courageous individuals peacefully stood up to the systematic racism that existed only in the Jim Crow south, they garnered the respect and support of the nation, compelling our just system of government to act, and culminating in reaching all the goals of the movement through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This tidy fable is soothing because it allows many of us to believe the work is complete and that our nation and her citizens are responsive to injustice.

The history we need reveals the less flattering and more uncomfortable truth that the work of desegregation and racial equality is unfinished and that the resistance to change operates today much as it did fifty years ago. A more accurate and complete telling of civil rights history would reveal that individual acts of courage could only have impact when the hard work of organizing was accomplished, that systemic racism was not limited to the Jim Crow south, and that whites outside the south also resisted change through more subtle systemic manipulation while decrying the more obvious violence of the poor and uneducated southern whites. These same principles apply today when concerned citizens call out white supremacists while they ignore ongoing segregation and racial injustice in their own communities. These same mechanisms operate today when commenters across the political spectrum criticize today's activists for not acting more like Dr. King, forgetting that our nation rejected him too when his message and his actions became too uncomfortable.

For as impactful as the themes of the book were, I did find some obstacles in the writing. Ms. Theoharis is most effective when she explores an event or person with depth, such as when she provides a fuller story of the events leading up to Rosa Parks’ decision to stay seated on that Montgomery bus, or when she reveals the life long work for economic justice that is the legacy of Coretta Scott King. She is less effective in chapters where she offers too many examples of events or leaders related to a particular theme, like school desegregation. While these chapters are still important, they lack a necessary focus that draws the reader more fully into the story. Still, I highly recommend this book to anyone who care about the ongoing struggle for justice and equality in communities of color or in interested in the uses and misuses of historical narratives.
Profile Image for Bookworm.
1,843 reviews58 followers
March 14, 2018
The premise of the book sounded very intriguing and definitely something that needs to be discussed: how the Civil Rights Movement (and broader history) has been misused, appropriated, not given the full context it should when being taught (the "history we get" vs. "history we need").

It's well-researched and I definitely learned things that I don't think were taught to me (or I really don't recall) and it made me think about how the Civil Rights Movement is/was taught and would perhaps explain why (for example) certain figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. get misquoted or misrepresented. That said, the criticisms are warranted: the book feels overly academic and I felt that a refresher on the CRM and civil rights history in the US in general would have been really useful for me.

I also would have liked a discussion of perhaps how this could be remedied in the education system. And I also would have liked a broader discussion (for example, she talks about Congressman John Lewis citing Russian interference in the 2016 election and not voter suppression). This is a bit of complicated issue where voter suppression is sadly normalized and is just not an issue for many and also brings up issues of race and access (among others). I don't disagree with Theoharis's point but I'm not sure how Lewis and others could have approached it differently given the context.

It's something that needs to be discussed and it does mean we need to address the inequalities and inadequacies in the education of CR and education in general. But I skipped her first book due to similar issues in the writing: not sure if it's the style or lack of editing or my lack of familiarity with the subject.

It's a book that I would recommend, but you might have to take your time with it and be prepared to set it aside for breaks or additional research, etc.
Profile Image for Rachel.
723 reviews12 followers
May 10, 2018
A More Beautiful and Terrible History takes aim the revisionist history of the civil rights movement that we are taught as children in school and that has become the standard narrative. As someone who didn’t live through that time period, I found it incredibly enlightening. I think even people who did live through it will learn a lot because much of what was happening back then wasn’t reported accurately by the media. For instance, northern schools were just as segregated as southern schools. However, the northern segregation wasn’t codified and the school districts had all kinds of ways of getting around de-segregation. Jim Crow was not just a southern phenomenon. Another thing that was happening back then all over the country was the shooting of unarmed black men. It was easier to sweep under the rug with no cell phone videos or social media.

