Photo courtesy of John Morse / Wikimedia

A Reminder of the Whitewashing of the Civil Rights Movement

Sept. 15 marked the 56th anniversary of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, when members of the KKK set off a bomb during Sunday morning mass in a mostly Black congregation. The church had become a meeting spot for key leaders of the Civil Rights Movement during the planning of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. The purpose of the protest march was to combat job inequality in Birmingham—an economic objective, much to the surprise of many—where institutional marginalization and outright violence was rife. Governed by the hot-headed George Wallace and patrolled by Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham was known as “Bombingham.” Generally, the aftermath of the bombing drew more support and precipitated the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Why do we need to talk about this now? 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, along with 11-year-old Denise Mcnair died from the explosion. However, the names of these young girls have been somewhat forgotten in today’s memory. This raises concerns about the whitewashing of the civil rights movement and the erasure of key moments and leaders.

What do most high school students learn about the civil rights movement? You’ll find the answers to be pretty formulaic: Martin Luther King Jr. as the pastor-activist, Rosa Parks as the woman who refused to give up her bus seat, groundbreaking reforms such as Brown v. Board or the Civil Rights Act, and maybe Malcolm X if there was extra time at the end of the unit. Major gaps and extreme sugarcoating undermine the very purpose of learning about the civil rights movement: to show that the movement is not completely over yet.

This article won’t even begin to cover the intricacies of the movement, nor all the hidden figures not spoken about in textbooks. Let’s start with the major grey areas around renowned leaders. Martin Luther King Jr. has been preached as the pacifist, a man who strove for non-violent protest and ‘color-blind’ policies. However, MLK was a radical activist who mainly focused on economic injustice and job inequality, with special focus on the Black community in the South. The current narrative portrays MLK’s ‘leniency’ as the antithesis to Malcolm X’s fanatic Blacks for Black empowerment. Watering down MLK’s actions and policies portrays the movement only through its successes, and never through its specific hardships and actual failures. MLK’s vision of eliminating economic inequality for Black communities was never realized. Today’s inequality still rings true.

Similarly, the perversion of Rosa Parks’ story illustrates her as a palatable woman who just so happened to stand her ground against a white rider in a Montgomery bus. What most people don’t know is Parks’ well-established activism well before that iconic story. Her grandfather, Marcus Garvey, was especially influential in carving Parks into the activist she became. Even her husband, Raymond, worked in the National Committee during the Scottsboro Boys Movement. During her career before 1955, Parks was involved in major cases such as the 1944 Recy Taylor rape trials and other women’s rights cases such as those of Gertrude Perkins and Joan Little. Parks was not simply ‘tired,’ a myth created by the civil rights movement canon. She was quite frankly ‘tired’ of the system of oppression.

What’s more striking is the sheer erasure of key figures. Nine months before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin did the exact same thing. Why didn’t she become the “mother of the civil rights movement”? Because she was a 15-year-old pregnant Black girl. Bayard Rustin—instrumental in the planning of the March on Washington—was openly gay and so never became a respectable leader. Women, especially, never entered the spotlight. Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, and Septima Poinsette Clark rarely, if ever, appear in the civil rights movement canon, despite their crucial roles in the movement.

Clearly, conventional education of civil rights history is flawed. The pacification of the movement creates a utopic image that the fight against institutional racism ended after 1965. It glosses over figures who didn’t fit the straight, male image of leadership. It offers no connection to the immediate transition to the War on Drugs or modern-day movements like Black Lives Matter. Events like the 16th Baptist Church bombing, already forgotten by too many after 56 years short years, should yield some urgency. The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t a fairytale of fighting institutional racism, and racism in all its ugly forms certainly has not been erased. 

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