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The Civil Rights Triumph

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. today. Unfortunately, as seems to be the case with all of America's civic holidays, it's become a bit of a joke. What's more, I think it's somewhat unfortunate that there's this impulse to reduce the Civil Rights movement to a single -- albeit important and admirable -- man. The struggle lasted decades and, properly speaking, dates way back to the Abolitionist movement of the antebellum 19th century.

HodgesGlory was probably the first "serious" movie I saw in the theaters when I was a kid, and it impressed me a great deal. I kept developing what were, I felt, further connections to the subject. The portrait of Robert Gould Shaw you see on the right is one of several paintings and sculptures that graced the walls of my dining room freshman year in college. Currently, I live in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, named after the very same man, right across the street from the African-American Civil War Memorial. It's obviously appropriate that we try and organize our symbolic commemorations of the Civil Rights movement in a way that keeps its African-American leaders front-and-center, but white people need role models, too.

At any rate, that wasn't really the point. One of the curious elements of American political life is that conservative are, by temperament, triumphalistic. Liberals, meanwhile, tend to be a bit whiney. The result is that both sides participate in creating and sustaining a narrative of conservative hegemony that tends to neglect the extent to which progressive politics have, in fact, succeeded in the United States. Civil Rights is a case in point. It's a particularly useful illustration because it was distinctly a triumph of liberalism rather than the Democratic Party. There was a time when the cause of Civil Rights was advanced by members of both parties, but wholly embraced by their leadership of neither. By the present day, it's completely embraced by the leaders of both parties. Political figures -- notably Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey, and Lyndon Johnson -- played a key role in making this happen. But the decisive actors -- like Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph -- staged their actions primarily outside of the narrowly political arena. Instead, the key locus of action was society -- molding and mobilizing public opinion to their cause.

The triumph of the Civil Rights movement has been so complete precisely because it operated outside the bounds of electoral politics. Even though the political leaders who brought it to its legislative fruition in 1965 were permanently exiled from political power shortly thereafter, the movement's core principles have endured throughout the decades and will doubtless endure forevermore. Even a crypto-racist tract like The Bell Curve did not challenge the basic principle of legal equality that, as of 1960, was highly controversial and considered untouchable even by many erstwhile progressive political leaders. Even if all the rest of the Great Society's legacy were to be somehow undone (which, in light of the contemporary GOP's proclivity for expanding Medicare seems unlikely) Civil Rights -- its greatest achievement -- will last.

Analogies to the successes that the feminist movement and the gay rights movement have had in recent decades should be clear enough. All three movements continue to face significant obstacles, but the mere fact that in 2005 we're having the fights we're having, speaks to the enormous quantity of social progress that's been made over the past 40 years. The basic tenets of the first two movements have become essentially unchallengeable, and gay rights is rapidly acquiring that status. As with Civil Rights, proposals that at one time were regarded as radical and absurd -- social equality between the races, gay marriage -- become topics of robust political debate and, eventually, simply commonsense such that would can hardly understand how anyone would have ever questioned their validity.

Liberals have gotten some things wrong over the years, and no doubt will err again in the future. But we've also been very -- massively, devastatingly -- right about many important things, equality between the races probably primary among them in the American context.

January 17, 2005 | Permalink


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Glory was probably the first "serious" movie I saw in the theaters when I was a kid, and it impressed me a great deal.

Does this have anything to do with that '80s movie bleg you had a couple of weeks ago that you never really explained?

In any case, I take it as proof of the correctness of your post that today's "civil rights movement" is led by charlatans like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Julian Bond, and yet the idea endures. If any other present-day movement was led by three such awful people, it would most certainly be completely discredited by now. That the civil rights movement has not speaks to its enduring nature.

Posted by: Al | Jan 17, 2005 1:02:38 PM

Mind you, were the civil rights movement led by more reputable people, we might get more, you know, civil rights, instead of mostly a holding action. Don't imagine for a second their prominence comes without a cost.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 17, 2005 1:20:06 PM


Posted by: praktike | Jan 17, 2005 1:20:10 PM

... I think it's somewhat unfortunate that there's this impulse to reduce the Civil Rights movement to a single -- albeit important and admirable -- man. The struggle lasted decades ...

There is that downside, but identifying the holiday with MLK removes the ambiguity about what exactly we're celebrating here. I can well imagine that some localities might celebrate "Civil Rights Day" by honoring such great defenders of civil rights (ahem) as Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

I for one would much prefer it if "Labor" Day were Mother Jones Day or Samuel Gompers Day.

Posted by: alkali | Jan 17, 2005 1:28:54 PM

Even a crypto-racist tract like The Bell Curve

Have you read the Bell Curve? My opinions about their motivations changed quite a bit after I read the chapters in question.

