A More Beautiful & Terrible History (Book Review)

Ah, FebruaryThe month when I’m grateful kids all around United States are learning about and celebrating African American contributions to our nation…but also the month I’m flooded with frustration that this type of education and appreciation is not EVERY DAY, OF EVERY MONTH, in EVERY SCHOOL. Black History IS American History. It is an essential thread of the American fabric and our nation’s story simply cannot be told or understood without it. Whether out of malice, ignorance or habit; American history is still frequently white-washed.  

Brooklyn College Professor Jeanne Theoharis speaks at Harvard Law School about her book, "A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History."

Jeanne Theoharis, political science professor at Brooklyn College, is an outspoken advocate for telling the whole historical truth. She has written numerous articles and books presenting evidence that reshapes popular understandings of 20th century American history, especially perceptions of the Civil Rights Movement and its heroes (she’s a Rosa Parks expert…if you want to know more about the quaint old lady, that wasn’t a quaint, old lady at all, I highly recommend, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks”).  

One year ago, yesterday, Theoharis continued her crusade for a deeper and more truthful understanding when she released, “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History”. In this book, she explains that our national narrative of redemption is misleading and a sanitized version of the facts. She critiques not only the political motivations that nationalized celebrations of Civil Rights Activism (MLK Day, Black History Month), but also explores the present social impact of perpetuating and glorifying what she refers to as a “national fable”. Theoharis provides this deeper and more contextual exploration of racial injustice and activism not only to give us a fuller understanding of the past, but in hopes that, “this fuller history gives us the tools to approach the task of racial justice today”.

The introduction is called “The Histories We Get” and the nine chapters that follow are “The Histories We Need”. Theoharis uses this section to methodically point out distortions in popular understandings of the Civil Rights Movement. 

She starts out with place. Our national narrative is almost always told in the south. In fact, the largest civil rights protest of the 1960s (a decade of comprehensive desegregation) happened in New York City. She debunks notions of northern “niceness”, providing evidence that cities like NYC and Boston created the framework to side-step federal mandates, asserting political will with language like “neighborhood school” and “forced bussing”.  She provides countless examples of organization, protest and racial injustice from sea to shining sea; from Detroit to Los Angeles to Boston and back again. 

The Civil Rights movement is remembered as somewhat spontaneous reaction to specific injustices. However, the moments that make up this movement were built on careful organization in reaction to perpetual and generational injustice. Rosa was not worried about a single seat on a bus; it was always bigger than that. The sanitized version focuses only on the separation of black and white, not the systemic disparities derived from it. The movement wasn’t just about race, it was a fight for economic justice and welfare rights. 

The media is often credited with being an essential factor in the movement's success, but Theoharis outlines a number of ways the media has aided in distorting our view (i.e. lack of focus on youth involvement and their belligerent disruption of the status quo).  

In the last section of the book (“A History for a Better World”) Theoharis argues that evidence should be used not only to reshape our understanding of the past, but also to frame our vision of how to move forward.

There is truth in “the histories we get”. There were courageous individuals, and they did use the promise and practice of democracy to elicit change. There was injustice; and we have come a mighty long way. It’s ok to celebrate progress, but self-congratulation can't lead to stagnation.

There is still injustice, we still have a mighty long way to go.

We don’t do the Civil Rights Movement justice without knowing and telling the whole story, with all its beautiful and terrible nuance. This is a great book to learn a little bit more about a story we think we already know.