The civil rights history I missed growing up in the South
As far as the civil rights era was concerned, I learned that a man named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream of rights for black people, pushed through laws granting equality and was assassinated. We might have also briefly discussed Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus.
Understandably, growing up in the South, discussing the civil rights movement in a predominantly white school was a challenging proposition. To put it mildly, we glossed over it. Black people got their rights, the bad people lost and we could move on to the next chapter. The uncomfortable problem was that some of the “bad people” could have easily been some of our grandparents.
I never heard of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. I was well into college before I ever read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In fact, I had very little knowledge of America’s struggle for civil rights until I stumbled upon Professor Bryan Fair’s class “Race, Racism and the Law” at the University of Alabama School of Law.
Professor Fair and I went round after round on any number of political topics, but he left me realizing race, perspective and history were inextricably intertwined. Sadly, my romanticized history had done a great disservice to one of the most beautiful and painful chapters in our nation’s history.
I needed to see the pictures of the fire hoses, dogs and beatings. It is horrific to review, but it is also too important to ignore. I needed to know that the racist whisperings and comments I heard from time to time from my elders were uttered at tremendous cost. The cancer of racism is not simply an outdated cultural reality, but rather an evil that oppressed many Americans for generations.
More importantly, the civil rights era breathed life into the founding documents I knew so well. The Declaration of Independence embodies the idea that people have the right “to alter or abolish” a government destructive of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The civil rights movement unmistakably altered our government in a fulfillment of that foundational belief. In that respect, the likes of Dr. King, Medgar Evers and John Lewis need to be considered as modern equivalents to Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.
Many of us who grew up in the South cannot change the past, but we cannot afford to ignore it either. When we understand that “history” is far more complex than one seamless convenient narrative about the past, we can better appreciate how far we have actually come and how much it cost to make it here.