A Historiographic Analysis of the Civil Rights Movement
Perhaps the defining issue of twentieth century American history is that of the civil rights struggle, which had been building since the end of the Civil War and finally came to a peak during the 1960s. Much has been written about this fight against racism, violence, and overt inequality that has been inflicted upon literally millions of Americans for generations. Change was necessary, but not easily wrought, as there were enough people tied to the old ways and willing to fight for them to make sure that the status quo was not easily defiled.
How then are these changes to be made? On one hand, both historians and the mainstream public have virtually canonized leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., making them into powerful figures that single-handedly shaped American society by shear force of their personalities alone. These arguments tend to nullify, or severely diminish the work carried out by those at the local level. These would be men and women such as Ella Baker, Alabama radical Hosea Hunter, and countless others who worked at the grass roots level to effect change first inside their own communities, and then to spread that seed of change out to the rest of the world. One example of this historical approach is Jeffrey Ogbar’s work, Black Power, a very useful text that is unashamedly a history of leaders and not of followers.1
On the other hand, grass root histories tend to altogether ignore the impact that these high profile leaders had in an effort to blindly follow and provide proof to the idea of agency among African Americans. This distance that usually separates the top-down histories from the bottom-up, or grass roots histories suddenly becomes a cavernous space when applied to civil rights historiography. Both approaches supply rich amounts of historical information, but they tend to leave little room for compromise, which is ironic, as both groups struggled for the same end. Racial equality was a dream of many that could not be subverted.
However, according to constitutional historian Michael J. Klarman, it was not a dram that could be achieved by as simple a matter as just changing the law to increase racial equality. Changes had to come from within the society itself to be effective, and as Klarman argues, “constitutional interpretation almost inevitably reflects the broader social and political context of the times.”2 These changes did come, though; slowly at first, and then gradually picking up steam until in the 1960s it seemed as if the civil rights movement could not be derailed by any force.
African Americans found numerous ways in which to prove themselves capable of being equal citizens, and fight for their dignity and liberties. African Americans fought in both World War I and II, proving that they were both willing and able to fight, defend, and die for the United States of America. This gave them a taste of militancy, and built their self-confidence. Blacks also pursued seemingly innocuous activities throughout the twentieth century such as establishing small businesses, developing a small but stable middle-class, and becoming more highly educated over time than they had been in the nineteenth century. These activities may not seem threatening, but they are the very activities that undermine the subordination required in any society for rampant racism to flourish. More direct acts by blacks included activities such as SNCC sponsored sit-ins, freedom rides, rallies, and marches, all of which brought much heightened awareness to the problems and helped to exert greater pressure over politicians, and perhaps even society as a whole.
In response to their efforts, unfortunately, African Americans often received harsh reprisals from a repressive regime bent on continuing their dominance over these people. There are numerous examples of this tactic, and happened most brutally in the Deep South. Being that the old states of the Confederacy had much higher African American population densities than other areas, this may at first seem odd. However, it can be argued that these areas were necessarily more socially oppressive in order to maintain the dominant role of whites in these areas. As stated by Klarman, threats against African Americans in the form of social, economic, and physical violence helped hold together the social hierarchy of the South, limiting the ability of these blacks to bring their dreams to fruition.3
Arguably, Klarman’s From Jim Crow to Civil Rights falls into the category of a grass roots history. Although dealing specifically with decisions handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States of America, these are cases set into motion by “small” individuals who, typically at great personal risk, are standing up to challenge the social civil rights injustices that he or she has been faced with. Klarman states that the Supreme Court verdicts handed down often had little immediate effect on racial inequality. Quite the opposite is true, as a matter of fact. Only after society itself became more socially conscious does constitutional law follow. One painful example that Klarman cites is that of one of the most famous civil rights cases in American history; Brown v. the Board of Education.
While lauded as a milestone case, the Brown case sadly did not bring an immediate end to school segregation, and even caused severe reprisals by whites in some areas of the South. Northern whites, which generally supported the decision, were not willing to aggressively enforce it. Therefore, a large percentage of schools remained segregated for decades to come.4 Klarman does an excellent job of arguing his thesis that instead of leading the civil rights charge, the Supreme Court tended to simply reflect the prevailing social standards of the time.5 If change was to be affected, it was plainly clear that it could not come from litigation alone. Klarman makes plainly clear that other strategies would be necessary.
