The lessons of the Civil Rights Movement in America reach beyond its time and place. With Black History Month ongoing in Britain’s schools, Cambridge historian, Nicolas Kinloch, assesses its achievement:
There have always been excellent reasons to teach British students about the civil rights era in the United States. It’s an inspiring story: often complex, but also with some pretty clear-cut heroes and villains. Perhaps the very best reason for teaching it at the moment is that it effectively refutes much of the nonsense that passes for Critical Race Theory.
Of course, teaching this topic is not without difficulties. Its very selection has probably helped ensure that there is a tendency, in Britain, to assume that the British experience of race is identical to the American one. This is far from the case, but the response in Britain to the murder of George Floyd suggests that the problem is a real one. Protestors kneeling in front of unarmed British police officers, asking, “Are you going to shoot me?” might suggest that not everyone has appreciated that the histories—to employ a much-used contemporary idiom—of the United States and Britain are very different ones. Similarly, it’s not uncommon to find references to a British civil rights movement, when in fact black people in Britain, whatever their other disadvantages, had always enjoyed civil rights in the modern era.
A Question of Religion
There’s also a major issue for our largely secular age, which is that a large number of civil rights leaders were significant religious figures. It’s probably true that there’s little that contemporary historians find more difficult to take seriously than religion, and particularly any form of Christianity. This has long been the case: nor is this deep embarrassment confined to the teaching of civil rights. I used to marvel, as a student, at the lengths to which some of my teachers would go in their attempts to explain away religion, even when the Reformation or the English Revolution were the topics under investigation. It didn’t matter how clearly the religious had stated their motivation: our task, as historians, was to explain what they really meant. I have seen biographies of Martin Luther King which managed to suggest that his being a Baptist minister was a sort of eccentric side-line, indulged when the real business of civil rights gave him a chance to do so. Such a view, of course, severely underestimates the significance of religion in black America, which is unfortunate for several reasons. It robs African Americans of independent agency, since the black churches were very much their own creation. And it diminishes the historical record, since the churches, from the Montgomery boycott to the Poor People’s March on Washington, played an essential role in both organising and funding the movement. They also supplied much of the early movement’s leadership: another mark against it, in some eyes, since it meant that to some extent it was and remained a middle-class movement. Class, of course, is one of the many things that Critical Race Theory tends to ignore, but it manages even so to convey a certain sense of disapproval when confronted with the suits and ties worn by such activists as King or Abernathy.
Martin Luther King V Malcolm X
The topic poses other difficulties for the teacher. Figures such as Malcolm X are almost always included, though for no very good reason apart from a coincidence in dates. He was an important and interesting figure in his own right, and worth studying, but he was never part of the civil rights movement. The same was true of the Black Panther Party, which is also routinely included. This was a group for which those activists currently calling for a black militia in Britain seem to have a high regard. But even a casual examination of its fate might induce caution in its admirers. It was uninterested in civil rights, preferring provocative gestures to capture public attention and reinforce notions of black pride. Its early leaders, such as Bobby Seale, Huey P Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, were astute self-publicists who for a time managed to embody the notion of radical chic. Cleaver’s best-selling 1968 memoir, Soul On Ice, suggested that the rape of white women was a revolutionary act, and did so without apparently shocking its readers. The Panthers, which at their peak had several thousand members across the United States, rapidly became little more than a criminal gang with an unusually dramatic logo. Members were killed in shoot-outs with the police or, often enough, in turf wars with other drug barons. Key individuals such “Information Minister” Cleaver were forced overseas. He returned eventually, to become a Mormon and conservative Republican. Newton’s career was still less glorious: apart from his involvement—to put it no more strongly—in the murder of a police officer, he was also guilty of large-scale embezzlement of party funds and fled to Cuba rather than stand trial for the 1974 murder of a teenage prostitute. His eventual murder by an Oakland crack dealer ended a squalid life which only the most gullible could possibly have seen as a revolutionary statement. And Bobby Seale’s eventual return to the mainstream—with a book on barbecuing and a series of ice-cream advertisements—probably represented all his worst enemies had ever wished him.
Despite these caveats, there are few recent history topics more worth teaching, and teaching well. Critical Race Theory suggests—no, insists—that nothing ever gets better. It’s one reason why its supporters find it difficult to say at what point their movement will regard its work as done: because, they assume, its work never will be done. But it’s very hard to maintain with any conviction that the civil rights struggle didn’t improve things. In 1954, when Brown v Board of Education was unanimously endorsed by the Supreme Court—a court, of course, then composed solely of middle-aged white men—black Americans were the victims of legal segregation in the South, and informally-enforced segregation elsewhere. Lynching and murder remained commonplace. Ten years later, almost all this had changed, or had at least begun to do so. It almost certainly never occurred to Lyndon Johnson when he told Congress, “We shall overcome”, that less than fifty years later he would be succeeded by a black president. Quite how Barack Obama could ever have been elected, if all white people were as racist as the Theory presupposes, is one of the many questions its adherents fail to answer convincingly, and usually prefer not to answer at all.
