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A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History
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A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History

4.23  ·  Rating details ·  265 ratings  ·  64 reviews
Explodes the fables that have been created about the civil rights movement

The civil rights movement has become national legend, lauded by presidents from Reagan to Obama to Trump, as proof of the power of American democracy. This fable, featuring dreamy heroes and accidental heroines, has shuttered the movement firmly in the past, whitewashed the forces that stood in its w
Hardcover, 278 pages
Published January 30th 2018 by Beacon Press
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4.23  · 
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 ·  265 ratings  ·  64 reviews

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“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” - James Baldwin

This microhistory looks at our memorialization of the Civil Rights movement and its impact on our current political atmosphere. It is a sobering indictment of what Theoharis calls “The American fable” where the Civil Rights Movement is diluted to singular events carried out by a few key individuals. In this fable these historical moments are placed aga
Feb 25, 2018 rated it liked it
I wanted to like this book more than I did. I enjoyed the author's biography of Rosa Parks, and I'm interested in the premise of this book - essentially the ways in which the narrative of the civil rights movement has been over-simplified and -sanitized, and how that impacts current political discourse. It's well-researched and I certainly learned a few things, but I was hoping for a more nuanced analysis as well as more info on the "overlooked" elements of the history. Also, I felt that the boo ...more
Carmel Hanes
Jun 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a very enlightening book. It might cause a variety of feelings in the reader--anger, disgust, embarrassment, dismay, indignation, and remorse, to name a few. As the title suggests, it tackles the history of the civil rights movement--you know, the one we were all taught in school or read about in the papers and saw on the news....or not.

I'd been fed the familiar parts of this history without realizing I was given a doctored and incomplete version. I had been served the palatable parts, t
Nov 05, 2018 rated it liked it
Instead of telling us the "beautiful and terrible history" advertised in the title, the author goes on redundantly for most of the book about how everyone else has failed to get the history right. This is a shame, because at the very end the reader finally gets a chapter of useful lessons from the civil rights movement. Clearly there could have been more about "uses" vs. "misuses" of the history.

Still, it was better overall than Twitter and Teargas, which was also recommended for covering the l
victor harris
Apr 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: american-history
Best taken in small chunks, a lot to be absorbed here. As the author shows, although certainly the high profile people in the civil rights movement such as King and Parks deserve praise, there were many people who contributed to the cause and enduring suffering. Many of them were women whose work got obscured in the grander narrative, and many were crucial in advancing the movement at the organizational level.
I highly recommend the chapter on Rosa Parks near the end, the story has been mangled
Mar 14, 2018 rated it liked it
The premise of the book sounded very intriguing and definitely something that needs to be discussed: how the Civil Rights Movement (and broader history) has been misused, appropriated, not given the full context it should when being taught (the "history we get" vs. "history we need").

It's well-researched and I definitely learned things that I don't think were taught to me (or I really don't recall) and it made me think about how the Civil Rights Movement is/was taught and would perhaps explain
May 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018, non-fiction, race
A More Beautiful and Terrible History takes aim the revisionist history of the civil rights movement that we are taught as children in school and that has become the standard narrative. As someone who didn’t live through that time period, I found it incredibly enlightening. I think even people who did live through it will learn a lot because much of what was happening back then wasn’t reported accurately by the media. For instance, northern schools were just as segregated as southern schools. Ho ...more
If this book had been printed on sticks of dynamite, it could not have done more to blow wide open my perception of our current national fable about the Civil Rights movement and whose purpose it serves. What the author makes quite clear is that the sanitized version we have of the people and events in the movement is far too limited, tidy, and self-congratulatory to get to the essential truth that the work of desegregation and racial justice is incomplete and that white resistance to change acr ...more
Mar 09, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
I received a copy of this book as an Early Reviewer from LibraryThing and the publisher.
This is an important book but not an easy or perfect one. Theoharis points out the hypocrisies in our current teachings of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King THE Civil Rights movement, of ignoring the decades of organized struggle by many people. Teaching the history of Parks and King as one act of defiance and one great speech is detrimental to our understanding of the movement and to the politics and
Linda Robinson
Jun 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
You Are There. I remembered this program as I finished Theoharis' book last night.

