On the Minimizing of African American Civil Rights History

Black History Month started last week. Given that fact, what better way have a post on Black History Month than talk about…Black history?

For some time now, there’s been this ongoing national dialogue in the United States about whether to keep the statues of Confederate generals, slave owners, and ruthless colonizers, to name a few. Those who argue against tearing down such statues often argue that by doing this, we are “erasing history.”

Speaking as someone who was a history major in college, I know for a fact that we are already erasing history. Concerningly, one of those types of history we have minimized so much is a lot of African American civil rights history.

You have certainly heard of Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. You have probably heard of John Lewis, too.

But, you may not know of Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, or Walter Fauntroy, to name a few. And the thing is that it’s not like I’m naming nobodies in this movement—I’m naming people who were prominent on a large-scale level:

  • Abernathy was a close partner and mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Not to discredit Dr. King here, but the support they gave to one another was key—it was not all on Dr. King. Oh, and by the way, he led King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference after King (their president) was assassinated in 1968.
  • Rustin was deeply involved in organizing efforts throughout the civil rights movement, including with the March on Washington. He often struggled to be appreciated even within the movement at the time because of his sexuality (an openly gay man in the 1960s…enough said[1]).
  • Wilkins was the Executive Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from the mid-1950s to 1977. The NAACP played a key role in ensuring that major civil rights legislation passed.
  • Fauntroy was also very much involved in organizing the March on Washington. He was also involved with organizing, among other things, the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965 and the March Against Fear in 1966.

Few people seem to know, remember, and/or mention these four civil rights icons (and many others), and yet we’re worried about…forgetting the likes of Robert E. Lee and Christopher Columbus?

Considering all that’s going on right now in the United States, maybe some of our worries are misplaced. Our worries are about forgetting Lee and Columbus, but maybe our worries should really be about forgetting the likes of Abernathy, Rustin, Wilkins, and Fauntroy. Because by forgetting the African American civil rights icons of the past, we might not successfully learn from their successes and shortcomings, as well as how to build off of the work they all did in their lifetimes. And who knows—learning from these and many other civil rights icons may teach the current movement for racial justice something about how to move forward and how to navigate through some of the challenges the movement may face in the months and years ahead.

Please note that I will not be publishing a post next Monday.

[1] Rustin’s experience also shows the importance of intersectionality. If you’re not sure what intersectionality is, please read about it here: https://blindinjusticeblog.com/2020/08/24/what-isintersectionality/

14 Replies to “On the Minimizing of African American Civil Rights History”

  1. My Canadian education was very much lacking in Black history. I hadn’t heard of John Lewis until after he died, and I hadn’t heard of Fredrick Douglass until Donald Trump thought he was still alive. I guess there’s a lot of ground together and only so much educational time is given to our neighbours to the south, but it seems like a pretty big hole.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Wow, it sounds like your Canadian education was very lacking in Black history, even more so than the history I got in the United States (I knew about Douglass, though I wouldn’t have known much about Lewis if not for my following politics so closely).

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for this post. I strongly agree with how there’s been a diminishing effect with Black History Month. I didn’t learn about subjects such as Black Wall Street, Fannie Lou Hamer, The Devil’s Punchbowl, Granville T. Woods, Jerry Lawson, Nat Turner, or the different Anti-miscegenation laws to name a few until after I graduated college and that’s just when it comes to America.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I find it interesting how there seems to be a theme starting to develop here, between my post and the comments on it thus far–a theme of there being neglect of (or ignoring of) so many key subjects when it comes to Black history. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. No problem, Brendan. I’m glad you’ve been noticing the theme with a lack of education on Black history whether it’s tragedies or success stories from innovative people. Thomas Edison even stole patents from the aforementioned Woods for example, was sued by that Black inventor twice and Woods actually won both suits.

        Liked by 3 people

  3. It is always about the sentiment that we are taking history away instead of adding more layers. Many people make up our history and the fact that we celebrate only those white few is disturbing. I remember visiting my friend who was living in the south at the time and I asked her if she thought the inhabitants of her city realized the lost the war!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

      With people like Lee and Columbus, I agree that the worry is that we’re taking away history. But I think it’s one thing to “keep” history but another to celebrate it. For example, we keep in mind the history of, say, Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal. But do we celebrate it? No, absolutely not (I don’t know why I picked Watergate as an example, it just randomly came to mind).

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you, Brendan!

    There are so many lost names and stories, and many of those who are supposed to be charged with sharing those stories simply do not want to. I became a DC tour guide
    (and I interrupt this comment to say, I did not know that Walter Fauntroy was gone! He was the one who gave me my appointment to the Naval Academy, back in 1988. While I did not graduate with the class of ’92, I remain grateful to the then Rep. Fauntroy, DC’s first mayor and the one who navigated our move from the city control board to having an elected mayor, and then a non-voting Rep in the House. We now have a vote, though statehood would help with alot of things…)
    and as one of the very very few black tour guides, when I tried to tell others about The Snow Riots, for instance, and some of the old slave pens located where the FAA HQ now stands, I got frozen out and stopped getting tours. So of course I wrote a book with my own tours, but few people want to know the history upon which our nation is built. Thank you, Brendan, for helping to change that, and for telling some of those stories that are being suffocated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, Shira.

      Fauntroy is still alive, actually. Actually, of these four civil rights icons I mentioned, Fauntroy is the only one still alive. It seems like he’s been out of the spotlight for years now though, hence why I spoke about him (particularly in relation to the Civil Rights Movement) in the past tense.

      That aside, yes, so many of these stories are suffocated. And I’m sure there are many others that my blog post didn’t cover. But these are the stories–not the ones of the colonizers that will already be remembered–that we should worry about forgetting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Whew! Ok, good, I was going to have to be highly embarrassed as a native Washingtonian not knowing that my own first Mayor and Rep. (non-voting) to the House had passed without my even noticing! And I follow Rep. Eleanor Holmes-Norton!
        And you are exactly right, thank you for reminding us all, that our stories need remembering, not those of the colonizers who wrote the history.

        Liked by 1 person

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