This book also discusses the prominent civil rights figures of that era and public perception of them back then versus now. Rosa Parks was not just a tired black woman who stayed in her bus seat on a whim. There was strategy and planning behind her decision. The lengths that people in the movement had to go to in order to make the Montgomery bus boycott work were amazing. Also, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not always well-liked. His approval ratings were actually quite low at points. His wife Coretta was also a central figure in the movement, not just a standing by her man wife.

A More Beautiful and Terrible History is a must read. I wish that everyone who is part of the “Why don’t they just get over it and pull themselves up by their bootstraps?” club would read it so they could see how white people have been systematically taking away black people’s boots for years in ALL areas of the country. I’m very glad I read this book and recommend it to everyone.
Profile Image for Dave.
747 reviews21 followers
July 4, 2020
Historian Theoharis packs a lot into this slender volume. She starts by describing the history of the Civil Rights movement that we have. She describes it as a fable, summarized by Julian Bond: "Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the white kids came down and saved the day." She then follows with chapters describing "the history we need." Chapters include: segregation in the North that was downplayed by the media even as papers criticized southern cities and states for the same policies; the almost total absence of women in the history of Civil Rights with the exception of Rosa Parks who, as Theoharis says, is stuck on a bus, ignoring all of her prior and later activism; an examination of all of the problem-solving efforts for Blacks to work through the system in Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington DC and elsewhere for at least a decade with no movement, until violence erupted and astonished politicians claimed "If only they had come to us sooner."

These are just some of the themes explored in this book. An overarching theme compares today's Black Lives Matter movement to the Civil Right movement of the mid-20th century. Most people today compare the two unfavorably. If only today's movement leaders could be more like MLK and Rosa Parks, they say. The fact is, Theoharis claims, they are more like the true movement activists, but not like the fable that has become our chosen history. There is much to think about in this book. I wish more people would read it and more eyes could be opened.
Profile Image for Tim.
295 reviews290 followers
September 11, 2020
Throughout American history Black Justice and freedom movements have never been seen as legitimate by the vast majority of Americans. They have always been rejected, violently attacked and harassed by both citizens and the government. There are no exceptions to this. The movement around the middle of the 20th Century is no different. But those leaders are so convenient to have around now that they're dead. As Theoharis shows here, MLK was actually disliked by more Americans at the time of his death (statistically) than currently disapprove of BLM according to surveys I've seen. So, no, if the message of MLK was experienced today as it was in the 60s he wouldn't be honorably remembered on Fox News every January, he would be a pariah for Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson et al to criticize and likely declared a terrorist.

Black movements are never good enough for white people - never good enough for the majority - never good enough for conservatives. Blacks never protest correctly. They never strive for justice correctly. They are always told it's wrong. This is a book that shows this has always been the case and that the present moment is always more messy than the way it's portrayed through books and memories when the actors are gone. Black Lives Matter is legitimate and its demands deserve to be heard even though they have been continuously voiced by Blacks throughout our history. And "the American dream" will continue to be a lie as long as people of color have to continue this fight.
Profile Image for Edward Rathke.
Author 10 books127 followers
November 17, 2020
This book primarily covers the aspects of the Civil Rights movement that have been underreported and rarely discussed: namely, northern racism and segregation.

Theoharis spends a good amount of time highlighting how the NYT, Boston Globe, and LA Times so fiercely covered Jim Crow and segregation in the South, but basically ignored their own systemically racist policies in their own cities. Segregation in the North and West was very real, destructive, and faced with its own major Civil Rights protests. Yet somehow these papers of note completely ignored them!

Along with that, Theoharis challenges the way the Civil Rights movement is taught. Specifically its focus on Great Men, at the exclusion of women and the multitude of activists who made the movement possible. As great as MLK and Malcolm X were, they did not stand alone. There were thousands behind them, powering the movement. Often times well before more prominent names got attached to their protests. Then there was the immense role of women that largely remains ignored. Included Coretta Scott King, the wife of MLK.

