Civil Rights Movement: Truths & Myths

January 30, 2016

History has a way of smoothing out the complexities of real-life events. This brief TeachableInstant lesson explores some forgotten or misrepresented facts about the movement for civil rights.  


History has a way of smoothing out the complexities of real life events. The Civil Rights Movement is a good example. What many of us know about that movement today is reduced to a few important icons — Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, the March on Washington, Brown v Board of Education. and the Civil Rights Acts. And much of what we know about these icons has entered into the realm of myth.


What is true?

Ask students which of the following statements can generally be considered to be true (that is, true without a lot of qualifications — ifs, ands or buts). 

  1. The Civil Rights Movement began in the 1950s and ended in the 1960s.
  2. The Movement achieved its goals with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  3. Rosa Parks was tired after a long day's work and refused to sit in the back of the bus.
  4. Martin Luther King initiated the March on Washington and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
  5. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) included may whites.
  6. The Supreme Court decision Brown v Board of Education ended school segregation.
  7. Martin Luther King fought for racial equality and stayed away from economic issues.

Answer:  #5 comes closest to being a simple statement of fact. White students were an important part of SNCC until December 1967, when the organization asked its white members to work against racism in their own communities. The rest of the statements are not generally true. 


Some Remembered and Forgotten Facts 

Share with students the following information - or ask them to read it for themselves. 

Rosa Parks' arrest for not giving up her seat to a white man on that Montgomery Alabama bus did spark the famous bus boycott. But it wasn't because her feet hurt after a long day's work. Parks was an active member of a group of Black  Montgomery women who had been organizing for years and had plans laid out already for a boycott of the city's buses.  (For the details, see our 2015 TeachableInstant lesson  and 2012 TeachableMoment lesson.)

Martin Luther King is rightfully known for leading the fight for desegregation and voting rights, his faith-based appeals for equality, his nonviolent philosophy and his soaring speeches. And if you just listened to politicians praising Dr. King on the national holiday bearing his name, that's all you would know about King's message. What you might not know from the commemorations, celebrations, textbooks and movies is that King also opposed the war in Vietnam,  supported trade unions, and worked to end poverty for people of all races. (See our TeachableMoment lesson from 2014.)

The March on Washington of August 28, 1963, is largely known for Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. What is often forgotten is that the full name of the demonstration was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and that economic justice was a top focus of the march. The idea for the march came from A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and president of the Negro American Labor Council.  Another key organizer was Bayard Rustin, an advisor to Martin Luther King and a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Rustin, a strong advocate for nonviolence, was also openly gay and a socialist. (See our teaching suggestions on the March on Washington.)

Of course we would expect that histories of any event or person or movement would differ. Sometimes though, a national consensus forms on important events that reduces that event to a simple message--one that is short and palatable to the broad population. This national memory is formed by textbooks, films, public officials, monuments, museums commemorations and national holidays.

The shorthand view of the Civil Rights Movement leaves out a lot:

  • Descriptions of the movement often focus on a few great leaders, while the hard work, courage, and clever organizing of grassroots activists in communities across the country is ignored or under-emphasized. The day-to-day work of organizing--holding meetings, forming committees, writing and distributing leaflets, holding local protests, distributing petitions, organizing protests, going door to door, or picketing local businesses is erased. Instead, the focus tends to be on King and a few other famous individuals making speeches and leading national marches.
  • The movement is often taken out of context. It’s often thought to have begun in the 1950s and ended in the 1960s.  In fact, earlier movements to end lynching, desegregate the armed forces, unite with whites in the labor movement and promote Black nationalism, are also part of civil rights history.  Also lost are the connections to the later struggles against police brutality and voter suppression, and for housing rights, education equality, environmental justice, and affirmative action.
  • Despite the prominence of Rosa Parks, women (as leaders or as foot soldiers) are often left out of the story. In fact, women were key in building the Civil  Rights Movement. (See this TeachableMoment lesson on three women civil rights activists.) 
  • Radical organizers (those who advocate large-scale change rather than simply reforms) were also vital to the movement, but tend to be overlooked or have their views softened in the histories.

What we know about the past affects what we do today and in the future. If we know that everyday normal people like us have worked for change and made a difference in the past, then we might feel inspired to work for change ourselves.


For Discussion

  1. Joseph Lowry was a co-founder and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and  a close ally of Martin Luther King. Still, marching in 2007, Lowry had this to say about mythologizing King (drawing from a poem by Carl Wendell Hines):  "Now that he (King) is safely dead, let us praise him... Dead men make such convenient heroes. Besides, it's easier to build a monument than a movement."  What do you think Lowry meant? Do you agree with his sentiments?
  2. Is the Black Lives Matter movement a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement? How are they similar? Different?
  3. Can you think of any other examples of history as myth? 
  4. Have you ever read something in a textbook that you felt was false, or distorted or that left out important parts?
  5. To what extent does the saying "history is written by the winners" apply to the history of the Civil Rights Movement?
  6. Why do you think we tend to hear a simplified version of the Civil Rights Movement history that emphasizes inspiring leaders rather than grassroots activism?