Season 3: Episode 1
Rare Speeches of
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
NPR Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Image
You are about to embark on a wonderful journey, a journey into our collective identity as an American people. That is why I have always loved history, because it is through the study of our past that we discover who we are today as a nation. And the more you explore the American experience, the more you realize that the cry for freedom has inspired some of the greatest events of our history.
The Civil Rights Movement is just that kind of American story. We were a congregation of “ordinary” men and women who had an extraordinary vision. Some of us had examined our nation’s philosophy simply and eloquently described in the Constitution, but most of us just answered a whisper deep in our souls that something was amiss in America. We faced the truth that generations of racial prejudice, segregation, and discrimination were not fair; they were not right, they were not just. And it was that deep urging for liberation that ignited our courage to act.
We determined to make this nation live up to its creed of “freedom and justice for all.” And we found a way to get in the way. We found a way, through nonviolent protest, to dramatize our issues. We held up a mirror to America so it could see the true face of its democracy. That revelation brought change. It transformed the landscape of this nation. It also shook the spirits of people around the globe who modeled their own freedom movements on the achievements of these “ordinary,” inspired Americans of the Civil Rights Movement.
History expresses who we are, but it also reveals who we must become. The ideals of this nation are noble and great.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Declaration of Independence, 1776
But they are yet to be fully realized. Our past calls us to awaken to our future, to answer the soul’s eternal quest for liberation. Call it the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement or the spirit of history. We must recapture this spirit. As a nation and as a people, we must make this spirit part of our thoughts, our actions, and our lives.
All of us—Black, White, Latino, Asian, and Native American—must pull together for the common good. This is our American mission. This is our charge, to build what I call the Beloved Community, a nation at peace with itself, one nation, one people, one house, and one family. This is, above all, the greatest lesson of the Civil Rights Movement, that our work is not done until our collective dreams of freedom, equality, and justice are made real for every life in this country.
Season 3: Episode 1
"We challenge you to do your own research on some of the heroes and sheroes who claimed to have been a part of The Movement and learn the real stories of all the many, many ordinary people who performed heroic acts." - Dr. Shelley Stewart
The View from the Trenches
Looking Back: Historical Language and Historical Memory
From Hassan Jeffries
Our understanding of social change, our conceptions of leadership, our understanding of the possibilities of interracial cooperation are all affected by how we remember the movement. Even much of the language that we use to discuss social issues derives from movement days. We think of the movement as a movement for “civil rights” and against “segregation.” Even those seemingly innocuous terms carry their own historical baggage.
“Segregation” became the accepted way to describe the South’s racial system among both Blacks and whites. In its denotative meaning, suggesting separation between Blacks and whites, it is not a very accurate term to describe that system. The system involved plenty of integration; it just had to be on terms acceptable to white people. Indeed, the agricultural economy of the early-twentieth-century South probably afforded a good deal more interracial contact than the modern urban ghetto.
“White supremacy” is a more accurate description of what the system was about. “Segregation” is the way apologists for the South liked to think of it. In implies, “We’re not doing anything to Black people; we just want to keep them separate from us.” It was the most innocent face one could put on that system. When we use the term as a summary term for what was going on in the South, we are unconsciously adopting the preferred euphemism of nineteenth-century white supremacist leadership.
If “segregation” is a poor way to describe the problem, “integration” may not tell us much about the solution. It is not at all clear what proportion of the Black population was interested in “integration” as a general goal. African Americans have wanted access to the privileges that white people have enjoyed and have been interested in integration as a possible avenue to those privileges, but that view is different from seeing integration as important in and of itself.
Even in the 1950s, it was clear that school integration, while it would potentially put more resources into the education of Black children, also potentially meant the loss of thousands of teaching jobs for Black teachers and the destruction of schools to which Black communities often felt deeply attached, however resource-poor they were. There was also something potentially demeaning in the idea that Black children had to be sitting next to white children to learn.
The first Black children to integrate the schools in a given community often found themselves in a strange position, especially if they were teenagers. While some black people thoughts of them as endangering themselves for the greater good for the community, others saw them as turning their backs on that community and what it had to offer. It is probably safest to say that only a segment of the Black community had anything like an ideological commitment to “integration,” while most Black people were willing to give it a try to see if it really did lead to a better life.
We might also ask how “civil rights” came to be commonly used as a summary term for the struggle of African Americans. In the late 1960s, after several civil rights bills had been passed, a certain part of white America seemed not to understand why Black Americans were still angry about their collective status. “You have your civil rights. Now what’s the problem?” In part, the problem was that “civil rights” was always a narrow way to conceptualize the larger struggle. For African Americans, the struggle has always been about forging a decent place for themselves within this society, which has been understood to involve the thorny issues of economic participation and self-assertion as well as civil rights. . . .
One hypothesis, of course, would be that “civil rights” becomes so popular precisely because it is so narrow, precisely because it does not suggest that distribution of privilege is part of the problem.
The “civil rights” language also implies the movement was about Negroes; they were the ones who did not have “civil rights.” From the viewpoint of a Septima Clark or an Ella Baker, the movement was about enriching American democracy, and those in whose name it was made were not the only ones who profited from it.
Alridge, Derrick. “The Limits of Master Narratives in History Textbooks: An Analysis of Representations of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Teachers College Record, Volume 108, Number 4, April 2006. Read a description and download here.
Jeffries, Hasan Kwame. “Remaking History: Barack Obama, Political Cartoons, and the Civil Rights Movement.” In Civil Rights History from the Ground Up: Local Struggles, a National Movement edited by Emilye Crosby (University of Georgia Press, 2011).
Kohl, Herb. “The Politics of Children’s Literature: What’s Wrong with the Rosa Parks Myth.” A critical analysis of children’s books about Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement. (Published by Rethinking Schools, posted on the Zinn Education Project website.)
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"The Movement started before the 1960s and has always been a fight for human rights for all. We did say that we would commit civil disobedience as we fight for human rights. It became "the civil rights movement" once politicians got involved. We are still fighting for human rights today."
- Dr. Shelley Stewart
What Are Human Rights?
Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.
The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is situated on a site in Montgomery where Black people were forced to labor in bondage. Blocks from one of the most prominent slave auction spaces in America, the Legacy Museum is steps away from the rail station where tens of thousands of Black people were trafficked during the 19th century.