But, yeah, this is a great book. Gives you a much fuller understanding of the Civil Rights movement.
Profile Image for Alex.
27 reviews
July 3, 2021
This book should be mandatory reading for everyone. It gives a fuller picture of the Civil Rights Movement and the resistance to the Civil Rights Movement (including the North) than I ever learned in school. It teaches the reader that media is not always on your side. It tells the *intentionally* forgotten stories of women leaders in the Civil Rights Movement as well as the role that students played. It's a guidebook to modern movements for racial justice by lifting up the stories of the past. Even if (especially if) you consider yourself a "woke" liberal, you need to read this book. It's a book I will go back to time and time again.
Profile Image for Adam Shields.
1,658 reviews88 followers
February 2, 2022
Summary: A retelling of civil rights era history noting ways in which traditional framing distorts the history. 

I am very interested in how framing and bias can distort history. Some books that I have read previously that have informed my perspective on this are Battle for Bonhoeffer (about how this works with an individual, not just more extensive history), Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction by John Fea (which looks at a historical topic and the ways that Christian nationalism, in particular, distorts historical analysis) and Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David Blight (which looks at how there was an intentional misremembering at the end of the Civil War to reunify the United States by orienting the US toward a vision of white racial superiority instead of orienting the country toward the rights of newly freed Black citizens.) I have heard about A More Beautiful and Terrible several times, but some quotes from Jamar Tisby in one of his newsletters caused me to finally pick it up.

Once I read for a little while, I looked up some background on the author. Jeanne Theoharis is a political science professor at Brooklyn College. She is the daughter of Athan Theoharis, a historian who specialized in the history of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, and other US intelligence agencies, which is a fascinating background for a father when Jeanne specializes in civil rights history. Liz Theoharis is Jeanne's sister, a professor at Union Seminary, an ordained minister in the PCUSA, and co-chair, along with William Barber, of the modern Poor People's Campaign. Again, I think it is essential background to know that Jeanne Theoharis is writing about the use and misuse of civil rights history, while her sister is helping to lead one of the most important civil rights organizations that is actively organizing for civil and economic rights. (I also know locally active people in the Poor People's Campaign.)

Each chapter is about one aspect of the civil rights story and how the traditional framing can distort the way we remember and think about civil rights history. I think this is a reasonable organizational method, but it also leads to some repetition because the chapters have overlapping content.

Chapter one is about desegregation, but instead of telling the story of a southern Brown v Board, it tells of a failed story of integration in Boston. The Massachusetts legislature passed the Racial Integration act in 1965, eleven years after Brown. But school boards refused to acknowledge school segregation. Nearly 25 years after the NAACP chapter in Boston created an Eduction committee and organized around desegregation, there was a federal lawsuit and an order to use bussing to integrate Boston schools and federal supervision of the plan until the late 1980s. Resistance to busing was strong, and White flight reduced the city's White population. The 1974 Supreme Court case limited desegrated busing to municipalities, effectively limited busing and allowing residential segregation and white flight to continue school segregation. Primarily we think of school desegregation as a success story in the US.

The year 1989 was the high point of school integration, and like in Boston, federal oversight largely had stopped by the late 1980s. Schools have been segregating again so that the likelihood of a Black or Hispanic student going to a school that is 80% or more Black or Hispanic was roughly the same as in the late 1960s to early 1970s when many districts were only starting their desegregation efforts. As I have said before, the Louisville school district, where my mother spent part of her elementary years (she is a couple of weeks younger than Ruby Bridges), did not desegregate until the school year I was born. School segregation today is different from school segregation in the past. It is not overtly legal for one reason. It is also not complete in the same way. Historically, school segregation was universal; there were no Black students in a White segregated school. Today's schools are technically integrated, but most white students attend majority-white schools, and most minority students attend majority-minority schools. Part of this is that schools are econonomicly isolated and that class and economics have a racial dimension. It is also that neighborhoods are still largely racially segregated because of historic housing patterns. But all of that is background, which gives context to how we tell the story of school desegregation efforts as a hero story.

