This semester I am teaching an African American History course, and today’s lecture was about the differences between the two understandings of the civil rights movement—the standard one that is part of the American civil religion, often referred to as the “classical” or “heroic” period; and, as Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and Kevin Mattson have called it, the “harder” history of the “long civil rights movement,” a history that fits much less easily into nationalist pieties of progress and respectability.
This was a poignant lecture because of today’s date: April 4th is the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis in 1968 (see Robert’s post yesterday). And all yesterday and today as I reviewed and revised my notes, and especially as I re-read Hall’s essay “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” what ran through my head was a little saccharine ditty from August 1968, Dion’s “Abraham, Martin, and John.” Written as a tribute to King and Robert Kennedy—who had also been assassinated in June—it lined them up with Bobby’s brother and Abraham Lincoln as fallen icons of racial justice and compassion. An extremely simple song with a haunting melody, each verse went something like this:
Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people
But it seems the good die young.
I just looked around and he’s gone.
The song was very popular and it must have had an impact on my father—who was, I believe, an eleven-year-old in ‘68—for it was through this song that he first described the civil rights movement to me when I was probably five or six, singing it from memory.
To have first come to an understanding of the civil rights movement through an earnest if also commercialized folk-pop single is a mark of the privilege I grew up with and still hold; it is unlikely that my story is very common, and there are many children who, well before they turned five or six, would have come into contact with some force whose blunt edges forced a more painful reckoning with the reasons why there was a song about King in the first place.
But I thought about this song particularly as I considered Hall’s argument about the sources of the “dominant narrative [of] a short civil rights narrative… confining the civil rights struggle to the South, to bowdlerized heroes, to a single halcyon decade [1954-1965], and to limited, noneconomic objectives” (1234). While she acknowledges that the master narrative “has multiple sources,” she “emphasizes how the movement’s meaning has been distorted and reified by a New Right bent on reversing its gains” (1235).
Reworking that narrative [the mostly journalistic “rough draft of history”] for their own purposes, these “color-blind conservatives” ignored the complexity and dynamism of the movement, its growing focus on structural inequality, and its “radical reconstruction” goals. Instead, they insisted that color blindness—defined as the elimination of racial classifications and the establishment of formal equality before the law—was the movement’s singular objective, the principle for which King and the Brown decision, in particular, stood. They admitted that racism, understood as individual bigotry, did exist—“in the distant past” and primarily in the South… But after legalized Jim Crow was dismantled [the New Right narrative concluded], such irrationalities diminished to insignificance. In the absence of overtly discriminatory laws and with the waning of conscious bias, American institutions became basically fair. If stark group inequalities persisted, black attitudes, behavior, and family structures were to blame. (1237)
All of this is unimpeachably true. And yet my experience with “Abraham, Martin, and John” suggests to me that Hall’s account of the appropriation of the spirit of the black freedom struggle by the New Right explains both too much and too little. Even considering her acknowledgment of the “multiple sources” of the dominant narrative of the short civil rights movement, Hall doesn’t really allow for the way that the New Right’s revision of civil rights as color-blindness depended very extensively on the prior success of ostensibly benign interpretations like “Abraham, Martin, and John.” It is difficult for me to believe that, in the absence of this kind of anodyne, pious treatment of the CRM, color-blind conservatives would have found such success with their revisions. The priority of interpreters like Dion matters.
And yet it is also a mistake, I think, to treat something like “Abraham, Martin, and John” as simply a “rough draft of history,” as I suspect many historians would be inclined to do. Even though it was released with impressive speed (RFK was shot in June; the record was pressed in August), the song was more than journalism on a turntable. The Wikipedia article on the song notes quite a number of covers of the song from 1969 through 2003. What is more, the song’s modest and even unlikely origins—Dion was not exactly a folk troubadour, and the songwriters were previously most famous for a novelty single about Snoopy—did not stop the song from evidently touching a wide range of artists: Wikipedia lists (among others) Andy Williams, Marvin Gaye, Moms Mabley, Smokey Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Leonard Nimoy, Bob Dylan, Whitney Houston, Paul Weller, and Tori Amos as having covered the song. Pointing out the obvious: unless we’re going to be entirely cynical, the presence of a number of those names suggests that, while the song was lightweight, it carried a certain amount of meaning for a broader audience than just white moderates.
So when my father sang these simple verses to me and explained who Abraham, Martin, John, and Bobby were and what the song meant, he taught me a simplified, sanitized narrative that required that very counternarrative of the “long civil rights movement” to correct. But he also opened a vein of genuine connection to a kind of primary experience of the shock and trauma of King’s murder, a connection which, unbeknownst to me, many had felt and processed, at least in part, by listening to this song. Even if it had unwittingly written the first draft of the recension of King’s life by the New Right, the song also did its own thing. And that, I think, is worth noting.
 Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” JAH 91.4 (March 2005): 1233-1263. This essay was originally Hall’s presidential address at the 2004 OAH convention. Robert Greene II covered some of the more recent responses to the “long civil rights movement” framework for the USIH blog here.