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/