The second chapter is about how the view of race riots of the 1960s tends to ignore resistance to community organizing that had often gone on for decades before riots. Primarily focusing on LA and Detroit, I learned about the Detroit Great March in 1963, several months before the March on Washington that had at least 125,000 in attendance (using Wikipedia's numbers) and maybe as many as 200,000 (using the book's estimate). When riots are framed as starting out of the blue, instead of contextualizing them within a larger civil rights movement, often a failed one, it further diminishes how civil rights history is a history of many local movements, not just a few big players. The other part of this is that most racial riots in the civil rights and post-civil rights era are in northern or western cities, where civil rights gains were much less tangible. One of the book's central themes is that while southern racism was more overt, the more subtle racism of the north and west was more likely to be sustained and unchanged.

The third chapter was about polite racism and the "white moderate" and how geography class and economics matter to how racism was viewed. In many ways, this is the message of the Letter From a Birmingham Jail. But it also matters to the following chapters. It is easier to portray overt racism with batons and firehoses than polite racism of zoning restrictions and media bias.

The fourth chapter is about the problems of civil rights media coverage. Generally, national media was based in the north, covering civil rights in the north as a local story, while civil rights in the south was a national story—resisting to using similar words to describe similar situations in the north as the south. In the south, the media portrayed school segregation as a problem of racism but tended to both not use the word segregation when describing schools in the north and to frame the story as a result of housing choice, as if housing segregation was not also a systemic reality. While media coverage was essential to the civil rights gains in the south, the lack of nationalized media coverage in northern civil rights protests also contributed to the lack of progress. The northern media was also much more favorable toward government officials and white counter-protestors in northern cities than against southerners, even when many of the issues were very similar.

The fifth chapter is about how we tend to forget that the civil rights movement was not solely about race. It was also about economic justice, criminal justice reform, and global justice issues. The Montgomery bus boycott was not just about riders; it was also about the refusal of the bus company to hire black workers. The 1963 March on Washington was officially titled the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Martin Luther King Jr's popularity was never high, but it moved significantly lower when he argued that the Vietnam war was unjust. And the US State Department and intelligence agencies worked to hinder international cooperation between the civil rights and peace movements in the US and other peace and justice movements around the world.

Chapters six and seven are about the "Great Man View of History" and how youth and women were significant to the civil rights movement. These chapters also touch on how many think of the modern youth-oriented BLM and anti-police brutality movement differently from the historic youth-oriented restaurant and transportation protests. (The quote from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed suggesting that MLK never shut down a highway is shockingly historically ignorant.) SNCC leadership was very young. John Lewis was the head of SNCC from the ages of 23 to 26. And he was replaced by Kwame Ture (Stokley Carmichael), who was 25, and then H Rap Brown, who was also 25. The historic Civil Rights movement was dependent upon women as organizers. Still, the leadership as a whole, in part because it was oriented around clergy, was almost entirely male and tended towards overt sexism. The March on Washington only included male speakers. And only allowed men to come to the White House after the march. Post-1963, women were more resistant to sexist leadership. They took more visible roles in civil rights organizations, but stories still focus on the few "great men" of the movement and ignore how many local actors were required for a mass movement.

Chapters eight and nine are about the ways that systems work. Government systems, political officials, the FBI, and police mattered to keeping segregation and oppression in place. Lyndon Johnson may have signed many of the most important Civil Rights bills, but he also used the FBI to subvert the civil rights movement in ways that were very much illegal by law at the time. He also used the FBI as a political source of information for his 1964 campaign and to discredit political opponents. Many of the rumors that the FBI planted in the media still are believed. The modern civil rights movement systems, a decentralized and largely leaderless movement, are lessons learned from the historic civil rights movement. There are weaknesses to a decentralized movement, but also strengths.