Those African Americans at the grass roots level illustrate the ways in which matters were taken into the hands of the lower classes in order to affect change. Along with Klarman, other excellent examples of this bottom-up approach are Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, and Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. It is perhaps hard for some to imagine how intertwined civil rights and Cold War politics were in the post World War II era, but for many the two were, in fact, inseparable. American historian, and head of the Center for American Studies in Austin, Don Carleton has shown in his study of Communism in Texas, Red Scare!, that even in Houston, tactics such as red-baiting were often used in order to deflect demands for civil rights and labor rights.6
In Hammer and Hoe, Robin Kelley explores the connection between the Communist Party and the civil rights movement in Alabama during the Great Depression. Kelley argues that in order to effectively develop a stable foundation for the American Communist Party (CPUSA) in Alabama, party members were forced to recruit and develop a coalition among the lower class black workers of the state, the likes of which did not develop in other states. Alabama Communists therefore found themselves dealing with the day-to-day practical problems facing African American workers, particularly in the steel industry.7 While it is perhaps true that Alabama was certainly unique in these respects, Kelley does not go far enough in explaining why this is the case, nor does the author fully share with the reader why Birmingham was inversely so representative of the rest of the state of Alabama. Despite these issues, it is clear that this early political radicalism helped to set the stage for later fights for racial equality.
Perhaps the figure best able to bridge these two approaches to Civil Rights historiography is Ella Baker. Although not a household name in the United States, Ella Josephine Baker has every right to be one. A grass roots organizer for over fifty years, and firm believer in the power of the ordinary people around her to affect changes in the world, she preferred to remain behind the scenes. In her biography of Ella Baker, Barbara Ransby shows the reader a powerfully driven woman who took part in the most influential civil rights organizations of the twentieth century, the SCLC, SNCC, and the NAACP. Mrs. Baker, a wise woman who saw the civil rights movement as an ongoing process and not an end goal, perceived racism to be the ultimate litmus test for American democracy.8 Mrs. Ransby’s work is well documented, with much of her information deriving from first person oral interviews with the participants.
Ella Baker’s history sheds light on a great many of the people and events that swirled around her in her long life. Through Baker’s eyes we see parts of the Civil Rights movement that are often hidden from view. For example, we see through her eyes the rampant sexism that hindered her and other African American women within the SCLC in particular, but also more broadly within the black Baptist church and the culture in general.9 We also see through her the influence of individuals such as Bayard Rustin and Stanley David Levison on Martin Luther King, Jr. Baker suggested to companions that Levison’s position within King’s inner circle was most likely due to his ability to raise money for King.10 Baker spent a lifetime content to be the person “behind the curtain”, allowing others to be in the spotlight. Despite this, her skills as a master organizer made her indispensable to those around her. She made no bones, however, in sharing the fact that she did not approve of personality driven organizations such as King had forged around himself.
No other individual embodied the image of the American Civil Rights movement to the degree that Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has in the last half century. Scholars have consistently busied themselves studying personality driven leadership such as that personified by King, and perhaps Malcolm X. There are two dangers to this kind of scholarship. The first is that which was mentioned in the introduction to this paper, namely that it could marginalize the importance of those “followers” of these men. Secondly, there is a danger that the leader will become a two-dimensional icon that ultimately looses his reality. The historiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. illustrates both of these points. Historian David Thelan has said that, “King grew to believe that the American practices of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism revealed ideals that themselves needed changing.”11
Vincent Harding, a Professor of Theology at the University of Denver, has said, “it appears that the price for the first national holiday honoring a black man is the development of a massive case of national amnesia concerning who that black man really was.”12 Harding argues that King’s real value as a national icon is being preempted by a sort of commodification and over-simplification of his message that has taken place since his death. Going further, Harding derisively says that King has become,
“the never-ending repetition of the great speech and its dream metaphor, the sometimes innocent and sometimes manipulative boxing of King into the relatively safe categories of ‘civil rights leader,’ ‘great orator,’ harmless dreamer of black and white children on the hillside.”13
The author’s point is that the real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a much more dynamic and radical person than the “harmless dreamer” described above. King was, in fact, not just the embodiment of his “I Have a Dream” speech. By the end off his life Dr. King had become arguably as radical in the eyes of most whites as Malcolm X, and to forget that is to marginalize his life’s work.
