Jacquelyn Dowd Hall is Julia Cherry Spruill Professor Emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill and founding director of the university’s Southern Oral History Program. She is past president of the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association and founding president of the Labor and Working Class History Association. Her books and articles include Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign Against Lynching (1979, 1993); Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (1987, 2000; and “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History (2005), which challenged the myth that the movement was a short, successful bid to overcome segregation in the Jim Crow South.
Excerpt: “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past”
The civil rights movement circulates through American memory in forms and through channels that are at once powerful, dangerous, and hotly contested. Civil rights memorials jostle with the South's ubiquitous monuments to its Confederate past. Exemplary scholarship and documentaries abound, and participants have produced
wave after wave of autobiographical accounts, at least two hundred to date. Images of the movement appear and reappear each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and during Black History Month. Yet remembrance is always a form of forgetting, and the dominant narrative of the civil rights movement—distilled from history and memory, twisted by ideology and political contestation, and embedded in heritage tours, museums, public rituals, textbooks, and various artifacts of mass culture—distorts and suppresses as much as it reveals
Centering on what Bayard Rustin in 1965 called the "classical" phase of the struggle, the dominant narrative chronicles a short civil rights movement that begins with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, proceeds through public protests, and culminates with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Then comes the decline. After a season of moral clarity, the country is beset by the Vietnam War, urban riots, and reaction against the excesses of the late 1960s and the 1970s, understood variously as student rebellion, black militancy, feminism, busing, affirmative action, or an overweening welfare state. A so-called white backlash sets the stage for the conservative interregnum that, for good or ill, depending on one's ideological persuasion, marks the beginning of another story, the story that surrounds us now…
By confining the civil rights struggle to the South, to bowdlerized heroes, to a single halcyon decade, and to limited, noneconomic objectives, the master narrative simultaneously elevates and diminishes the movement. It ensures the status of the classical phase as a triumphal moment in a larger American progress narrative, undermines its gravitas. It prevents one of the most remarkable mass movements in American history from speaking effectively to the challenges of our time.
Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past.” Journal of American History 90, no. 4 (March 2005): 1233–1263.