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A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The…

A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil…

by Jeanne Theoharis

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A powerful account of the Civil Rights Movement in all its "terrible beauty" and an analysis of how that history is already being watered down and misused.

Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College. She has published on Civil Rights, race, and social welfare. Her book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, was especially well received. In it she introduced some the themes which shape her latest book.

Theoharis is concerned about how recent politicians and pundits are nostalgically comparing the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s with similar movements today as if the former protests were better because they were quieter and less disruptive. She displays abundant evident that this view is simply not true. Taking her title from the words of James Baldwin, she reminds us of the anger and disruptive force of earlier years, often telling stories that we have conveniently forgotten or never understood. In the process, she reveals the common threads of then and now and encourages readers to speak out despite allies who would silence them.

Early chapters in the book address the way in which long ongoing activism lay behind the activism of the 1950s and 1960s. If white people had known the history of their own towns and regions, they would not have been “surprised” when protesters appeared. Theoharis fleshes out the actions of Rosa Parks and others in Montgomery long before the Boycott. She also describes how even Martin Luther King angered whites and some blacks who feared what might be lost in the response to open opposition.zi

As Theoharis explains race relations in Northern and Western cities always were distorted as opponents used different words to keep the Civil Rights Movement confined to the South. She focuses on Los Angeles, Boston, and Detroit, where the protest of blacks had long gone ignored until they burst out in violence. She also devotes chapters highlighting the young people in the movement and women's roles. Instead of repeating the emerging stories of rural women organizers, she reveals the roles of women in the 1963 March on Washington and the exclusion of them by the black male leaders.

I recommend this book to all readers. In telling her stories, Theoharis opened my eyes to events I had never known about, even though I have researched and taught African American History. It is simply an enjoyable taste of history at its most truthful and beautiful. Once she pointed it out, I immediately saw the numerous ways in which we are minimizing the power of the Movement.

Beacon Press merits congratulations for publishing three excellent books of African American history this spring that will be welcome by teachers, scholars, and the general public. All three can help us regain a more accurate vision of the actual character of the Civil Rights Movement at a time when that vision is being sentimentalized and “white washed.” I will be reviewing all three this week so you can check out the others.

A More Beautiful and Terrible History, Jeanne Theoharis.

An African American and Latinx History of the United States, by Paul Oritz.

History Teaches Us to Resist, by Mary Francis Berry.

Civil ( )
  mdbrady | Sep 18, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is a very interesting book. First, just for full disclosure, I received this book free through the LibraryThing early reviewer program. Thanks to LibraryThing and Beacon Books for the book.

Also for full disclosure, I am a middle-class Caucasian male, probably the last person who would buy this book, but the first who really should read it (along with budding activists). Let's face it, the stories, statistics, and analysis here show me to be in a problematic class of individuals. Throughout the Civil Rights period, the average middle class Caucasian male, if not actively working against the movement, was usually against it, sometimes overtly and sometimes not. Sometimes, just apathetic ignorance was just as bad. Reading this book should make me uncomfortable, because the truths in it show that we have so much to learn and so far to go, and I should be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Not many people want to read a book (although maybe they should) that makes them uncomfortable. However, as a budding historian, I think it tells an important story, and was happy to get out of my comfort zone.

The author points out early in this book how we glorify Civil Rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, without really knowing how many others were involved in this process and how long they struggled to gain what they did. With all of our holidays and recognition of these leaders and celebration of the Civil Rights movement, we want to put the whole issue to bed and declare victory--racism is over! Of course, this is far from the case.

One interesting point was in how the north was as racist as the south, and fought desegregation just as hard, although in a more covert way. Northern media loved to slam the southern racists, but quietly resisted covering the efforts against desegregation in their backyard. This hit home for me, born and raised in Ohio. In supposedly progressive cities such as Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles, when frustration with the way things were led to demonstrations and even riots, city leadership seemed taken aback. How could this happen in their city? The media and leaders made the individuals involved the bad guy and totally ignored the decades of indifference to non-violent methods used to try to bring discriminatory practices to light.

It was interesting to read about how truly difficult it was for these activists to make any headway. Whether it was in the North or in the South, they were branded as extremists, troublemakers, un-American, or just plain communists. Contrary to our view now that these things they protested for were right and just, people at the time thought they asked for too much and viewed them very negatively. It was not until much later that they were looked back upon as heroes. This is much as people today perceive organizations such as Black Lives Matter. Also, although it is easy to pin governmental resistance to Civil Rights (both state and federal) on such villains as Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, leaders with good reputations such as Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy were involved in negative governmental interference. It was very difficult for Civil Rights activists to get a fair shake. Also, we like the myth that democracy willingly embraced the good fight and brought about change when really, nothing could be further than the truth. It has been a long, hard, continuous struggle.

