Monday, December 9, 2013

Restoring a Sense of Contingency to the Civil Rights Movement

Contingency is just a fancy way of saying that things could have ended differently from how they did. This sounds simple enough, but it's actually contrary to the way we usually think about historical events. We read backward in time and assign to historical actors knowledge that they did not have. We don't do this consciously, of course, but it's really pervasive in the way we see the past. It seems to me it would be particularly useful to restore a sense of contingency to the civil rights movement. I say "useful" because this restoration of contingency would have real-world consequences for the way Americans see ourselves today.

The standard civil rights movement narrative, at least on the popular level, is always looking forward to the milestones of 1963-1965, at which point the country witnessed the inevitable culmination of America's truest and best ideals. It is nearly deterministic in its certainty,  embedded as it is in a two-fold assumption: first, that America's moral exceptionalism guaranteed an eventual positive outcome and, second, that such an outcome was virtually the final say in the matter, putting an end to a tragic era and opening a new and glorious one. On this second dimension of the assumption there is a particularly wide gap between academic and popular opinion, but it would be a stretch to say that academic scholarship has entirely escaped the gravitational orbit of this assumption.

Against this fundamentally optimistic view of the civil rights movement, which Gunnar Myrdal put forth in advance in the early 1940s, Black intellectuals raised a different narrative. Before the height of the civil rights movement, writers like Baldwin and Du Bois argued that a comprehensive civil rights revolution would produce an American identity crisis rather than the fulfillment of American ideals. The challenge is deceptively simple: step back from our assumptions just long enough to ask, "Were they right?"

The notion of a potential national identity crisis was born of a reading of American history that is utterly unfamiliar to most of us. It was a reading that saw principles of racial equality not as the culmination of American ideals we now assume, but as principles so potent and far-reaching they could more accurately be described as anti-American. It was a reading that recognized the pervasive hypocrisy in an America whose sense of itself made room for Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin while consigning Jefferson Davis and Ben Tillman to something other.

What does all this have to do with contingency? Before the height of the civil rights movement it was possible to imagine innumerable outcomes of apparently equal plausibility. While many imagined an eventual winning out of what they believed to be American ideals, others questioned whether those ideals could ever produce a society shorn of racism. And, perhaps, no one got it entirely right. From our vantage point, we see that even slightly different contexts might have produced strikingly different outcomes. Imagine a world not immersed in a Cold War, and a world in which the vagaries of movement tactics, economic growth, and political alignments combine to produce the urban uprisings so characteristic of the latter part of the 1960s before the passage of decisive civil rights legislation. It is easy to imagine the movement being snuffed out in renewed nationwide oppression. Alternatively, under a more favorable set of conditions, perhaps the movement would have achieved the comprehensive gains for which it hoped.

The point is as simple as it is little understood: the society we inhabit is a negotiated outcome, the result of both the victories and the defeats of the civil rights movement. It is time we take account of both sides of that ledger. And it is time we name the opposition, granting to White resistance a more serious reckoning than that implied by terms like "Massive Resistance" and "White Backlash." These terms imply an emotional and violent reaction, almost as if the White response to the civil rights movement came out of nowhere as an inchoate force of nature. In reality, we live in the society we do because a White countermovement--as strategic and purposeful as the civil rights movement itself--won significant victories.

The damage in talking about the civil rights movement as a culmination--and an inevitable one at that--is that it leaves us unable to grapple with the actual social conditions we see around us. With a wealth gap at 10 or 20 to 1, segregation deeply entrenched in schools, housing segregation receding at a glacial pace, and discrimination persistent in criminal justice and employment, we can't hope to make sense of our society if we think the civil rights movement "won." It didn't. It achieved some of its aims and then it was defeated.

We should not be afraid to ask ourselves a simple question: what defeated it? Was it, perhaps, American ideals? Three weeks from now we will ring in a new year, 2014. Americans will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As we do so, we would do well to return to a basic question: would a comprehensive civil rights revolution be the inevitable culmination of American ideals, or produce a national identity crisis? It remains an untested proposition.

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