MLK Would Never Shut Down a Freeway, and 6 Other Myths About the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter

Roundup
tags: MLK, civil rights movement, Black lives matter



Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and author of the award-winning book The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

On Saturday, as protests mounted across the country following the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed explained the large police presence at downtown protests to reporters: “Dr. King would never take a freeway.”

Reed’s claim was historically absurd. Martin Luther King Jr. took many a highway—most famously, perhaps, in the Selma-to-Montgomery march.

Reed is not the only one trafficking in dangerous and distorted ideas of the civil rights movement. Across the political spectrum over the past two years, as Black Lives Matter burst into national consciousness, many commentators—from former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (who said that King would be appalled by BLM) to Oprah Winfrey (who told young activists “to take note of the strategic, peaceful intention if you want real change” ) and the Rev. Barbara Reynolds (“We were nonviolent activists who won hearts by conveying respectability and changed laws by delivering a message of love and unity”)—have invoked the history of the civil rights movement to chastise Black Lives Matter. They and many others have cast today’s protesters as dangerous and reckless and not living up to the peaceful, respectable, unified legacy of the civil rights movement.

These framings misrepresent the movements that BLM activists are building across the country and the history of the civil rights movement. Such historical revisionism is both dangerous and comfortable—dangerous because it grossly distorts how the civil rights movement actually proceeded, and comfortable because it allows many Americans to keep today’s movement at arm’s length. This repeated comparison has become one of the ways that many justify hand-wringing on the sidelines—as if they would act, given a righteous movement like King’s, but today’s activists are simply too excessive, too disruptive and too unrespectable.

Calling out these myths is more than setting the historical record straight. The “propaganda of history,” as W.E.B. Du Bois reminded us a century ago, becomes a way of “giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment”—for soothing and justifying inaction in the face of persistent racial inequality.

Myth 1: The civil rights movement wasn’t disruptive.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a disruptive consumer boycott that sought to use the power of black consumers to hurt the bus company and force the city to address black demands. The Birmingham, Ala., campaign that King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference waged in 1963 was a campaign of mass civil disobedience designed to overflow the jails and cripple downtown businesses and city function. Key to the work of many civil rights organizations, from SCLC to the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was mass civil disobedience because they understood that injustice would not be changed without disrupting civic and commercial life. ...




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