“Often cast in a ‘Montgomery to Memphis’ frame that parallels the public life of Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement has taken on an air of inevitability in the popular imagination. Images and film footage have frozen the movement in time as an era when people risked their lives to end the crippling system of segregation in the South, and to secure the rights and privileges fundamental to American citizenship. For many young people, it looms as a shining moment in the distant past, with little relevance to contemporary issues concerning race, democracy, and social justice.”
— Waldo E. Martin Jr. and Patricia Sullivan, Introduction,
Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement: Freedom’s Bittersweet Song, p. xi.

We are now in the midst of anniversaries, commemorations and memorials of the civil rights movement. As movement figures die or withdraw from the public sphere, the struggle for civil rights will recede from active into historical memory. While there has never been a unified understanding of the movement, the disappearance of key actors brings risks that its lessons will be simplified and ultimately lost to students and our civil society.

In many ways, the civil rights movement has been separated from a “movement” for quite some time.13 Popular narratives create the impression that a small group of charismatic leaders, particularly Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were primarily responsible for civil rights gains. Parks is justly venerated for her activism in triggering the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Yet too many depictions of her portray a lone woman who was simply tired and did not want to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. In reality, she was a trained participant in a well-organized social movement.

This should be cause for alarm. The reduction of the movement into simple fables obscures both the personal sacrifices of those who engaged in the struggle and the breadth of the social and institutional changes they wrought. The King- and Parks-centered narrative limits what we teach students about the range of possible political action. Students deserve to learn that individuals, acting collectively, can move powerful institutions to change.

We should be just as concerned that the civil rights movement will be recast in a cooperative frame. “[T] here is a powerful tendency in the United States to depoliticize traditions for the sake of ‘reconciliation,’” writes historian Michael Kammen. “Memory is more likely to be activated by contestation, and amnesia is more likely to be induced by the desire for reconciliation.” 14 Kammen observes that King’s image has been depoliticized, turning him in the eyes of the public from a radical anti-poverty activist into a charismatic integrationist. Small wonder, then, that it is now commonplace for some politicians and media figures to use King’s words about a color-blind society as a wedge against expanded opportunities for minorities while drawing a curtain across contemporary injustices.

Teachers and textbooks routinely avoid conflict and controversial issues while creating what Terrie Epstein has called “sanitized versions” of important national events—slavery without enslavers, struggles for civil rights without racism and resistance—all culminating in a national triumph of good over evil.15 “As a consequence of teaching a disingenuous national history,” writes Epstein, “millions of young people leave the public schools knowing a nationalistic perspective but not believing it, while those who accept it have no framework for understanding racism and other forms of inequality today.”16

Even as we face these pitfalls, we must do the best we can to teach the civil rights movement just as we teach other parts of American history. It is clear from our review that the civil rights movement is seen mainly as African-American or regional history. This view is profoundly misguided. Understanding the movement is essential to understanding American history. When students learn about the movement, they study more than a series of dates, names and actions. They learn about what it means to be American and come to appreciate the importance and difficulty of struggling against tyranny. We teach the civil rights movement to show that injustice can be overcome.

13 See e.g., Deborah Menkart, Alana Murray, and Jenice L. View, eds, Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching: A Resource Guide for Classrooms and Communities, (N.p.: Teaching for Change, 2004).
14 Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture, (New York: Random House, 1993), 13.
15 Linda M. McNeil, Contradictions of control: School structure and school knowledge. (New York: Routledge Press, 1986). Diana Hess, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion, (New York: Routledge, 2009).
16 Epstein, Interpreting National History; Race, Identity, and Pedagogy in Classrooms and Communities, 9.