Solidarity Across Ethnicities
The movement, rightly, was started and led by black people, many of whom had been combatting segregation for years. But they had white support too, an inconvenient fact for supporters of the Theory. These included key members of the Federal Government. If John F Kennedy can accurately be described a largely a “bystander”, as far as civil rights were concerned, this was emphatically not true of his brother Robert, the Attorney General. Nor was it true of Lyndon Johnson, who pushed for an effective Civil Rights Bill in 1964 and the still more crucial Voting Rights Act of the following year. Johnson was well aware that support for civil rights might cost the Democratic Party the South, and he was right. He pushed for it nonetheless. White support for the movement was not restricted to government. The 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi saw the abduction and murder of three civil rights workers by the United Klans of America. James Chaney was black. His two companions, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were Jewish activists from New York. Thirty years earlier, Jewish organisations had been at the forefront of the campaign to save the Scottsboro Boys, who had been falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama, and sentenced to death. Until the late 1960s, and the emergence of the Black Power movement, there had always been a close connection between the black and Jewish communities of the United States. It was an alliance that some supporters of today’s BLM would perhaps rather we forget about. White people marched at Selma—one of them, James Reeb, was killed there—and in many other places.
Nothing “Micro” About These Aggressions—Alabama Church Bombing and Nixon’s Southern Strategy
The civil rights movement produced men and women of outstanding courage from the very beginning. It’s easy, especially nowadays, to underestimate just what was involved in confronting the sort of prejudice that was normal in the 1950s. A large number of civil rights campaigners died: Martin Luther King; Medgar Evers; Viola Gregg Liuzzo; James Reeb and many more. In September 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, it transpired that little girls weren’t even safe in church. Everyone involved in the movement—and there must have been hundreds of thousands of them—deliberately risked their lives. Most of those who died did so at the hands of white supremacists—real ones, that is, not people alleged to have committed the sort of “micro-aggressions” that might get them cancelled on Twitter. And it’s worth pointing out that white people proved to be just as easy to kill as black ones.
Of course, Martin Luther King was central to the movement. He remains such a significant figure that even today’s activists are wary of attacking him too openly. It should be obvious that they despise most of what he represented. He was a Christian; he believed in the redemptive power of love; he insisted on non-violence. He also had “problematic” views on a number of other topics. He opposed segregation, which means that he would probably have found today’s demands for “safe spaces for people of colour” an extraordinary one. He thought character more important than colour, an unacceptable position for the Theory, which holds that such “colour-blindness” is racist. He was a patriotic American who simply believed that the promises contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution should apply to all Americans. On the night before his assassination he stated that he had been up to the mountain, and had seen the Promised Land. Whatever that land looked like, it seems unlikely that it resembled anything that Critical Race Theory has to offer.
One of the most revealing elements of the civil rights movement is the way in which it ended. It’s often assumed to have ended with King’s assassination in 1968. In reality, it had run out of steam well before this. The movement itself began to fracture. There had always been tension between the middle-aged and male-dominated SCLC and groups such as the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee. Not everyone accepted the idea of love and redemption that was the basis of King’s philosophy. The Black Power movement, led by such figures as Stokely Carmichael, became more assertive and, after 1968, more popular. And there was inevitably a reaction, by many white people, to the successes of the civil rights era. It was a reaction perhaps made more vicious by the riots that had erupted, first in Watts, then in Detroit and, in 1968, across the United States. In that year George Wallace ran for president on an avowedly segregationist third-party ticket, and was startled to find that he did as well in the North as he did in the South. Three years later Daniel Patrick Moynihan was advising Richard Nixon that a period of “benign neglect” on racial matters would be advantageous. His words were wasted on Nixon, whose “Southern Strategy” was intent on transforming the South from a Democratic into a Republican stronghold. This was soon achieved: Jimmy Carter, in 1976, was the last Democratic president to gain a majority of Southern electoral votes. In 1984, Republican Ronald Reagan won every Southern state but one. The South has been Republican ever since.
Progress Through Democratic Means Necessary
The civil rights movement did not, of course, end racism or racial inequalities in the United States. But it did vastly improve the lives of millions of African Americans. Even in states such as Mississippi, black people were now able to vote. Inevitably this brought change, in the form of black sheriffs, police chiefs and mayors. Very soon there were black members of Congress; black senators and, ultimately, a black president of the United States. It was an interesting reminder of how democratic the country was, at least at local level, and how quickly the exercise of the vote could effect political change. Those who dismiss these changes as unimportant, because they failed to challenge the “systemic racism” they now blame for every ill, merely demonstrate that they lack the imagination to grasp what life for black people had been like before the civil rights movement had triumphed.
Recently the black American actor Leonydus Johnson wrote:
We now find ourselves in a place that I feel is the antithesis of the civil rights movement. Instead of marching toward a world that de-emphasizes the importance of skin colour, we instead find ourselves pursuing a world where skin colour is placed firmly and proudly at the forefront of identity, where Martin Luther King’s idea of judging people by the content of their character takes a decided back seat to a person’s ancestry, a world where white people must apologize and atone for sins that they never committed and black people claim victimhood for horrors that they never experienced. It is the exact thing the civil rights movement aimed to defeat.”
He was quite right: and the ongoing effort to dismiss the movement and belittle its achievements should be resisted. There is no better way of doing so than teaching about it fully and accurately: “Educate yourself”, as people like to say nowadays. And then educate others.
 Southern Christian Leadership Conference