Growing up in a small northern town where there were NO people of color, I thought everything was okay. It was, for me. When I joined the military and moved to Louisiana, I saw things differently. I think that much of our country is still often segregated and unaware of how others live. This book gives the reader a good view of what really was happening during the Civil Rights era, and what is still going on today. I highly recommend this book. ( )
  cschloem | Jul 30, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received a free copy of this book from Beacon Press via LibraryThing. I’m grateful to Beacon Press for their generosity and, because I was fascinated by this book, was happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

In A More Beautiful and Terrible History, Professor Jeanne Theoharis examines the myths of the Civil Rights Movement and contrasts these myths with the real history, the forgotten youths and women and the ignored cities in the North and West that featured prominently in the actual movement. While I was not terribly surprised by what Theoharis presented as the unvarnished history of the Civil Rights Movement (of course women were involved. of course segregation was occurring in the North), the history presented in this book is a sharp contrast to what I learned every February (and only in February) from grade school through high school. While memory fades over time and its been over twenty years since elementary and middle school, I will go so far as to say I think I learned more from this book than I ever learned in my history classes growing up.

In many ways, A More Beautiful and Terrible History reminded me of Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. Theoharis goes one step further than Loewen (or than I remember Loewen going) and explains why these myths are so useful to those interested in maintaining the status quo. She demonstrates how these myths are weaponized against the current movement to delegitimize Black Lives Matter, #NoDAPL, and others. These connections were the icing on the cake for me in this book—it is not enough to acknowledge that we have made history convenient in our retelling but to see why these myths were created, how they were useful then, and how they are being used now made Theoharis’s work an urgent, timely read.

I will admit that one of the first things I did upon receiving this book was flip to the author’s picture. I was surprised to see that Theoharis is white. Her author’s note reveals that Theoharis’s family escaped the Armenian genocide that the United States still refuses to acknowledge. As she notes, “[g]rowing up Greek-Armenian in my politically active family made the importance of the histories we tell and those we deny potent and visceral.” With this foundation, Theoharis has published or co-published numerous works on African-American history, including an NAACP award-winning biography on Rosa Parks. (Unfortunately for me, this means that Rosa Parks isn’t addressed as deeply in A More Beautiful and Terrible History as I would have liked because Theoharis didn’t want to repeat herself. The only logical result of this is that The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks was added to my TBR.)

A Readable Academic Work
A More Beautiful and Terrible History is a bit more of an academic book than I typically pick up for a non-fiction read. I tend to stick to more narrative non-fiction—having been a history major in college, I’d prefer my history now come in story form, please and thank you. And yet, when LibraryThing posted this book as a giveaway, I found myself drawn to it. Theoharis’s work is an academic work that I can see a professor assigning in American history or historiography classes. Her work is thoroughly researched and her sources are well-cited (the last thirty-plus pages are notes). The writing, while clear and concise, is not a narrative. And yet, with the minor caveat that it dragged a bit in the middle (as noted below), I found A More Beautiful and Terrible History to be surprisingly readable for a popular audience.

The depth of her writing made me take this book one chapter at a time—I only picked it up when I had the attention span to really dig into a chapter and sit with what she was saying. If I was tired or limited for time, I picked up something else. I recommend this as the way to read A More Beautiful and Terrible History. This isn’t a narrative to fly through, nor is it a book that deserves to be skimmed.

The book is organized thematically, with chapters examining the forgotten Jim Crow North, the long struggle that preceded the successes (i.e., the Montgomery Bus Boycott didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor was Rosa Parks an accidental activist), the racism of the “White Moderate,” the media’s bias against the movement, the placement of the Civil Rights Movement within the larger global anti-poverty and anti-war movements, the young people who pushed the movement forward, the women who led, and the active demonization of the movement by the government. Overall I liked this organization—I highlighted my copy on almost every page and this thematic structure will make it easier to find things later or revisit specific chapters. The only downside to this meant that certain examples were used repeatedly and, at times, started to feel repetitive. The fight to desegregate schools in New York, for example, appeared in chapters on the Jim Crow north, the long struggle, the media bias, and the importance of students to the movement. While a different point was made each time this example was raised, it did start to make the book drag a bit. I’m not sure there is a solution to this since a purely chronological presentation would have been difficult to follow and these large-scale but forgotten events were the perfect examples for the points Theoharis was making. If you decide to pick this one up and similarly feel the book dragging a bit, know that after chapter six (young people), these examples are replaced by new ones and the last third of the book picks back up.
Exceptionalism & Austin, Texas
As an Austinite, it is easy to believe we live in an exceptional city—we are the blue dot in the red sea. If we are exceptional then, the things that apply to everywhere else—racism, sexism, and homophobia—do not happen here. We are enlightened. We are different. We keep Austin weird.

And yet, several months ago, when there was a bomber leaving packages around the city, the first bomb barely made the news. The second bomb didn’t make national news until there was a third. The first bomb killed an African American man. The second an African-American teenager—a teenager whose talent and exceptionalism is highlighted every time he is mentioned. It is a grave loss to our community and to music that Draylen’s life was cut short. But this would be true even if Draylen had not been a rare talent at the bass but simply a C student who loved to play pick-up basketball. The city wasn’t really brought to its knees in fear until a bomb went off in an affluent, mostly white neighborhood. Austin’s greatest sin is that it believes it is exceptional while being just as racist as the rest of the country.

