You’ve heard it before. The Civil Rights Movement in America began in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery. It ended in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside his hotel in Memphis. This rendering of the Civil Rights “story” is common. But it isn’t the full story by any means, according to a dozen or so historians who gathered at UNH in November to take part in a conference called “Expanding Civil Rights History in Time and Space.”
Sponsored by the History Department and supported by the UNH William L. Dunfey Endowment, the conference sought to challenge the “classic” reading of Civil Rights history.
UNH Professor J. William Harris, co-organizer of the event, sums up the central ideas:
“One is that the history of the Civil Rights Movement must encompass much more—in time and in content—than what several participants referred to as the ‘classic’ phase of the Civil Rights Movement....The Movement had its origins well before World War II and, in different forms, continued long afterward. Secondly, the Movement had (and has) an important global and transnational impact. More generally, several of the presenters argued that a focus on the ‘classic’ phase tends to obscure both what happened outside that phase and what is still to be done today to achieve genuine racial equality.”
The presenters were an impressive group of distinguished scholars of Civil Rights history, including keynote speaker Kevin Boyle of Ohio State University whose most recent book, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and Steven Hahn of the University of Pennsylvania, whose book, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration, won the Pulitzer Prize in History.
Duke University Professor William Chafe’s opening lecture serves as one example of the expanded history of the Civil Rights Movement that characterized the conference.
Chafe locates the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement not in Montgomery in 1955 but all across the south even before the turn of the century, pointing to the agency of ordinary Black people from the 1890s through the 1950s.
Amidst life-threatening and pervasive oppression, Chafe argues, Black citizens found ways to counteract the efforts of those who would strip them of dignity and individuality. Blacks formed strong supportive communities and policed their own against acquiescence to Whites. Children were socialized with a strong sense of pride and dignity, churches provided private space outside White surveillance and influence, all-Black organizations created strong networks, and many Black parents fought for educational opportunities for their children as a way out of oppression.
To further the cause in their communities, some Blacks feigned submission to Whites, temporarily placing ends over means if it meant, for example, being able to distribute food and clothes to those in need. Open acts of defiance were not uncommon, from “drinking and running,” when Black children drank from Whites-only fountains and ran to escape consequences, to the rare armed defiance.
In Chafe’s reading, the first half of the century was not one of unchallenged oppression, but rather a collection of actions and practices that formed an ongoing struggle against oppression. Successive generations saw that the Black experience had not changed, and examples of defiance were plentiful. The generation coming of age in the 50s vigorously assumed the struggle. The “classic” Civil Rights Movement was an extension of the culture of defiance of earlier generations—a legacy of the work that had been ongoing for decades.
Chafe’s lecture, along with the presentations of the other historians, was an “intervention” in the scholarly conversations about the Civil Rights Movement, according to Harris, who found the conference a great success.
“The papers, without exception, offered new research and/or interesting perspectives on significant topics,” said Harris.
The conference also provided a forum to recognize the work of professor Harvard Sitkoff. Retiring this year after a career of more than 30 years at UNH, Sitkoff was a popular teacher who published several books about the history of the Civil Rights Movement, including the recent biography, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop.
Some scholars at the conference sought ways to bring Civil Rights history to life in the contemporary world. In his presentation, Michael K. Honey of the University of Washington challenged the audience to remember King’s “unfinished” economic agenda, one exemplified in the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, and one that prompted King to go to Memphis that year in support of a strike by city sanitation workers. Renee Romano of Oberlin College gave remembrance another mission—to explore the ways in which Civil Rights memorial celebrations can be used to encourage reconciliation in communities across the country.
Stretching back to the 19th century through the present, while spanning the globe, conference presenters sought to tell a history of the Civil Rights Movement that is “truer” (as keynote speaker Kevin Boyle put it) than the classic reading, offering scholars and the public a story that is richer, deeper, and more alive than ever before.
The University of New Hampshire hosts an annual week-long Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. The 2010 event runs January 28 through February 4 and will feature poet and activist Nikki Giovanni. Learn more.
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