I think that there are weaknesses to A More Beautiful and Terrible History. I think it probably relies on educational desegregation a bit too much. But like her frequent references to Rosa Parks and MLK, the history that people know influences historical memory. And so, in trying to reframe a historical story, it is necessary to reference the parts that people know best. It is harder to reframe a reasonably well-known "hero story" like the civil rights movement than to tell a relatively unknown story. To reframe a story, you have to show why the traditional story is inadequate or inaccurate and then build the case for the new framing. That is a slow and necessarily repetitive process. But this type of reframing is essential, and I highly recommend A More Beautiful and Terrible History.

Profile Image for Audrey.
1,282 reviews
March 9, 2018
I received a copy of this book as an Early Reviewer from LibraryThing and the publisher.
This is an important book but not an easy or perfect one. Theoharis points out the hypocrisies in our current teachings of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.as THE Civil Rights movement, of ignoring the decades of organized struggle by many people. Teaching the history of Parks and King as one act of defiance and one great speech is detrimental to our understanding of the movement and to the politics and movements of today in the author's view. Ignoring the fact that at the time of these actions, these two heroes were reviled much more than respected and that their actions brought upon them a sense of isolation and economic hardships which lasted for years is to gloss over the hardships of activism. She points out the hypocrisies in Northern reports on Southern racism while segregation and "busing" issues were alive and strong in New York and Boston, two cities long believed to be the home of liberalism. Theoharis does a wonderful job of spotlighting the long years of struggle and organizing which took place, sometimes unsuccessfully, in the name of freedom and some of the unknown activists who spent their lives, and sometimes lost their lives in this ongoing struggle. This book is also one of the few books on the Civil Rights Movement that highlighted the many women who supported and sometimes led the movement.
Some of the less than perfect aspects of this book included the formatting. Instead of meeting these issues chronologically, the reader finds the book sectioned by education, media, etc. The problem is that several sentences are picked up word by word from one section and repeated in another providing a "repetitive" reading experience. This book also reads like an academic text which could definitely cause some consternation in the casual reader. While Theodakis did a wonderful job of highlighting the women involved in the movement, while she mentions Black Lives Matters, she does not acknowledge the leadership provided by provided by its founding women. It would also have been interesting to hear more about what exactly students are being taught from a student's viewpoint. The Author maintains that we are teaching Civil Rights as if the movement ended at the Voting Rights Act and Brown vs Board of Education; however, doesn't seem to have a plan for education of students on why Malcolm X, The Black Panthers, and continued systemic racism as evidenced by the continued police shootings and "unpatriotic" rhetoric against Black Lives Matter activists is important.
Overall, this is an important and worthwhile read.
Profile Image for Angela.
173 reviews28 followers
December 15, 2019
"White America came to embrace King in the same way that most white South Africans came to accept Nelson Mandela–grudgingly and gratefully, retrospectively, selectively, without grace but with considerable guile. By the time they realised that their dislike of him was spent and futile, he had created a world in which admiring him was in their own self-interest. Because, in short, they had no choice."- Gary Younge

This book is very informative in regards to particular moments in the Civil Rights Movement, both in the Jim Crow South and North, however, I feel it was too repetitive. I find that certain authors of nonfiction books repeat themselves in order to simply extend the page count otherwise it won't be considered as much of a definitive text. In that regard, the book rehashed many things said previously especially in one chapter in particular where it felt more like a recap of everything said in the previous ones. I also wish it delved more into what the title suggests, The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. Examples of this misuse was interspersed throughout but not as much as I was expecting. I imagined far more specific contemporary examples of this and then a debunking with historical fact, but unfortunately, I found more examples of this said in the introduction than the rest of the chapters. The examples of hypocrisy, whitewashing, revision, and co-option done by Mike Huckabee, Trump, Ted Cruz, Obama, Clinton, Reagan, Bush, etc. were more prevalent in the preface and introduction than the entirety of the text.