Posted by: Bob McGrew | Jan 17, 2005 2:07:08 PM

Oh, please. Their motivations become much more apparent when you take a look at who was funding and promoting them. Bob, you've been had.

Posted by: Thad | Jan 17, 2005 2:11:45 PM

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Als and Brett Bellmore's of the world were of course shaking their heads sadly at the inflammatory actions of Dr. King and bemoaning the lack of "responsible negro leadership." As with the rest of right wing America, their lamentation of today's Civil Rights leadership (as woeful as it is) doesn't strike one as coming from a place of compassion or concern toward black Americans.

Posted by: Hank Scorpio | Jan 17, 2005 2:17:22 PM

Their motivations were apparent before it hit the bookstores, in fact; any text with statistical emphasis so as to purposely mystify the layman, its intended audience, is suspect. Were it serious, Bell Curve would have been intended for peer review. Instead, the idea was to confound non-scientists who couldn't speak to the numbers but could perceive the essential racist core of the concept.

Shorter: Numbers require peer review!

Posted by: Kriston Capps | Jan 17, 2005 2:18:32 PM

Alkali's right--boiling our civic remembrance of the civil rights movement (to the extent that anyone is actually doing any remembering) to the life and work of a single man is a historical diservice to many others...but at the same time, without that focal point, and the insistent witness which such a focal presents us with, it'd be that much easier for the day to be drained of all meaning. "Civil Rights" can be made ambiguous and subjective; "Martin Luther King," on the other hand, was a complicated, uncompromising man with whose ideals one must engage (and embrace, or reject). It's good to encounter and honor these kind of indespensible events and persons; purely conceptual holidays (think Labor Day) don't cut it. (I love the idea of a Mother Jones Day. For the same reason, I wish we'd stuck with a Washington's or Lincoln's Birthday, rather than Presidents' Day.)

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox | Jan 17, 2005 2:30:52 PM

One of the curious elements of American political life is that conservative are, by temperament, triumphalistic. Liberals, meanwhile, tend to be a bit whiney.

Buh? Conservatives whine plenty. Usually about the PC police, or how everything is Clinton's fault. Except when liberal "traitors" are to blame. In fact, the right spends a lot of time behaving like its own caricature of the left.

Posted by: some guy | Jan 17, 2005 2:39:27 PM

During the 1950's, my view of the world is contingent on your theological beliefs, though I did have a brief glimpse of 1959. ;)

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 17, 2005 2:53:33 PM

I always thought it odd that we got a day off school to celebrate MLK Day, as I am reasonably certain he would have preferred students not harm their education. In fact, he might have wanted all schools to have an extra day on Saturday instead!


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jan 17, 2005 2:56:44 PM

He is most definitely missed.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 17, 2005 3:04:01 PM

Let me fix those italics, since I broke 'em.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 17, 2005 3:04:44 PM

I usually pay no intention to the Republican fucks that populate this website, but I was going to chime in on this subject even before I saw their preening posts.

It is only through brain backflips of incredible complexity that Republicans have somehow accepted that Martin Luther King, a man who was widely controversial in his time, as one of their American heroes. If any prominent man, especially a black man, advocated civil disobedience and agitated against the Iraq War as aggressively as King opposed the Vietnam War, he would be loudly touted as a traitor and a commiserator with Muslim terrorists, no doubt a terrorist himself with secret Black Panther activities. After all, America is perfect already. Anyone who believes that things could be better is.... one of them.

And by the way you pieces of shit, did you know that Julian Bond is the only man to be kicked out of the Georgia state assembly twice in one year? Once he staged a sit-in in the balcony, and later that year he himself was elected to it, and both times they screetched for his removal and had the guards drag him off. Get that? He was elected, and they excluded him.

Good Republicans, they would be now.

Posted by: Marshall | Jan 17, 2005 3:12:38 PM

Right on, Marshall. If Dr. King were alive today, he'd be hauled off to Guantanamo for stridently critiquing the Bush administration's militarism and perversion of the American dream, as I've argued elsewhere. I can't stand the posturing and preening of the right-wing on this day- they pretend to embrace his legacy, but spend the rest of the year doing their damndest to undermine it. Everyone should remember that although he finally came around and voted for it, in 1979, Dick Cheney voted against a holiday for Dr. King. That says more about you right-wingers than anything.

Posted by: Asheesh Siddique | Jan 17, 2005 3:38:23 PM

Movements, Not Monuments. That was the title of our pastor's sermon on Sunday, Jan. 16. I think that speaks to your malaise regarding Martin Luther King Day. That's how the controlling interests in this country demolish efforts at change -- they turn movements into monuments. We Progressives should keep that in mind.

Another thought from the sermon: we should make MLK Day not a day *off* but a day *on*. I like that.

