6 Civil Rights Movement Myths You Learned In History Class
The human brain doesn't handle complexity very well. You can see this most dramatically in how we read and understand history. We want everything to be a neat, simple narrative of good guys and bad guys, of clear beginnings and endings. Those attempting to "correct" history as it's taught tend to oversimplify in the other direction ("The side you were taught were the good guys were in fact the bad guys!").
If you want to see how messy real history can be -- and how important it is that we recognize its messiness -- look no further than the Civil Rights Movement. For that, we suppose we should start from the beginning ...
Myth: Slavery Ended In 1865
We mean, of course it did. The Civil War ended that year, while the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and spin-kicked slavery right in the dick, and that was that. You learn that shit in kindergarten.
The thing is, simply winning a war and saying "Slavery is abolished, assholes!" doesn't make it stop any more than telling your cat not to use your shoe as a toilet stops her from doing it. The South's economy (and occasionally geography) was in ruins after the war, and they weren't exactly thrilled about giving away a significant chunk of their workforce. As such, they didn't so much do away with slavery after the end of the Civil War as they did something much more American: They just rebranded the operation, albeit on a smaller scale.
"Congrats, you have been upgraded to 'forced independent contractors.'"
The years after the war saw both black and white criminal activity increase, which was a problem, because most prisons had been destroyed during the war. The states took a look at the massive influx of prisoners in their hands, surreptitiously glanced at each other ... and started leasing them to wealthy planters and industry big shots as free, forced labor.
This system, known as convict lease, quickly became one of the most lubed-up loopholes in history. Some of the criminals caught up in the machine were white, but an estimated 80 to 90 percent were black, because of fucking course they were. Many former slaves found that freedom was the worst thing that could have happened to them, as the police got hold of them and piled on enough arbitrary charges to put them into "totally not slavery" forced labor for years, toiling under essentially the same assholes who had owned them during their slave days.
"If you love someone, set them free. If you force them to come back shackled, kicking, and screaming, it was meant to be."
The conditions were generally much worse, too. There was a lot less financial incentive to keep a prisoner alive than a slave, so living conditions of prisoners under convict lease tended to be abysmal. In some cases, the death rate was as high as 40 percent. But the public was okay with it, because hey, that's what they get for committing crimes! We're not exploiting a racial and economic class, we're punishing the bad guys!
Some would argue that this legally-sanctioned prison slavery ended in 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt stepped hard on involuntary servitude (because he was worried that the Japanese would use it to embarrass America with their propaganda). However, others would point out that convict lease ended precisely fucking never. Establishments like the Louisiana State Penitentiary are still employing the model today, and are cool enough with what they do that they let a camera crew record their operation in 2015. Their preferred deployment for the (nigh-invariably black) prisoners is forced labor. In the fields. While watched over by white, armed men on horseback. Somewhere, Calvin Candie is smiling.
Myth: Malcolm X Was A Violent Radical, While Martin Luther King, Jr. Was All About Pacifism
History sees Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. as two sides of the same coin. Malcolm X was the violence-preaching militant radical, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Gandhi-like pacifist, though both were pushing for the same outcome. These days, we always tend to put activists into one of those two molds, and only offer public approval for the latter.
Reality, however, is always more complicated. For all of his militant talk, Malcolm X did not advocate attacking the government. He urged that black people should be ready to defend themselves violently if need be, but never once by initiating violence. Sure, he used scary-sounding rhetoric, but it was never "Kill the whites to affect change" (which his mentor Elijah Muhammad told him would be suicide). Rather, it was, "We're not afraid to fight back," or in his own words, "Put your hands on us thinking that we're going to turn the other cheek -- we'll put you to death just like that." He was otherwise known to actively defuse situations where his supporters were getting too unruly, and even in his private life he was far more likely to be polite to the "white devils" he met.
"Thank you -- both for the questions and for causing irreparable harm and suffering to my people."
Meanwhile, Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't quite as averse to guns as his popular legacy would have us believe. While he certainly did organize all of those nonviolent protests you know him for, he fully bought into the idea of "just in case" firepower. Remember, King was a man of the South, fighting against acts of terrorism against his person and his people. Of course the dude had a piece or 16. In the early period of his leadership, his household could be accurately called an arsenal. It wasn't unheard of for a visitor to sit on a chair, only to be warned at the last second they were about to place their ass on a couple of guns. After his house was bombed in 1956, King even tried to get a concealed carry permit, though this went about as well as you'd expect. King also preached what he practiced, incidentally; his writings acknowledge the right to armed self-defense.
Once again, please don't take this as some kind of simplistic "So King was the violent one, and X was the peace-seeker!" switcheroo. The point is that we tend to remember activists by their catchiest soundbites, boiling an entire body of work into something that can fit on a T-shirt. Malcolm X got mainstream headlines for being scary, while King's most famous speeches are about Christian calls for peace and justice. But humans aren't slogans, and real life demands that every activist has a practical side.