I don't want to overstate though, it did give examples of how the Civil Rights Movement as well as other forms of Black Liberation struggles are used against current activists and progressive movements that are simply continuing the fight against imperialism, militarism, racism, capitalist exploit, the surveillance state, and de-funding of welfare programs. Theoharis quotes Obama from his March on Washington anniversary speech to show the way in which he and others paint Civil Rights and Black Power as diametrically opposed in order to suggest only one was about racial and economic justice. This is then used to denigrate current movements as also not being in the spirit of the "respectable" Civil Rights. She also highlights the way in which the news media helped and harmed movements. She points to how John Lewis praises the bravery of journalists going out and reporting on what was happening in the South, despite the fact that they often had a different tune when it came to protests in the North. The beginnings of the "inner city" and "be more like King" narratives that are thrown at BLM today had already begun to take root in the era of King ironically.

Despite my critiques this book is still worth the read and I did discover new information. For example, I didn't realize the movie The Butler did much to paint a respectability narrative that wasn't an entirely accurate depiction of Eugene Allen's life. The movie gives him two sons: the one who dies in Vietnam (true) and the one who becomes a Black Panther much to his dismay (false). The son who represents the "scary" radical isn't real. "By the film's end, Louis rejects the Panthers' "violence" for more "reasonable" electoral politics and "respectable" women. While Black Power is rendered as dangerous youthful naivete, war is treated as patriotic. Charlie attends Howard University... and he enlists in the army at a time when protest movement among Black soldiers was rising and Black anticolonialism was burgeoning–yet none of this is depicted."

I also had no idea Harry Belafonte was disinvited to Coretta Scott King's funeral in 2006 because he, along with her and Rosa Parks, were highly critical of the war. Once President Bush was expected to come to the funeral it was seen as better to not have Belafonte present despite being one of the Kings' most closest comrades. That is just one example of how they began to slowly quiet and neuter the message of those large figures like Coretta Scott King, especially once they were no longer around to speak out against them, and those that had their back were excluded from having a seat at the table even when it was simply to grieve and say goodbye.
Profile Image for Linda Robinson.
Author 4 books134 followers
June 21, 2018
You Are There. I remembered this program as I finished Theoharis' book last night. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Are...

Americans have an interesting relationship with the story of civil rights from WWII forward. We relied on our news sources during the time to be truthful with us. The Crisis Magazine, the official quarterly of the NAACP, in its most recent issue, covers iconic moments. https://www.thecrisismagazine.com/

What we read in the Detroit newspapers in 1967 about the rebellion didn't quite jibe with people's stories on the street, or the long facts of Detroit police brutality, inequality in housing and education, decades of suppression for the Black community. For the record once again: it was not a riot. And it didn't happen magically in a few hours one night. And the LA Times continued the obliteration of history, with an entertainment review "oh my gosh, how did this happen?" with its ticking clock timeline of "real-life events that led to Bigelow's film."

We learn in this book that what was reported about the struggle for justice after WWII was not what was happening. Especially in the North, where the major newspapers abnegated responsibility to report accurately, and in fact, probably suppressed news. About Boston and parents working for education resources. About New York, still the most segregated school system in the country.

Montgomery bus boycott and the role Rosa Parks actually undertook leading up to that historic event is covered well here. Coretta Scott King's activism - before she met her husband, and after he was assassinated - as she herself put it, she was treated like a vacuum cleaner attachment. The words used to "honor" both women. Beautiful, quiet, serene.

The history of desegregation in the South and the never-happened desegregation of the North. We have the implanted historical perspective that the struggle for civil rights was an uprising that the whole population embraced; that Martin Luther King, Jr. and his message were popular in America.