Americans have an interesting relationship with the story of civil rights from WWII forward. We relied on our news sources during the time to be truthful with us. The Crisis Magazine, the official quarterly of the NAACP, in its most recent issue, covers iconic moments.

What we read in the Detroit newspapers in 1967 about the rebellion didn't
Edward Sullivan
An important, essential, incisive study of the many ways in which the history of the Civil Rights Movement is obscured, distorted, and misappropriated.
Theoharis (who wrote a biography of Rosa Parks a few years ago) takes up a broader history of the civil rights movement, but her specific focus is on uncovering the silences and exploding the popular myths attached to it. She argues that lionizing just a few activists (Parks and King, especially) erases legions of activists from the historical record, and obscures the decades of hard work and community organizing that preceded the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. She also argues that the way the mov ...more
Aug 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: all readers, particularly those interested in history
Recommended to Brent by: Beacon
This is a super-important critique in a series of essays. Because these are essays in critique of oversimplification, some points are repeated, but to meaningful effect. The glorification of a greatest generation, if you will, in civil rights, diminishes continuing social movements. Our stories leave out important points and related stories. At times, the author can seem shrill. Read this anyway. I'll be rereading sections from time to time. It really matters.
Thanks to Atlanta-Fulton Public Libr
Stephen Morrissey
May 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
History can sometimes provide a comforting sheen to the past, warming readers to the notion that, in Martin Luther King's famous refrain, the moral arc of the universe bends (albeit slowly) towards justice. Theohari's riveting and much-needed commentary on the abuse of civil rights history utterly obliterates the comforting history of the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement that is portrayed in granite, in books, and in countless hearts and minds.

One of the valuable gems in Theoharis's book is
Sep 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An incandescently angry destruction of the national civil rights myths, encased in an engaging scholarly discourse, Theoharis surgically dismantles how the remembrance and the accolades of events and personages serve as a means to curtail the momentum of the civil rights movements and how America, both as a government and society, continues to diminish the evidence of a long protracted struggle, often times leaving hundreds of individuals among the scraps of history, all in serving a simplified ...more
Mar 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This made a huge impression on me. It isn’t just a history book; it’s a book about the way that this particular history is remembered and interpreted. Jeanne Theoharis focuses her attention on the willful misuse of the civil rights movement narrative to support a reassuring view of American exceptionalism and progress, and counters this by presenting disruptive accounts of aspects of the struggle that she feels have been particularly “diluted and distorted.”

This book is not unique in presenting
Aug 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Excellent! I would recommend this to anyone. Dr. Theoharis corrects the prevailing whitewashed "history" of the civil rights movement and she connects it to the today's movements. The same criticisms of today's activists were made of the civil rights activists. Rosa Parks and her family suffered for her stand, losing their jobs with no one else willing to hire them as they were reviled by whites for presuming to stand up for their rights. There were many people who made a stand on Montgomery bus ...more
Apr 27, 2018 rated it liked it
The author of this book made many interesting points as to why Americans view the Civil Rights Movement the way we do, but I don't feel like they were very original points. Yes, a nation we seem to like to believe that changes only needed to happen in the South, there were also changes that needed to happen in the North. The way the book was written made the topic seem very dry, it was like there were too many details in a book that should've been longer. While she did provide many details and c ...more
Dave McNeely
Feb 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
This work is an exceptional introduction to the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement that are often glossed over and underrepresented in popular presentations of the Movement. Theoharis explores everything from the criminally-underdiscussed racism of the North (particularly related to schooling challenges in New York City and Boston) to the vital roles played by young people and women to a more nuanced picture of the role media played during the Movement and more. The value of this work is ...more
Mar 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Important work of scholarship that is a necessary read for the young (read: not alive during the Civil Rights Movement) and for the old in need of perspective and/or memory. The hagiography around Dr. King and Rosa Parks is of a particular slant and leaves out so much that is rich ('beautiful and terrible') and important for us to remember, and this book challenges us to know that. The "problems were only in the South...the North was integrated and righteous post Brown v. Board of Education" myt ...more
David Lucander
It's only mid-February, but I'm calling this best book of the year. Theoharis has a masterpiece here (as if the Rosa Parks biography wasn't). Fresh research, beautiful writing, timely subject, and poignant analysis - this book is incredible. I'm a professor specializing in the Civil Rights Movement so I've read a lot of books on the subject, and this truly is a standout.

