Review: A More Beautiful and Terrible History

February 22, 2024

by Susan Van Gelder

A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, by Jeanne Theoharis, Beacon Press, 2018.

Theoharis’ book, originally published in 2018, is now available as an ebook, making it more affordable to many more readers interested in a history that is being erased in much of the nation.


History lives in every freedom struggle and feels especially significant in 2024. Mainstream news reports refer to 75 years of Palestinian resistance, to World War II as the origins of Nazi fascism and the Holocaust, of the state of Israel but also the Geneva Convention on Genocide. We invoke the post-Civil War 14th Amendment against Jan. 6 insurrectionists seeking political office. Voting rights opponents battle to reconstruct Reconstruction and Jim Crow suppression aimed at Black and Latinx voters.

Theoharis begins with a deep critique of 21st century recall and commemorations of the Civil Rights Movement. “[Rosa] Parks and [Martin Luther] King…have been turned into Thanksgiving parade balloons—floating above us, larger than life” (p. xix). Today’s struggles, Black Lives Matter and the Fight for $15, need fuller histories to support their own work. She explores and contrasts myth and actuality in several manifestations of the movement: the Montgomery Bus Boycott (“Beyond a Bus Seat”); long, bitter (unsuccessful) fights for school integration, North and South; “uprisings” in Detroit and Watts; welfare rights. Respected media (The New York Times and the Boston Globe) forgot decades of their own reports of Black struggle for educational equity as they gave space to unchangeable (read: gerrymandered) school zoning in New York and the “troubles” in Boston over “busing.”[1] Description of “polite” Northern racism explodes the myth that only ignorant whites (read: working-class) in South Boston fought integration there.

The New York City school boycott of Feb. 3, 1964, pushed for a desegregation plan. Is there no 50th anniversary commemoration because New York City schools are still segregated and unequal? Some 460,000 students and teachers marched, double those at the 1963 March on Washington! Nor is the male chauvinism[2] of that March leadership fully acknowledged today: they all refused to have a woman speaker! Activist lawyer Pauli Murray wrote to A. Philip Randolph:

“I have been increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership…in the national policy-making decisions…” Tokenism “is as offensive when applied to women as when applied to Negroes.”[3]

Over 100 supporting books, articles and interviews embedded in 30 pages of notes greatly enrich the text. Unfortunately, discussion of Leftist involvement was limited, as was the extent of FBI disruption and persecution. This weakens the scope of the book. More critique of Labor’s role, too, would have enhanced Martin Luther King’s philosophic recognition of a needed economic revolution. All in all, this book is a valuable weapon to fight the suppression of Black history, and should inspire readers to join that battle.

[1] Sanctification of the “neighborhood school” and demonizing “forced busing” originated in white opposition to desegregation. However, there is no mention of the 1968 United Federation of Teachers strike against a Black and Latinx community, Ocean Hill-Brownsville, demanding community control of their neighborhood schools, in the face of ongoing inequity in New York City. In this case, “neighborhood schools” were transformed into a revolutionary demand. The defeat of that community is consequential to this day.

[2] For a comparative view, see Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (University of Illinois Press, 1991), by Raya Dunayevskaya, p. 103: “…it had been treated as ‘accidental’ that women were among the earliest leaders of the Black movement—from Rosa Parks, who had initiated the whole Black Revolution in the South….Gloria Richardson, the recognized leader of the movement in Cambridge, Md., had been told by the male SNCC leadership to step back when they arrived on the scene.…Not only did these Black women not ‘step back,’ but scores of other Black women rose to lead further struggles….”

[3] Quoted on p. 167 from Lynne Olson, Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), p. 288.

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