Civil Rights Historiography

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The Civil Rights Movement is often thought to begin with a tired Rosa Parks defiantly declining to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She paid the price by going to jail. Her refusal sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which civil rights historians have in the past credited with beginning the modern civil rights movement. Others credit the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education with beginning the movement. Regardless of the event used as the starting point of the moment, everyone can agree that it is an important period in history. In the forty-five years since the modern civil rights movement, several historians have made significant contributions to the study of this era. These historians disagree with one another about many different aspects of the movement, but ultimately they all agree that it was a combination of the leadership of such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, combined with the grassroots organizing done by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the support of a liberal coalition of Northern Whites that made the movement successful; furthermore, all of the authors can agree that no one—not King, Malcolm X, the SNCC, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization—possessed static views during the movement. Each leader, group and organization changed their beliefs as they experienced the struggles, successes and failures of the movement.

In his book, Freedom Bound, Robert Weisbrot essentially covers the Civil Rights Movement in its entirety, beginning with the origins of the movement and culminating in the Reagan years. Weisbrot’s “central aim is to relate the civil rights movement to broader currents in American political reform.” He focuses mostly on the tentative alliance between African-Americans and white liberals, which he claims “transformed American race relations during the 1960s, [and] was a source of both power and disillusionment to civil rights advocates.” John F. Kennedy himself acknowledged this alliance by saying to Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders that even though they may disagree over the proper course of action, they should always “have confidence in the good faith of each other”

Weisbrot’s Freedom Bound demonstrates and details the successes and failures of this liberal coalition, which not only include the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but liberal students joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the interaction of SNCC with Students for a Democratic Society and other groups in the New Left. King and other leaders knew that “only if whites shared in the risks of violence would civil rights workers gain federal protection and a national hearing”

Weisbrot’s book, however, is not without its flaws. For example, he discusses at length the contributions of the Liberal Alliance in the movement’s successes, but ignores for the most part the significant contributions made by other methods, including grassroots organizing. He also largely ignores the role played by women in the movement, aside from cursory discussions. Mainly, he focuses on the contributions of white and black men to the success of the civil rights movement.

In his article “How Brown Changed Race Relations: The Backlash Thesis,” Michael J. Klarman also makes a significant contribution to civil rights historiography. Klarman argues that Brown v. Board of Education was not in itself directly a cause of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, Brown set in motion a chain of events that led to the Civil Rights Movement. According to the article, the Supreme Court’s decision “crystallized southern resistance to racial change…propelled politics in virtually every southern state several notches to the right on racial issues, and temporarily destroyed southern racial moderation.” Whereas before Brown, whites in the South were on occasion willing to work with African-Americans, extend their...
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