I have a friend who moved from Austin several years ago because, among other reasons, it just became too hard to be black here. To have her child be the only black child in his class. To be attacked in the carpool line by a angry Lululemon-wearing mom because her talk at Blogher about America not being here for people of color went viral. To know that if she called the police from that carpool line, it was likely Lulu-Mom who was going to be believed.

In many ways, Austin is a microcosm of what Theoharis presents in A More Beautiful and Terrible History. We have, as Austinites and as Americans, bought into the lie of our exceptionalism. We believe that this history was inevitable because America will always do what is right. We are self-correcting and needed only the nonviolent encouragement of Martin Luther King Jr. to correct what was an exclusively Southern problem.

As members of BlackLivesMatter and others calling for racial justice as demonized daily in the news, it is more vital than ever that we read works like this to see where we came from, what really happened, and the ways those in power and in the media use the lie of our exceptionalism to maintain a white status quo.

Published: January 30, 2018 by Beacon Press (@beaconpress)
Author: Jeanne Theoharis
Date read: May 26, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars ( )
  ImLisaAnn | Jun 4, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book,like her her earlier book _The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks_, shows Theoharis to be solid researcher of important elements of the struggle for civil rights in the U. S. and a perceptive critic of the cultural manipulations of public perceptions of racism. I found this one harder to read than the Parks book, however, because of needlessly complex and convoluted sentence structures. Still, very informative and thought-provoking.
  GaryLeeJones | May 18, 2018 |
A More Beautiful and Terrible History takes aim the revisionist history of the civil rights movement that we are taught as children in school and that has become the standard narrative. As someone who didn’t live through that time period, I found it incredibly enlightening. I think even people who did live through it will learn a lot because much of what was happening back then wasn’t reported accurately by the media. For instance, northern schools were just as segregated as southern schools. However, the northern segregation wasn’t codified and the school districts had all kinds of ways of getting around de-segregation. Jim Crow was not just a southern phenomenon. Another thing that was happening back then all over the country was the shooting of unarmed black men. It was easier to sweep under the rug with no cell phone videos or social media.

This book also discusses the prominent civil rights figures of that era and public perception of them back then versus now. Rosa Parks was not just a tired black woman who stayed in her bus seat on a whim. There was strategy and planning behind her decision. The lengths that people in the movement had to go to in order to make the Montgomery bus boycott work were amazing. Also, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not always well-liked. His approval ratings were actually quite low at points. His wife Coretta was also a central figure in the movement, not just a standing by her man wife.

A More Beautiful and Terrible History is a must read. I wish that everyone who is part of the “Why don’t they just get over it and pull themselves up by their bootstraps?” club would read it so they could see how white people have been systematically taking away black people’s boots for years in ALL areas of the country. I’m very glad I read this book and recommend it to everyone. ( )
  mcelhra | May 10, 2018 |
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To Julian Bond, who taught me how to tell this story and carry this history forward

And to my parents, Nancy and Athan Theoharis, for their commitment to and insistence on justice, truth-telling and perseverance
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Praised by The New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; Bitch Magazine; Slate; Publishers Weekly; and more, this is "a bracing corrective to a national mythology" (New York Times) around the civil rights movement.The civil rights movement has become national legend, lauded by presidents from Reagan to Obama to Trump, as proof of the power of American democracy. This fable, featuring dreamy heroes and accidental heroines, has shuttered the movement firmly in the past, whitewashed the forces that stood in its way, and diminished its scope. And it is used perniciously in our own times to chastise present-day movements and obscure contemporary injustice. In A More Beautiful and Terrible History award-winning historian Jeanne Theoharis dissects this national myth-making, teasing apart the accepted stories to show them in a strikingly different light. We see Rosa Parks not simply as a bus lady but a lifelong criminal justice activist and radical; Martin Luther King, Jr. as not only challenging Southern sheriffs but Northern liberals, too; and Coretta Scott King not only as a "helpmate" but a lifelong economic justice and peace activist who pushed her husband's activism in these directions. Moving from "the histories we get" to "the histories we need," Theoharis challenges nine key aspects of the fable to reveal the diversity of people, especially women and young people, who led the movement; the work and disruption it took; the role of the media and "polite racism" in maintaining injustice; and the immense barriers and repression activists faced. Theoharis makes us reckon with the fact that far from being acceptable, passive or unified, the civil rights movement was unpopular, disruptive, and courageously persevering. Activists embraced an expansive vision of justice--which a majority of Americans opposed and which the federal government feared. By showing us the complex reality of the movement, the power of its organizing, and the beauty and scope of the vision, Theoharis proves that there was nothing natural or inevitable about the progress that occurred. A More Beautiful and Terrible History will change our historical frame, revealing the richness of our civil rights legacy, the uncomfortable mirror it holds to the nation, and the crucial work that remains to be done.… (more)

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