Monthly Archive for January, 2011

American Passivity

Have Americans lost their “grassroots political mojo” asks Barbara Ehrenreich?

During the depression of 1892 to 1896, unemployed workers marched to Washington by the thousands in what was then the largest mass protest this country had seen. In 1932, even more jobless people — 25,000 — staged what was, at that time, the largest march on Washington, demanding public works jobs and a hike in the inheritance tax. From the ’60s to the ’80s, Americans marched again and again — peacefully, nonviolently and by the hundreds of thousands — for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, economic justice and against wars. In fact, this has been a major focus of Piven’s scholarly work over the years — the American tradition of protest and resistance to economic injustice — and it’s a big enough subject to keep hundreds of academics busy for life.

And it does. Those academics are likely to disagree with Barbara Ehrenreich’s suggestion that gun ownership has stifled Americans’ marching spirit; marchers in the 1960s and their predecessors faced worse. Instead, we’ve seen suggestions that the elevation of the NAACP’s more moderate legal strategy over Martin Luther King’s growing radicalism pushed economic justice off the table, and that King’s legacy has been softened into one of colorblindness rather than income equality, democratized access to social services, and equality of opportunity. The protests erupting in the Arab world are a stark backdrop against Americans’ most recent political statement: electing to national office a host of politicians devoted to protecting the interests of the wealthy.

Kevin Boyle

The Center for the Study of the American South brings you Kevin Boyle of Ohio State University (National Book Award winner for Arc of Justice) giving a talk entitled, “History Redemption: Civil Rights, History, and the Promise of America.” The talk is part of the Center’s Hutchins Lecture series. Enjoy!

Kevin Boyle, History Redemption: Civil Rights, History and the Promise of America from UNC South on Vimeo.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Construction of National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled to begin in 2012 with the building scheduled to open in 2015. As part of the Smithsonian Institution, the new museum will be built on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Over the weekend, the New York Times published an excellent article on the museum. You can read the New York Times article here.

Ten Other Things Martin Luther King Said

From Jay Smooth, some quotations from Martin Luther King that tend to hug the wall while “I Have a Dream” dominates the dance floor:


Every Martin Luther King Day brings a nationwide wave of commemorations celebrating the life and legacy of one of the most important figures in our nation’s history. But toward what that life was bending when it so suddenly ended, and what that legacy is are hotly contested questions. On on side, King has transformed from a divisive radical to a leader who sought to inspire Americans to color-blindnesss. On the other, a radical King was growing only more radical at the time of his death, condemning the war in Vietnam and standing with black sanitation workers seeking a living wage in Memphis, Tennessee. In the middle are the comforting images of King leading the nonviolent protests that changed hearts and minds in a South led astray by its past.

This mug shot of Martin Luther King from his arrest in 1956 shows a determined King in conflict with the criminal justice system even as he began his struggle.

To most scholars, the debate has been settled. Though King should be remembered for his soaring rhetoric and his unifying vision, he should also be remembered as an activist whose vision of the present and future was in flux at the time of his death, and who was increasingly convinced that the aim of the civil rights movement should be the dismantling and restructuring of the American economic system. In 1967, King gave a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in which he confessed doubting his own rhetoric shortly after the famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” a speech that is played and replayed yearly to offer Americans a snapshot of who King was (This year, it could be heard on NPR, among other places.). “I must confess to you today,” he told the congregation, “that not long after talking about that dream I was starting to see it turn into a nightmare.” (Read a portion of that speech with some context in Drew D. Hansen’s The Dream: Martin Luther King and the Speech That Inspired a Nation.)

By 1967, King was tired. He said it himself, and his friends noticed. Speaking to congregants at Ebenezer, he insisted he had not given up his dream, but not because he still believed in it; instead, he said that he had not given up his dream because “you know, you can’t give up in life.” That rhetorical slump of the shoulders is not how very many people remember Martin Luther King. But to remember him as a visionary exhausted by and eventually killed by the massive resistance to the movement he has come to symbolize seems as powerful a memory as that of his vision of the promised land. It is a chilling national memory, but one that should perhaps add to the complex understanding of King and his legacy that is gaining currency.

WNYC hosted an event to tease out that legacy, particularly King’s focus on economic justice. Check out the panel below the fold.
Continue reading ‘MLK Day’

Haley Barbour Reverses Course on Civil Rights Movement

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, excoriated for saying that the Jim Crow era wasn’t “that bad”–and maybe it wasn’t, for him–has reversed course and is now supporting a $50 million dollar civil rights museum. He wants the museum to be built with private donations, so he might avoid sour looks from those who think that history is too frivolous to spend cash on during an economic slump, but more important is what political observers believe the move means: Barbour is serious about running for president in 2012. And apparently believes that supporting construction of a civil rights movement will win him some support in his effort to unseat the United States’s first black president.

Lurking in Barbour’s explanation of his support for the project are hints of the crisis of memory historians have been calling attention to for years: the confinement of the civil rights movement to history. “The civil rights struggle is an important part of our history, and millions of people are interested in learning more about it,” Barbour said. It won’t be up to Barbour to make choices about how the story of the civil rights movement is told in the museum, but his position is clear–the movement is over.