Harding goes as far as to construct for the reader a group of five basic philosophies that Dr. King held, and which shaped his thinking towards the end of his life. According to Harding, King believed in the need for fundamental changes in mainstream American values, and economic and political structures. Secondly, he saw connections between the United States’ domestic economic problems and our political position within the world. Thirdly, he believed that the poor could be organized to fight against the status quo to alleviate poverty. Next, he perceived the fact that as his ideas radicalized, he would no longer get even reluctant support from the government. Finally, that King was unwilling to change his religious commitments.14
Going much further down this path than Professor Harding is ordained Baptist minister and professor, Michael Eric Dyson. While perhaps not a traditional work of history, Dyson’s text radicalizes King’s memory and life’s work in a way that few other histories have done. Dyson’s Martin Luther King, Jr. is not the King of the “I Have a Dream” speech, but, instead, the King of his enemies. Dyson’s King is Martin Luther King, Jr. as seen by the likes of Jesse Helms, who called him “an action-oriented Marxist,” and, of course, J. Edgar Hoover, who labeled him “the most dangerous Negro in America.”15 This is the Martin Luther King, Jr. that most Americans would be unfamiliar with, and probably even be uncomfortable with, and that is exactly what Dyson wants. One further example is that most Americans are likely unaware that Dr. King split with the National Baptist Convention in the early 1960s and joined the newly formed Progressive Baptist Convention.
This type of scholarship, while arguably helping to redeem for Americans a long overlooked piece of the historical record, pushes personality-driven, top-down history into high gear. Dyson presents King in a humanizing light, squarely tackling issues such as his extra-marital affairs, and his chauvinistic attitudes towards women in general. The author discusses how these drawbacks caused King problems with many of the women around him, including Ella Baker, Dorothy Cotton, and even his own wife.16 However, King’s personal issues could never overshadow the work that he completed for the Civil Rights movement.
King, Baker, Malcolm X, and countless other African Americans stood up to the racial inequality that ran counter to the freedom described in the Constitution of the United States. By doing so they forced mainstream Americans to step up and make long overdue changes to the way in which we see our neighbors. Not that the job was completed in the 1960s, but the groundwork was firmly laid. We will never know the names of every grass roots “average” person that had the courage to affect some level of change in this struggle, but we can honor them through the memories of those few that are known to mainstream American society. It is critically important, however, that these men, such as Dr. King, stood on the shoulders of thousands of others to be where they are in our collective cultural memories.
Bibliography Carleton, Don E. Red Scare! Rightwing Hysteria, Fifties Fanaticism, and Their Legacy in Texas. Austin, Texas: Texas Monthly Press, 1985.
Dyson, Michael Eric. I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: The Free Press, 2000.
Harding, Vincent Gordon. “Beyond Amnesia: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Future of America.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No.2 (Sep., 1987), p. 468-476.
Kelly, Robin D. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Ogbar, Jeffrey. Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity. Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Thelan, David. “Introduction: Around Table, Martin Luther King, Jr.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No.2 (Sep., 1987), p. 436-437.
1 Jeffrey Ogbar, Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2004).
2 Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p.5.
3 Klarman, Jim Crow, p. 59-60.
4 Klarman, Jim Crow, p. 421-424, 464.
5 Ibid, p. 5-6.
6 Don E. Carleton. Red Scare! Rightwing Hysteria, Fifties Fanaticism, and Their Legacy in Texas (Austin, Texas: Texas Monthly Press, 1985), p.168.
7 Robin D. Kelley. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), p. 113-115.
8 Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press), p. 5-8.
9 Ransby, Ella Baker, p. 183-185.
10 Ibid, p. 173-174.
11 David Thelan. “Introduction: Around Table, Martin Luther King, Jr.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No.2 (Sep., 1987), p. 437.
12 Vincent Gordon Harding. “Beyond Amnesia: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Future of America.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No.2 (Sep., 1987), p. 469.
13 Harding, Beyond Amnesia, p. 469.
14 Ibid, p. 475-476.
15 Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: The Free Press, 2000), p. 80.
16 Dyson, I May Not Get There With You, p. 193-196.