Memory  /  Q&A

“A More Beautiful and Terrible History” Corrects the Fables Told of the Civil Rights Movement

A new book bursts the bubble on what we’ve learned about the Civil Rights era to show a larger movement with layers.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
Herman Hiller/Library of Congress

JENEÉ DARDEN: A More Beautiful and Terrible History looks at the complexities behind other Civil Rights icons and moments during that time. I’ve read comments online from people who say, “Rosa Parks and Dr. King were quiet protesters and effective. Why can’t the activists today be like that?” But they weren’t quiet.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is often told in ways that make it hard to imagine how to do it. In part because it seems to just happen, right? It seems like Rosa Parks sits down, people are outraged, there’s a boycott, they win. We’re told that she’s just this accidental heroine when they’d been organizing for years.

I like that you used the word “fable” to describe the stories we’re fed about the Civil Rights movement.

The fable of the Civil Rights movement has a couple of different parts. It’s about courageous individuals, not community or the collective. It’s about individualism. It’s about how we had a problem, shined a light on it, and we fixed it. That’s a very simplified notion. It’s about how the problem and movement are in the past. And it’s about American exceptionalism. There’s an idea that this is possible in America and it’s not possible in other places. Reagan literally says that when he signed the legislation for the King holiday. What we’ve seen is the fable being used as a weapon against contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter, against [Colin] Kaepernick. But the criticisms being waged against them were waged against the Civil Rights movement.

You address mental health in your book. Dr. King suffered from depression. Rosa Parks did, too. Coretta Scott King went into a deep depression after President Kennedy’s assassination. I’ve read stories about activists today taking their own lives.

In some of the quotes from Rosa Parks, she’s talking about how she feels crazy, and how lonely she is. She said it’s hard to stay mentally sane in the midst of white supremacy. It’s easy for us to look back now and say what she did is so clear, so righteous. I think we missed the part of how oppressive systems maintain themselves is by making people who critique them feel crazy, feel like they’re the problem.

It wasn’t just white supremacy she had to deal with. Some black people thought she was too radical.

Definitely! It’s really hard to do the right thing. It’s really hard to press forward again and be ostracized.