"Maybe start focusing on the issue that makes me needing to own an M1 carbine practical to begin with."
Myth: Martin Luther King Died As One Of The Most Beloved Civil Rights Leaders
Martin Luther King, Jr. became famous during the Montgomery boycotts in 1956, marched on Washington and gave his "I have a dream" speech in 1963, marched in Selma in 1965, and got murdered in 1968. His movement changed the country, white America saw the light, and today his birthday is a national holiday. Hell, the biggest controversy over King's legacy these days is how Democrats and Republicans both try to claim him as their own. Is there a less controversial figure in American history? It's not that there are no King haters out there, but when you meet one, you automatically assume they probably spend a lot of time on white nationalist message boards.
But history lessons like to skip things that screw up rote narratives in school classrooms, and King's final three years certainly qualify. King dedicated much of these years to protesting American involvement in Vietnam and campaigning for social relief for the poor. That may sound great to lots of you reading this now, but it all but ruined him at the time.
"And while we're at it, we could use more positive females role models on televis-- OK, why are you booing me?"
The problem wasn't that King was protesting the Vietnam War -- that's hardly a controversial position these days. It's that he did so before it was cool (yeah, the early popularity of the Vietnam war is something else we've revised out of history). King started speaking against the war in 1965, well before things had turned south for the U.S. -- at that point, mainstream America was all about killing communists abroad. The New York Times and Washington Post published articles calling his antiwar words a tragedy. Hell, even the rest of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference thought that opposing the war was a bad idea. By early 1967, King was criticizing the war so vocally that his longtime civil rights ally, President Lyndon B. Johnson, saw it as the ultimate breach of trust and dismissed King as a "goddamned n****r preacher."
Reasonably sure they left that line out of the movie.
Before long, even his allies got in on the King mockery. Newspapers with predominantly black readerships stopped endorsing him; former political allies did their level best to distance themselves from him. By 1967, his reputation was such that when he spoke at a conference in Chicago, the man you know as the hero of the Civil Rights Movement was booed by virtually everyone.
Even King's Poor People's Campaign did little to help his reputation. Instead, he was actually accused of seeking new causes because he felt he had gotten too big for the Civil Rights Movement. King reacted by doubling down on his efforts, and spent his last few months taking part in a sanitation strike in Memphis. His famous final "I have seen the promised land" speech was delivered to a group of striking sanitation workers.
"... And it is NOT covered in poop."
It turns out that it's one thing to get white America to agree that black people should be able to attend the same schools and sit in the same bus seats, but start talking about wages and economic inequality, and suddenly you've pissed off a brand-new group of powerful people. Make no mistake: King died knowing he was fighting for causes that were deeply unpopular to the mainstream. Hate mail and death threats were part of the everyday landscape of his life ... and that shit wasn't only coming from the Klan.
Myth: The Black Panthers Were A Bunch Of Armed Male Radicals
Since they are best known for showing up at the California Assembly carrying rifles or for getting into a shootout with the police four days after a police raid killed one of their leaders, many people assume the Black Panthers were hyper-radical armed terrorists who wanted nothing more than to fill the streets with rivers of white men's blood.
And sure, the Panthers loved their guns. Their views on guns would make today's NRA members knock themselves out with a thunderous agreement orgasm. But as was the case with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, we tend to remember activists by their single most headline-grabbing traits. For example, when you picture a black panther, you're probably imagining a guy in a beret and paramilitary garb:
No-nonsense mustache optional.
So the fact that, by the end of the 1960s, women made up the majority of the Black Panther movement would blow most people's minds. They even had a female leader in Elaine Brown, who took over in 1974. While it would be wildly inaccurate to claim that her gender was never an issue, sexism did little to dampen her success. Under Brown's watch, the Panthers not only continued their famed resistance against police brutality, but also helped elect the first black mayor of Oakland, CA and built 300 houses for displaced people.
Oh yeah, that was the other thing. The papers love those photos of panthers standing around looking scary with guns, and there was certainly no shortage of "Kill the cops" rhetoric. But in black neighborhoods, they were known for their "survival programs" -- providing health clinics and handing out food, encouraging members of the community to volunteer and supply services that the government had no interest in supplying. Among the more famous of their many volunteer-based projects was the "breakfast in schools" program in the 1960s, which fed about 10,000 kids every day for a decade before the government got around to implementing the same thing nationwide.
Once more, this is not to try to flip your opinion from one cartoonish straw man to another. There are multiple factions and agendas within any movement, and the overall goals change over time. Hell, sometimes the guy with the shotgun and the guy handing out breakfast to kids was the same guy, on the same day. Humans are complicated like that.
