50 Years After MLK’s Death, History Helps Us Understand and Act in Our Troubled Times
April 05, 2018
A Q&A with Mary Frances Berry and Jeanne Theoharis
Conversations in Black Freedom Studies is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, the Series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography.
In anticipation of the April discussion, 50 Years After the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Erik Wallenberg asked guests Mary Frances Berry, Thomas Jackson, David Stein, and Jeanne Theoharis to talk with us about their new, old, and forthcoming books, their research on King, and what lessons we might take from this history. What follows is an excerpted and condensed version of his Q&A, highlighting Dr. Berry and Theoharis. You can read it in full here.
Erik Wallenberg: As we approach our discussion marking fifty years since the assassination of Martin Luther King, can you tell us more specifically what your book project is about and how it relates?
Mary Frances Berry: I wrote this book, History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times, because my editor, reinforced by friends and colleagues after Trump’s election, argued that the public needed reminding of how and why resistance has succeeded and or failed in the past. And I felt I could provide that based on my experience in several movements and through my historical research. Though history does not repeat itself exactly, perhaps we can learn something from history or at least be encouraged.
The book uses examples and stories about specific social movements that teach us the importance of protest as an essential ingredient of politics. The March on Washington Movement (MOW) was the only march to which a federal policy change could be directly attributed. A. Philip Randolph and the other women and men who organized it took lessons they learned from other protests and applied them to the future. The anti-Vietnam War movement succeeded in influencing the end of the war, although at the time we thought we failed because the war continued so long. In the Reagan era, the Free South Africa Movement (FSAM) was a major cause in obtaining sanctions, helping to free political prisoners including Mandela, and in overthrowing the apartheid regime. Civil Rights laws overthrowing Reagan’s attempts to turn back the clock and fighting his refusal to address the AIDS crisis, opposing Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and globalization policies, and Bush’s Iraq War were all the subject of major protests. The lessons learned, then, are about persistence. The FSAM campaign took a year of arrests, guerilla theatre, and marches, before Reagan vetoed the sanctions, and then continuing pressure before the legislation was passed over his veto.
The importance of doing something is central. I think of the disabled little girl who leaned out of her wheelchair and crawled up the stairs of the capital to push the Americans With Disabilities Act to final passage.
Jeanne Theoharis: I wrote this book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, because I was increasingly dismayed at seeing the ways a national fable of the civil rights movement had become central to how the United States defined itself in the present. The book begins by examining the fable’s contemporary national uses, in particular putting the problem of racism and the struggle for Black freedom in the past and making the story of the movement one of American exceptionalism and the power of American democracy (almost as it we were destined to have a great civil rights movement). Exposing this became even more urgent, as this fable has been weaponized against contemporary protest movements like Black Lives Matter, which has been accused of being extreme and reckless and not going about it the right way like the civil rights movement did (when many of the criticisms of BLM are ones that were launched on the civil rights movement itself). The heart of the book looks at nine gaps and omissions in the fable and what a fuller history shows us: the movement in the North as well as the South; the role of ‘polite’ racism in maintaining racial injustice; how unpopular the civil rights movement was; how expansive its goals were (criminal justice, global justice, economic justice); and the variety of its leaders, particularly the roles of high school students and women.
EW: You write about organizing for change, be it political, social, or economic. You tell histories previously unwritten as well as history reconsidered. Can you share with us the story of a King-related campaign that our readers might not be familiar with?
MFB: Much of the importance of Martin Luther King lies in the work done in his name, by Coretta, after his assassination. The King Holiday and the Humphrey-Hawkins Act are some often overlooked examples. When Clinton embraced “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” LGBT groups asked Coretta to publicly denounce the idea. She and I talked, as we did at such times, and asked each other the usual two questions: What would Martin do (because she didn’t want to besmirch his memory in any way), and what would Martin say to keep the protest tradition alive and moving forward? She understood as well as he did, and sometimes better, what was necessary for human rights. Though the “men who had been with Martin” (except Joseph Lowery) said she shouldn’t get involved because it wasn’t Martin’s issue, she knew better. I went to Atlanta to stand with her as she announced her opposition to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and her support for gays in the military.
