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

4.29  ·  Rating details ·  431 ratings  ·  92 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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“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
Bill Kerwin
Aug 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing

Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the white kids came down and saved the day. — Julian Bond
Julian Bond’s cynical formulation of the commonly accepted—though deeply flawed—narrative of the USA’s Civil Rights struggle is just as prevalent today as it was during the Nixon administration, and—as Jeanne Theoharis argues in her necessary book, A Strange and Terrible History, it is just as wounding, just as damaging now as it was then.

I first encountered the work of Jean Theoharis when I read the
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
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 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: non-fiction, race, 2018
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
Sep 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Throughout American history Black Justice and freedom movements have never been seen as legitimate by the vast majority of Americans. They have always been rejected, violently attacked and harassed by both citizens and the government. There are no exceptions to this. The movement around the middle of the 20th Century is no different. But those leaders are so convenient to have around now that they're dead. As Theoharis shows here, MLK was actually disliked by more Americans at the time of his de ...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
Dec 15, 2019 rated it liked it
"White America came to embrace King in the same way that most white South Africans came to accept Nelson Mandela–grudgingly and gratefully, retrospectively, selectively, without grace but with considerable guile. By the time they realised that their dislike of him was spent and futile, he had created a world in which admiring him was in their own self-interest. Because, in short, they had no choice."- Gary Younge

This book is very informative in regards to particular moments in the Civil Rights M
Jun 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
You have probably heard some form of what Jeanne Theoharis calls "the fable." It is the common story told of the Civil Rights movement that focuses mostly on the problems in the South and revolves around a few tremendous figures (Rosa Parks, MLK Jr.) who led the way in overcoming racism and putting America on the path to a post-racial future. In this fable, the primary figures arose out of seemingly nowhere, were mostly friendly as they called for some abstract dream of everyone getting along, a ...more
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
Jul 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Historian Theoharis packs a lot into this slender volume. She starts by describing the history of the Civil Rights movement that we have. She describes it as a fable, summarized by Julian Bond: "Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the white kids came down and saved the day." She then follows with chapters describing "the history we need." Chapters include: segregation in the North that was downplayed by the media even as papers criticized southern cities and states for the same policies; the alm ...more
This is a book everyone should read. If you want to learn more deeply about the US civil rights movement, start here. This book unpacks the legacy of how we teach about civil rights alongside how the media has reported on civil rights.

The first chapters dive deep into the Northern Black-led movements for school desegregation, which were minimized by the media. It looks at Boston and NYC (which never desegregated) and then it looks at Los Angeles. Then it pivots to really look at specific exampl
Luke Mccarnan
Sep 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: listened
This book reminded me of Ibram X. Kendi's books, "Stamped from the Beginning" and "How to Be An Antiracist". It told the wider and deeper history of Civil Rights in America much like "Stamped", and exposed intersections and blindspots like "Antiracist". There is so much work to be done, but much to be learned from what has already happened. This should be a textbook for high schools.
Nov 03, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Even though this book had quite an extensive collection of footnotes, I wish that more primary sources had been used. It might have made the book less accessible to general audiences but it would have made the book more durable. Overal impression: a flawed but vital read.
Aug 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
For anyone who does not believe in or does not fully understand systemic racism. North and south oppression in education, the press failure to report, and history half truths that fail to credit the true and long struggle for equal rights.
Chelsea Mastrapa
Jul 15, 2020 rated it liked it
Very well researched, but maybe to the author’s demise. It is incredibly repetitive. I found myself skimming large sections due to this fact. Just because you find multiple sources for a single statement doesn’t mean you need to reiterate the statement that many times. Once is enough - we get it.
There is a lot of interesting history on the CRM, especially in regards to Rosa Parks and MLK.
Anthony Sendzimer
excellent! assigned to me in undergrad, didn't read it in full, felt remorse, read it in full, was happy with decision! going to buy a copy of my own to refer back to and yell at people
Meticulously researched. Powerfully written. Essential reading.
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
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.
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
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
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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.

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197 likes · 63 comments
“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
“Many white Northerners wielded their power and voting pressure at home, even as they might have pressed for desegregation in the South, understanding that you didn't need a governor at a schoolhouse door if you had the Board of Education officials constantly readjusting school zoning lines to maintain segregated schools. You didn't need a burning cross if the bank used maps made by the Federal Housing Authority to mark Black neighborhoods as "dangerous" for investment and deny Black people home loans. You didn't need white vigilantes if the police were willing to protect and serve certain communities while containing and controlling others.” 4 likes
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