As we watch in real time the role media is playing in delivering us a despot and a Congress that is not held in glaring regard by the major news sources, Theoharis, in Chapter Four, lays out the complicity of major newspapers that conveyed the shock white America portrayed that all was not well in the realm, as Black and Latinx parents who had worked for years took to the streets in anguish and frustration. How the decades-long fight for resources in education was washed away to allow cover stories about troublemakers, outside agitators, reds, written for and by people who "claimed no prejudice." That particular creepy quote was used more than once, by newspapers we need to respect. The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Detroit News, and Detroit Free Press.

We are introduced to the organizing of the March on Washington; how the male leadership shut the women out of participating. The women honored by mention were not allowed to speak on the Mall, nor were the women allowed to march in front, even with their husbands. Reminder here: Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis. Another reminder: the women who contributed mightily to organizing the March: Anna Arnold Hedgeman (who needs credit for the large number of white Christian leaders and laypeople at the March), Pauli Murray (who wrote A. Philip Randolph about her anger at the decision to keep the women in a separate, smaller March). The women "honored" in the speech but not allowed to talk: Rosa Parks, Gloria Richardson, Diane Nash, Myrlie Evers, Prince Lee, Daisy Bates. The women's "side march" also had wardrobe instructions from the NAACP. No jeans. Hat, gloves, and a dress. Richardson reacted to that unappreciated edict by finding a jeans skirt somewhere in Maryland.

The history of the long struggle needs to be understood in context. Theoharis calls the way we've burned the whole story of the goals of eliminating racism, classism and militarism as America's self-cleaning oven. Excessive and intrusive surveillance of activists didn't end with J. Edgar Hoover. Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, Bush, Clinton - all used the departments of the federal government for their own ends. Knowing the history allows us to find footing for the future.

The work for justice was never about individuals; cannot be about individuals. Groups, organizations, women around kitchen tables who fought off depression and futility to continue the mission. The women who worked and died to move forward.

We must remember the history. We must understand that the heroes we honor today were backed by thousands of people who do not have a statue. People who were tired and scared and despite the fear and the fatigue, fought on.

I've talked with friends about Rosa Parks, some who did not know it was not a single refusal to get up from a Montgomery bus seat, who did not know she was active, trained and continually engaged for decades before that December day in 1955. She had been thrown off the bus before for refusing to pay in the front, but get out and enter at the rear. The photos that are usually attached to a story about her were, in fact, not from the day she was arrested, but from the day she and dozens of others were arrested later in the year, in a move to discredit and end the boycott.

Not knowing her activist history well is why, I believe, the statue of Rosa Parks in the Capitol shows her seated, her handbag in her lap, hat perched on her head, ankles crossed, her shoulders slumped. Just a demure housewife who was too tired to give up her seat on that morning. The call for submissions for the statue of Rosa Parks by the National Endowment for the Arts gathered 115 entrants. The chosen artist was a white man, which is. Not surprising. I'd love to see the other 114 ideas.

Rosa Parks also restarted a young person NAACP group in 1954. She knew building a community of support for the long-term was key. She saw what was needed. As Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander Folk School where Parks found guidance and calm strength, said Ms. Parks was the quietest participant. "If you judge by the conventional standards she would have been the least promising probably. We don't use conventional standards, so we had high hopes for her."

