The Civil Rights Movement Was A FailureFiled under Things People Don't Realize
I had an “American History” coloring book when I was a kid. I have nothing but nice things to say about its coloring aspects --- it had thick lines, wide open spaces, and no next-page-bleed-through from Magic Markers.
The quality of the history, on the other hand, left something to be desired.
The coloring book relied on reductionist interpretations of watershed events in American history. You could color in the corn that Colonists shared with Native Americans at the first Thanksgiving, but you couldn’t draw smallpox onto the infected blankets that Colonists shared with Native American children.
The Civil Rights Movement earned itself three pages in the coloring book --- Page 1 showed separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks, Page 2 featured Martin Luther King framed by the Lincoln Memorial, and Page 3 had two little girls, one black and one white (or in my rendition, both green), holding hands and walking off into the sunset.
What disturbs me, decades later, is that America’s perception of the Civil Rights Movement has never really evolved past the coloring book stage. The story stays simple even for grown-ups: Southern people were monsters, Martin Luther King protested, segregation ended and America has been a post-racial paradise ever since. The narrative gets slightly more complicated with age--- you learn just how monstrous the Southerners were, you learn about some non-MLK figures (LBJ, the Freedom Riders, Malcolm X), you read some disheartening prison statistics that challenge the whole “post-racial” construct --- but the success of the Civil Rights Movement is gospel in this country.
Here’s the problem: I’m not really convinced that the Civil Rights Movement succeeded. In fact, I think maybe it failed miserably. Why? Well, the movement was “successful” in ending de jure segregation in the South (no more separate schools for blacks and whites) but did pretty much nothing to end de facto segregation everywhere else (lots more employment and housing discrimination). And ultimately, it was those “subtle” forms of institutionalized racism that have done more damage than the “holy fucking shit “ racism of the American South.
Let’s pretend for a moment that you are a Civil Rights Leader in the 1960s. You have strong reason to believe that you are living in a very, very fucked up country, and that some progress needs to be made towards racial equality. But where to start? Should you go to Birmingham, Alabama and deal with the fact that black people can’t sit in white restaurants by law, or do you go to Chicago and deal with the fact that black people are trapped in slums by racist practices like denying access to capital through redlining?
It’s a tough call, but in the end, you’d probably go to Birmingham over Chicago. First of all, Birmingham is the “low hanging fruit,” to borrow a phrase from Corporate America. It’s a more winnable fight. Nothing in Chicago will neatly exemplify racism for future coloring books like separate water fountains. In Alabama, you know exactly who the enemy is, and you can draw him out whenever you want (just take a sip from the wrong fountain). And when you try to sit in the wrong section of a bus, and the police sic German Shepherds on you and the Ku Klux Klan throw Molotov cocktails, the telegenic images of their barbarism are transmitted nationally, smoothing a pathway to the consciences of even slightly racist White Americans, who will be appalled and flock to your cause. Progress will be easy to demonstrate (unified water fountains) and relatively easy to implement (remove race-related signage).
After enduring true terror in Birmingham for a few years and marching on Washington, your non-violent techniques will seem to pay off. Congress signs two Civil Rights Acts, the South is de-segregated, and your leader wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Now it’s time to turn your attention to the rest of the country, to Urban America, where blacks are living in rat-infested tenements, attending dilapidated and underfunded inner-city schools, and being denied access to jobs by racist hiring mangers. That fight is clearly just as important as de-segregating schools --- as Malcolm X loved to point out, having the legal right to drink coffee in a white restaurant isn’t very helpful if you can’t afford a cup of coffee because you’re paid less than white workers. So, now you decide to tackle Chicago.
This is essentially the position Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights leaders found themselves in after 1965. Emboldened by their victories in the South, MLK and Co. attempted to channel all that positive energy towards the next great challenge and kick started the “Chicago Freedom Movement.”
Have you ever heard of the Chicago Freedom Movement? Did you know Martin Luther King moved to Chicago to try to improve the conditions in the slums? Probably not. I didn’t hear a word about it until my senior year of college. Wikipedia has barely a paragraph to offer on the subject. And maybe that’s because in Chicago, the Civil Rights Movement came to a screeching halt.
After a few months in Chicago, the disastrous consequences of your decision to start in Birmingham come into focus. One of those disastrous consequences is summed up pretty well by one of my favorite moments in The Dark Knight Rises. Bane is about to brutally beat the shit out of Batman, and minutes before snapping his back in half, Bane growls: “Peace has cost you your strength. Victory has defeated you.” Christopher Nolan probably didn’t know that he was paraphrasing A. Phillip Randolph, a prominent Civil Rights leader, who realized in Chicago that his movement had experienced a “crisis of victory.”
Once LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, the Civil Rights Movement was officially over in the minds of most Americans. Segregation had been washed away by a mighty stream of justice. Black people could now drink from white water fountains, attend white schools, vote for white presidents. What more do you want? Open housing and fair hiring practices and decent public schools? Come on, now you’re just being greedy.
Needless to say, Martin Luther King was pretty disturbed by that popular response. He started saying things like: “I am appalled that some people feel the civil rights struggle is over because we have a 1964 civil rights bill…Over and over again people ask, what else do you want? They feel that everything is all right. Well, let them look around at our big cities.”
But no one wanted to look around at the big cities. They wanted to watch something else, like Jeopardy or The Price Is Right. MLK tried to win the next fight, but all the tactics that had been so effective in the South turned out to be totally impotent in Chicago. Marching through white neighborhoods with a police escort didn’t play nearly as well on TV as those German shepherds had (even though Chicagoans were just as happy as Southerners to throw stones at the heads of the protestors).
This complacency has never really worn off --- when was the last time you heard a white person get fired up about racial equality? Civil Rights are so 1965 --- didn’t you read the coloring book?
In the end, the Chicago Freedom Movement did not end housing discrimination, or accomplish anything else for that matter. In fact, Chicago is more segregated today than it was in 1965, so much so that it’s even earned its own sociological term: hypersegregation. It’s just one of many examples of the Civil Rights Movement inability to help the urban poor and exorcise more obscure but equally virulent demons.
While I’m here I might as well bring up another: civil rights leaders’ support for the war on drugs. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights luminaries were instrumental in escalating the war on drugs in the 1980s (Jackson was a front runner to be the first Drug Czar, in fact), so in many ways we have them to thank for the fact that one in 15 black men are incarcerated, and that blacks make up 38% of the prison population (despite comprising only 13% of the overall population). Thanks, guys, way to become foot soldiers in a war of racial oppression.
Anyway, I don’t mean to be unfair to the Civil Rights Movement --- all involved were heroes and can hardly be blamed for not predicting the future. All I’m saying is: let’s acknowledge the fact that the movement accomplished only 50% of its goals, and last time I checked that’s still a failing grade. We love to celebrate the “victory” of the Civil Rights Movement because it helps sustain the delusion that protesting is effective and that we the people are still in control of our country, when in reality the government is a brilliantly subversive machine incapable of real change. More on that some other time.
For now let me just say: happy Martin Luther King Day!