Posted by: Andew Smith | Jan 17, 2005 3:43:43 PM

If you really want to know about the civil rights movement in the post-World War II era then you need to look at the grass roots efforts in places like rural Mississippi. Read Charles Payne's "I've Got the Light of Freedom". Activists like Ella Baker, Fanny Lou Hamer and Bob Abrams did a heck of a lot more for civil rights than the more prominent figures. That's not to denigrate King, or Malcom X for that matter, but the fixation on King serves to obfuscate the role played by ordinary people who did amazing things. We should focus this holiday on how ordinary people can do tremendous things today, too, and not wait for some savior-icon to come along, or some professional charlatan with dubious ethics.

Posted by: Elrod | Jan 17, 2005 3:59:03 PM

Good job, Marshall, and let me add, to the Als and Bretts, normally people of a little more sense, that dissing Al Sharpton is one thing, but dissing Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond - Julian Bond, whose live was in regular danger every day of the 1960s as a major figure from SNCC - shows a complete and total ignorance of the history of the civil rights movement and the key people within it.

The modern conservative movement, for all of its virtues (and it has had many), began with the notion that it was terrible that Dr. King, and Julian Bond, and John Lewis, and Robert Moses, and Ella Lawson, and so many others, were agitating for change in the Jim Crow south and urging federal action in the face of state inaction. The idea that modern conservatives now embrace MLK - but dis everyone else from the movement - shows that we haven't come quite as far as we might hope....

Posted by: howard | Jan 17, 2005 4:04:30 PM

Elrod, excellent point: i've had the good fortune, in my professional life, to meet the 3 surviving members of the 4 North Carolina A+T freshman in Greensboro, North Carolina who started the sit-in movement (and, for that matter, SNCC). Their names? Ezell Blair, Jr. (whose dad was an NAACP organizer), Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and the late David Richmond. How many people know their names?

Or - Brett and Al - know that Jesse Jackson was also a student at A+T, who picked up the banner of the movement and carried it forward in 1963 to complete the desegregation of downtown Greensboro public facilities that started with the 4 getting Woolworth's and Kress' desegregated. So tell me, Brett and Al, what have you done of the equivalent courage and moral standing to what Jesse Jackson did in the early '60s, whatever you may think of Operation PUSH?

Posted by: howard | Jan 17, 2005 4:09:24 PM

"...white people need role models, too."

In some ways I think you're right, Matt. More should be done to educate people about the non-African-Americans who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. However, I don't see any reason that that should prevent white people from taking MLK as a role model. We have taught American schoolchildren to revere such icons as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln for a very long time, and if we expect black folks to honor white men who contributed greatly to America, then it shouldn't be too much to ask that white children be taught the same reverence toward a black man who contributed so much to America.

Posted by: Jim | Jan 17, 2005 4:12:43 PM

Best...Post...Ever. As I wipe my eyes.

From the personal to the historical to the practical and return to the personal, this day was duly honoured. John Holbo, who knows his shit, says you are the best writer in the blogosphere. I grovel.

You are also a good man, Matthew Yglesias. Somebody somewhere should be proud.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jan 17, 2005 4:22:13 PM

Considering that the fine white folks of Alabama (state motto: dirt-eating rednecks and proud of it) have not only rejected the idea that segregationist should be removed from their state constitution, they've also co-installed Robert E. Lee as the official object of today's celebration. I'd say reasoned discussion of MLK's legacy and the power of symbols is a little pre-mature. Once the _whole_ country accepts the moral vision of MLK we can debate, until then, it's the enemies of racism against ... well the fine white folks of Alabama.

Posted by: Michael Farris | Jan 17, 2005 4:22:34 PM

". . . but white people need role models, too."

I'm white, and two of my favorite historical figures of all-time come from the civil rights movement: MLK and John Lewis. Why is it that you think white people need white role models?

If I had read the same sentence on Free Republic, I would've considered it borderline racist. Obviously, given your track record as well the the larger essay from which the comment came from, you are hardly some bigot -- in fact, you are the exact opposite. Which is why the sentence is such a jaw-dropper.

Posted by: Jim E. | Jan 17, 2005 4:35:15 PM

As i think it was Ella Baker said, quoted by David Garrow, "Martin didn't make the movement; the movement made Martin" And Dr. King knew that, and appreciated that. And we need to remember that: as we celebrate a brilliant,gifted man who gave his all for others (including this Mississippian), if we all are waiting for another Martin Luther King to come today to save us from the myriad atrocities to human and civil rights that beset us, we dishonor his memory. WE better get up off our duffs and attack these ills, and when we do, leaders will appear to help. We have plenty to do when we are set to ratify torture of other human beings as an American practice--during the time period when we celebrate MLK Day. If you think the holiday has become a "bit of a joke," you haven't been paying attention to how much there is to do in his memory.

Posted by: charles | Jan 17, 2005 5:20:11 PM

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