This is a succinct guide for young people who feel a call to activism. The goals remain to be achieved. The movement was not spontaneous and certainly did not retrieve instant results. Young persons need to continue to strive for economic justice, desegregation, criminal justice, education justice and global justice. King and Parks were not dreamy. They were committed, relentless and fierce.
Profile Image for Mel Luna.
317 reviews10 followers
October 25, 2020
It took me a few months and two libraries to complete, but I loved it. What a wonderful and necessary book. In it Theoharis highlights the ways in which the Civil Rights era has been co-opted as a celebration of nationalistic exceptionalism. She dismantles this national fable by articulating the lie of it - the erasure of women and youth, the immensity of the sacrifices of organizing over decades and seeing no change, as well as the brutal and relentless opposition by white citizens and the government. This is a sobering account that points a way forward by shining a light on the past.
In her acknowledgments the author states about her students at Brooklyn College, "There is nothing in these dark days that gives me more hope than going to class and watching the critical engagement, resolve, and generosity that my students embody and the ways they understand knowledge as crucial to a better world." May we honor the long bloody struggle for human rights by continuing to push back against oppression today.
Profile Image for Caleb Lagerwey.
143 reviews9 followers
July 14, 2022
This book did a great job of exploring a few ways the modern African American Civil Rights Movement is often simplified in its modern telling. Theoharis highlights overlooked stories/facts like Rosa Parks' activism, the true difficulty of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the fact that students and women were far more involved that the "MLK alone" traditional narrative, the segregation in the North that was equally appalling in places like NYC schools and Boston (busing), and the breadth and depth of the Black Power struggle that was far larger (and less aggressive) than the traditional Black Panther storyline.

While Theoharis has the prerogative to write about she chooses, I wish this book had included more about the modern "misuses of the Civil Rights" movement by politicians co-opting MLK--especially with the pernicious lie that MLK advocated for colorblindness through a single out-of-context quote from his "I Have a Dream Speech." She does a fine job of explaining how unpopular MLK was throughout the 1960s and even after his death--especially after he came out against the Vietnam War--but I wanted a final piece that explored how radical MLK was and how off the mark many modern conservative appeals to him truly are.

I recommend this book to educators looking to spice up their Civil Rights lessons, both for its story tidbits and its ability to correct overall narratives.
Profile Image for Luke McCarnan.
155 reviews1 follower
September 10, 2020
This book reminded me of Ibram X. Kendi's books, "Stamped from the Beginning" and "How to Be An Antiracist". It told the wider and deeper history of Civil Rights in America much like "Stamped", and exposed intersections and blindspots like "Antiracist". There is so much work to be done, but much to be learned from what has already happened. This should be a textbook for high schools.
Profile Image for Christina.
191 reviews13 followers
January 3, 2021
Wow. The amount of people power in this book is wonderful. All activists should read this to really see the many connections. Also, i may be rethinking my understanding of MLK and Rosa Parks. The narrative that was told and continues to be told is one created by the mainstream (you know what i mean) media this was the narrative they wanted us to read...also. the North was far more racist than most realize. Reading this really helped me to understand just how it is that those parents continue to craft a narrative that centers white middle class...
Profile Image for AJ.
1,450 reviews113 followers
March 19, 2022
This very important book points out that the Civil Rights movement, now looked at through a sanitized filter, was just as messy as modern movements such as BLM. The modern narrative that Civil Rights were gained in a timely, organized format, we neglect to realize that messy, seemingly chaotic, long-term struggle is required to fight against racism.
Profile Image for shoesforall.
215 reviews5 followers
November 3, 2019
Even though this book had quite an extensive collection of footnotes, I wish that more primary sources had been used. It might have made the book less accessible to general audiences but it would have made the book more durable. Overal impression: a flawed but vital read.
Profile Image for Ivy.
159 reviews
August 5, 2020
For anyone who does not believe in or does not fully understand systemic racism. North and south oppression in education, the press failure to report, and history half truths that fail to credit the true and long struggle for equal rights.
Profile Image for Chelsea.
150 reviews28 followers
July 15, 2020
Very well researched, but maybe to the author’s demise. It is incredibly repetitive. I found myself skimming large sections due to this fact. Just because you find multiple sources for a single statement doesn’t mean you need to reiterate the statement that many times. Once is enough - we get it.
There is a lot of interesting history on the CRM, especially in regards to Rosa Parks and MLK.
Profile Image for anthony sendzimer.
200 reviews1 follower
September 16, 2020
excellent! assigned to me in undergrad, didn't read it in full, felt remorse, read it in full, was happy with decision! going to buy a copy of my own to refer back to and yell at people
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