In a few words: YOUNG PEOPLE were huge in the civil rights movement and WOMEN were vital to its success but these groups often
Lucas Miller
Apr 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Really enjoyed this book. The thesis of the book is necessary and several volumes could be written to support it. The specific examples that Theoharis explores are not uniformly enlightening, but they all speak to the need to reevaluate some of the most tired tellings of Civil Rights history.

It is good to read a new historical monograph that is angry and righteous and unafraid to look at the world and say this is fucked up.

I think that the chapter titles and subheadings are weird and rambling.
May 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book confronts the fable-ization of civil rights history. The popular story is that Rosa Parks sat down, Martin Luther King had a dream, then we all lived happily ever after in a post-racial utopia. Anything connected to the racist past of the country is now irrelevant and those heroes magically reformed the USA with the full support and blessing of the white population. Left out of this narrative is the struggles for racial justice outside the south, the perseverance of activists through d ...more
Carol Brusegar
May 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This extraordinary book expands the telling of our U.S. Civil Rights history that has been fable-ized in the years since it happened. It reveals the years of struggle and organizing that were resisted and ignored before flashpoints that were reported as "surprising". It details the work of youth and of women not reported as the men of the movement were highlighted. The extensive surveillance of the FBI and other law enforcement, approved from the top, is described.

This expanded history brings l
Linda Gartz
Mar 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Theoharris blows open the ways in which the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders have been sanitized and made acceptable. I lived through the civil rights era, and I can assert, King was not viewed universally as a man of peace. J. Edgar Hoover called him, "The most dangerous man in America," and initiated "wall-to-wall" surveillance of him, trying to show that King had Communist ties to discredit him. Theoharris shows us how women of the civil rights movement were shut up and ign ...more
Nov 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
It took a long time to finish this book. It's best to read it in chunks as there is so much information in it. And it's all interesting, even though the writing is a bit dry. I learned a lot about how extensive the movement was during that time, including how the movement was very much present in northern and western areas but not taken as seriously as in the south. I liked how the author points out the similarities between how the movement was viewed then (not popular at all) and how similar mo ...more
Feb 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A good breakdown on the way we treat the civil rights legacy. A lot of the focus is on areas outside of the south, looking at the struggles to integrate schools in Boston, New York, and LA. It also goes to some effort to show that the Civil Rights Movement wasn't a spontaneous thing, but rather founded on years if not decades of failed efforts to go about things "the right way." There's so much more to history than "Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and white folks saved the day." It directly chal ...more
Feb 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Theoharis does an admirable job shedding light on the whole truth of the Civil Rights movement, stripping the veneer that the United States establishment has put over it. She also explores the reaction to the movement outside of the south, looking at how Boston, New York, and Los Angeles ignored their own racial problems. My main complaint is that the book could have used a bit more editing. At times, there is just too much repetition, both within a paragraph or page, and between chapters. Overa ...more
May 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
A highly-interesting, accessible and important book which introduced me to the complexity of the civil rights movement in the US (North, West and South). It definitely prompts further research and left me both flabbergasted that much of the movement (and contribution of many individuals and groups) had been ignored or conveniently distilled to certain individuals as well as inspiring that even teenagers and communities who came together despite overwhelming odds and opposition can bring about ch ...more
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Jeanne Theoharis is professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She received an AB in Afro-American studies from Harvard College and a PhD in American culture from the University of Michigan. She is the author or coauthor of four books and articles on the black freedom struggle and the contemporary politics of race in the United States.
“There has been a tendency to personify racism in the figure of a working-class white redneck who dislikes Black people and spouts hateful things, as opposed to a middle-or upper-class white person who might decry such hatefulness but still embraces racially unjust policies.” 5 likes
“By 1987, 76 percent of Americans held a favorable opinion of the civil rights leader, almost the reverse of his popularity at the end of his life (only 28 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of him in 1966).4” 3 likes
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