JT: How lucky I am to be part of the conversation! Because I, too, have been thinking about what it means to center Coretta Scott King in this fiftieth anniversary year of King’s assassination. Coretta Scott King was arguably more political than Martin when they met and influenced his politics over the course of their marriage—particularly his decision to come out publicly against the Vietnam War in 1967. She had been publicly against it for years and, upon his receiving the Nobel Prize in 1964, believed he now had a different responsibility to the world, and begun urging him to come out against US involvement in the war. When she gave a speech against the war in late 1965, a reporter questioned her husband whether he educated her, and King said very pointedly, “No, she educated me.” Coretta Scott King is typically remembered for the ways she maintained and guarded his legacy—but perhaps the most important way she did that was making it a living legacy—extending the work on economic justice and global justice. In fact, the FBI extended its surveillance of her for years after his assassination, fearing the ways she was tying the civil rights movement to the antiwar movement.
But perhaps one of her most courageous moments comes much earlier on. In January 1956, five weeks into the bus boycott, their house is bombed, with Coretta and baby Yolanda in it. This was an attempt to destabilize King and the movement. And both Coretta’s dad and Martin’s dad come down to Montgomery to insist, at the very least, that she and the baby leave. She refuses and continues on. The trajectory of the bus boycott and the emerging civil rights movement might have been very different if Coretta Scott King had flinched in that moment.
EW: Given the continuing struggles for racial and economic justice today, how does this history help us understand or act in our current moment?
MFB: The work of ending racial injustice remains complicated. There’s the unfinished legacy of the Poor People’s Campaign and the not yet successful efforts at ending police violence and reforming the criminal justice system and protecting the right to vote and ending unequal education. The history tells us that voting and running for office is good and necessary, but having elected officials is not enough. The lessons we have learned include that we must organize around policy issues, not just individuals. It is not about celebrity or fame. Social media doesn’t make it really any easier to win in the end. It’s easier to get in touch, but it’s also easier to be under opposition and government surveillance and to spread misinformation. To make change, we must keep it simple. Be persistent and willing to sacrifice and stand by principle. A movement must have moral authority. Now, as then, the media won’t cover you if you don’t do something. Also, marches by themselves are insufficient. The Poor People’s Campaign was not just a march but an encampment. The Free South Africa Movement and antiwar protests were marches and more. Someone must be willing to be confrontational, to go through the fire. Resistance works to raise consciousness about issues even when change does not immediately follow.
JT: The title of my book comes from James Baldwin: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” This history is far more sobering than we knew but also more beautiful—giving us more for how we struggle today. When we move from iconizing movements, like the Montgomery bus boycott, to actually studying and learning about them, we can see the importance of anger and disruption, of building long-term grassroots networks, of multiple tactics encompassing legal strategies, economic strategies, and grassroots organization, and of the power of collectivities in action in terms of expanding what seems possible. And in seeing and learning all these things, we can see how to do it again. It shows us the way forward in important ways.
About Mary Frances Berry
Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former chairwoman of the US Commission on Civil Rights, a Distinguished Fellow of the American Society for Legal History, the author of twelve books, and the recipient of thirty-five honorary degrees. Dr. Berry has appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show, Tavis Smiley, PBS NewsHour, CBS Evening News, Al Jazeera America News, and various MSNBC and CNN shows. She is the author of History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times. Follow her on Twitter at @DrMFBerry and visit her website.
About Jeanne Theoharis
Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of CUNY and the author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. Follow her on Twitter at @JeanneTheoharis and visit the Rosa Parks biography website.
About Erik Wallenberg
Erik Wallenberg is a PhD candidate in history at CUNY Graduate Center. He teaches global and environmental history at Brooklyn College.