Wednesday, March 7th , 2018
The Murphy Institute, 25 W. 43rd St., New York, NY
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.
Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She is the author or coauthor of seven books and numerous articles on the history of the Black freedom struggle and on the contemporary politics of race in the United States. Theoharis’s New York Times best-selling biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks won the 2014 NAACP Image Award and the Letitia Woods Brown Award from the Association of Black Women Historians.
On Wednesday, Murphy Prof. Joshua Freeman was on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show along with William Herbert, Executive Director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, to talk about the Taylor Law.
They discussed the history of the law, 50 years in, and its ramifications for public sector unionism. Take a listen here.
Photo by peopleworld via flickr (CC-BY-NC)
Martin Luther King Jr. can serve as a Rorschach test for some people, who see in the civil rights leader’s legacy only what they want to see. Over the years, King’s legacy has been appropriated in service of a politics of “waiting one’s turn” — a politics that marks a striking departure from King’s own activism and the radical struggle for civil rights and beyond of which it was part.
As Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou wrote in Al Jazeera in 2014:
Martin Luther King Jr. is ubiquitous. A federal holiday, a monument and a plethora of schools and streets bearing his name have cemented his presence on the cultural landscape of the United States. Liberals and conservatives alike appropriate King’s language to adorn their political wardrobes and buttress their ideological constructions.
While the popular rendering of King is one of a civil rights leader who now enjoys widespread acceptability in American public discourse, his radical politics and his rough-edged critique of U.S. imperial adventures have been smoothed over. The real King was committed to a democratic socialist vision that germinated from his black church roots. Specifically, there are three pillars of the radical gospel of Martin Luther King Jr. that we should not allow holiday remembrances to whitewash: democratic socialism, transnational anti-imperialism and black prophetic Christianity.
Sekou goes on to explain:
King’s gospel affirmed black resistance as a form of human dignity and rejected forms of Christianity that favored peace without justice and complacency in the face of immorality. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he warned moderate clergy that unless they “recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity.” King draws heavily upon the black Christian social gospel, which emerges out of the history of black suffering in the United States. Although he became the most famous, he was but one of a great host of black Christian socialist witnesses, including the Rev. George Washington Woodbey, the Rev. Richard Euell and the Rev. George Slater Jr.
Read the full piece at Al Jazeera.
Last week at the Murphy Institute, I had the pleasure of meeting Erika Ewing, an Educational Engagement Strategist who works with the CUNY Creative Arts Team. She had just finished running a workshop which engaged high school students in rigorous conversation about the film “Birth of a Nation” following an arranged screening of the film for them at an AMC theater.
In the piece below, Ewing discusses the responsibility of educators to be open and honest with youth about American history, the ways in which non-traditional approaches to education challenges young people to think constructively and critically and how promoting more open discussion of films like Parker’s “Birth of Nation” plays a seminal role.
— Zenzile Greene, Arts and Culture Editor
“Don’t let your past define your future.” It’s a quote we’ve all heard some version of before. But when we’re confronted with our own dark pasts, how easy is it to take this advice? Continue reading Birth of a Nation and Culturally Responsive Education
Murphy Prof. Michael Fortner’s new book Black Silent Majority: the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment has taken the media world by storm, garnering press from publications, radio and television. In addition to coverage in the New Yorker and Chronicle of Higher Ed, the book has been featured in the NYTimes and New York Magazine and on Brian Lehrer.
From Fortner’s own op-ed in the New York Times last week, The Real Roots of 70’s Drug Laws:
Today’s disastrously punitive criminal justice system is actually rooted in the postwar social and economic demise of urban black communities. It is, in part, the unintended consequence of African-Americans’ own hard-fought battle against the crime and violence inside their own communities. To ignore that history is to disregard the agency of black people and minimize their grievances, and to risk making the same mistake again.
Murphy Institute Professor Michael Fortner’s hotly anticipated new book Black Silent Majority: the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment gains yet more coverage with the latest edition of the New Yorker. In Kelefa Sanneh’s review, Body Count, the writer places Fortner’s book in conversation with the latest from Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) as well as Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow:
This summer, the Black Lives Matter movement got a literary manifesto, in the form of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” (Spiegel & Grau), a slender but deeply resonant book that made its début atop the Times best-seller list[…]
Four decades ago, a number of black leaders were talking in similarly urgent terms about the threats to the black body. The threats were, in the words of one activist, “cruel, inhuman, and ungodly”: black people faced the prospect not just of physical assault and murder but of “genocide”—the horror of slavery, reborn in a new guise. The activist who said this was Oberia D. Dempsey, a Baptist pastor in Harlem, who carried a loaded revolver, the better to defend himself and his community. Dempsey’s main foe was not the police and the prisons; it was drugs, and the criminal havoc wreaked by dealers and addicts. Continue reading New Yorker Coverage of Book by Prof. Michael Fortner