Myth: Segregation Was Solely A Southern Issue
The story goes that after slavery was abolished in the South, there was another century of segregation in those states until that practice also begrudgingly ended. But throughout, it's seen as a problem that exists below the Mason-Dixon Line.
The reality? Well, there is an old Civil Rights Movement truism: "In the South, the white man doesn't care how close you get, as long as you don't get too high. In the North, he doesn't care how high you get, as long as you don't get too close." Basically, this means that Northern people tend to be fine with an African American dude leading their country, as long as he doesn't live next door.
"If you could stay behind the podium, Mr. President, that would be great."
The North earned the saying by truly jumping on the systematic segregation train in the 1930s. The federal government built a phenomenal amount of public housing all across the North, to the point where the suburbs this created became the most popular housing in the country. But there was one tiny problem with the project. It didn't matter if it was Pittsburgh, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, or San Francisco, the rules were always the same: Black people were forbidden from buying. Instead, they found themselves shoved in increasingly large numbers into the overcrowded inner-city confines which white Americans were evacuating.
Places like Chicago used blockbusting, a process whereby real estate agents would use the threat of incoming African Americans as a tool to get white tenants to leave their city blocks as quickly and cheaply as possible. The local governments soon realized that these areas had barely any white residents anymore and decided they didn't have to worry about pesky things like "upkeep." So they introduced redlining, a practice in which a literal red line is drawn around a predominantly black neighborhood, which then gets filed into the "never offer financial services to these people" folder. Ghettos are always man-made.
As if you needed another reason to hate real estate bankers.
Predictably, the housing segregation created segregation in pretty much every aspect of life -- schools, playgrounds, grocery stores, clinics, and more all tended to be of lower quality where they lived. Thus, migrants from the South quickly found that the North was little more than a slightly different flavor of terrible. And that brings us to how ...
Myth: The Civil Rights Movement Was A Resounding, Permanent Victory
Yes, the changes were huge and profound. Segregation is now illegal. We have a black dude in the White House. If a celebrity says something racist, their career is over (for a couple of years, anyway, depending on their performance at the box office). Sure, you get a questionable police shooting every once in a while, but if anything, that emphasizes the horrible shit they used to get away with.
But there is a very good argument to be made that while overt racism went out of fashion, the actual elements which made life harder for minorities are all still there -- they just once again rebranded themselves to be less overt.
For example, there are the ongoing waves of racially-charged voter suppression laws, all of which undermine the Voting Rights Act. Black people are still much more likely to live in poverty, be the target of police brutality, and have higher mortality rates. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites for the same offenses. It's a system that has evolved to the point where every example can be hand-waved away as having nothing to do with race ("Those voting laws are about preventing fraud! Poverty is due to lack of work ethic! Why should I feel sorry for a prisoner who chose to break the law?") while continuing to ruin black lives with brutal efficiency.
"Next time, don't be born into an unending cycle of poverty with limited access to upward social progression, asshole."
For a breakdown of how it works, let's look at the most damning metric of all: education. The good news is that graduation rates for black students have increased hugely since the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, which declared that separate schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. The bad news is that this decision, which was perhaps the biggest victory of the Civil Rights Movement, has been neutered and robbed of its power at every single turn.
Immediately after the ruling, private "segregation academies" started popping up, carefully priced so that they were inexpensive enough for white kids while being juuuuuust a tad too expensive for African Americans (incidentally, many of these schools are still thriving today). Meanwhile, channeling black populations into poor neighborhoods meant channeling them into underfunded schools (only this time everyone can say, "But no one is forcing them to live there!").
"Wait, are you good at sports? We'll
exploit enroll you if you're good at sports."
How much of the school desegregation work has been undone? Well, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement in the early '70s, only about a quarter of black kids in the South attended all-black schools (where minorities are at least 99% of the student body). Today it's 53 percent. Nobody had to pass a law forcing it; they merely had to step aside and quietly let the market price them out. The Supreme Court has even ruled that it is unconstitutional for local governments to try to actively change this through enrollment policy.
So there remains a huge racial discrepancy between students' graduation rates, minorities wind up with lower-paying jobs and thus end up in poorer neighborhoods, ensuring that their kids end up going to those same underfunded schools. And on and on it goes. But if you bring this up, invariably the first response will be, "Ugh, are you guys still complaining about this?"
Adam Koski wrote most of an exciting, hilarious novel about fairy sisters who have to save their village after everyone turns into monsters called Forust. More writings by Bevan Morgan are waiting on Squarespace.
Let's keep this misconception train rolling with 6 Civil War Myths Everyone Believes (That Are Total B.S.) and 5 Ridiculous Things You Probably Believe About Islam.
Subscribe to our YouTube channel, and check out 5 Gun Myths You Probably Believe (Thanks To Movies), and other videos you won't see on the site!
Also, follow us on Facebook, and let's be best friends forever.