On this Martin Luther King, Jr., birthday holiday weekend, I’m thinking about the current direction of Civil Rights historiography. The recent release of Selma has sparked long-overdue discussions about the relationship between the federal government and grassroots activists in the 1960s. These discussions are familiar to historians, but I suspect far less familiar to people who don’t go to conferences or have never experienced a history level graduate seminar. The emphasis on King over Lyndon Johnson has been seen by some as an attempt to give members of the Civil Rights Movement more agency than has been afforded to them in previous films (consider the criticism of so-called “white savior” films—a term which makes me cringe, but that’s for another post). Those who felt the film was unfair to LBJ, however, argued that President Johnson’s role in pushing civil rights legislation in real life was slighted in the movie.
This is an important discussion. I’d go so far as to say it’s really a reflection of current concerns about social justice activism (most notably around the “Black Lives Matter” campaign) and its relationship with modern American liberalism. In order to understand that in a historical context, however, it’s crucial to consider what historians are writing about the Civil Rights Movement—as well as Black Power. Where do we have left to go in both those fields?
The discussion about Lyndon Johnson’s relationship to the Civil Rights Movement has received plenty of attention in the last year, thanks to the Fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and this year’s anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Several books have been released that, while not intellectual history, should be of interest to any scholar who studies the Civil Rights Movement. Clay Risen’s The Bill of the Century and Todd Purdum’s An Idea Whose Time Has Come both demonstrate the importance of Lyndon Johnson, Congressional leaders, and grassroots activists to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Meanwhile, perhaps the most interesting new book of the bunch to come out about Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Movement is Julian Zelizer’s The Fierce Urgency of Now, which is a critical reappraisal of Lyndon Johnson’s administration from November 1963 until after the midterm elections of 1966. Zelizer’s work argues that Johnson’s legislative victories in 1964 and 1965 depended largely on the makeup of Congress—not just having large Democratic majorities, but the presence of dozens of moderate and liberal Republicans who, after the landslide defeat of conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964, pivoted towards the center and away from the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Again, these aren’t works of intellectual history—but they do provide the social and political contexts against which many intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s were working. Notably, individuals such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Michael Harrington were well aware of the precarious state of Great Society legislation, a point that Zelizer makes in his book. After all, the 1966 midterm elections signaled not only the return of Republican conservatism under the banner of “law and order” (also argued by Rick Perlstein in Nixonland) but it also changed the national debate about the power of government to address both race relations and poverty.
So this brings me back to my original point: where are we going in terms of Black Freedom Struggle historiography? Historians are beginning to move beyond debates about a “long civil rights” era—but as we write more about the 1970s and 1980s, defining what is, and is not¸ part of the Civil Rights Movement becomes all the more important. And, just as importantly, shining a light on elements of agitation and activism from before Brown v. Board of Education is also paramount.
The international perspective of both the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power are also crucial here—but they can’t end there. Looking at back issues of Freedomways, Black Scholar, and Negro Digest/Black World, one understands that activists and individuals concerned about the plight of African Americans, poor whites, and so many other disadvantaged groups in the 60s and 70s had to confront the changing political and economic language surrounding Western debates about austerity and free-market capitalism. In other words, future scholars dealing with the end of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s—and the debates about Black Power in the 1970s—must also continue to think about the larger, trans-Atlantic debate about the welfare state taking place at the same time. And then there’s Latin America in the 1970s, struggling with neo-liberal reforms in places such as Chile.
Where do you think current scholarship on Civil Rights and Black Power can go next? I’d be curious about your answers—and your questions too. Meanwhile, I hope you have a wonderful Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Monday. Check out some of his own work—such as Stride Toward Freedom or my personal favorite, Where Do We Go From Here? Read some of the Taylor Branch trilogy, or Thomas J. Jackson’s From Civil Rights to Human Rights. Best of all, listen to Dr. King, whether it’s a speech or him cracking a joke on late night television. Or, best of all, do some community service. Whatever you do tomorrow, I hope it’s fulfilling as both an intellectual and spiritual exercise.