Debunking a “Respectable” History“We all need to breathe.” As she spoke to a crowd at “Breathe-In: Teach-In” for the Center for African American History’s second annual series on Black history, African American Studies professor Sherwin Bryant expressed how the history of Black liberation is frequently conflated with ideas of respectability politics. “All too often,” Bryant said, “we’ve allowed the Civil Rights Movement to be torn asunder from Black Power, as if it belongs to a more respectable black history. As if black history month had to be respectable in the first place.”
“There’s never been a good or safe time in American history for black populations to protest against violence, racism, oppression.”The trimmed narrative taught in most schools today pervasively erases the radical nature of the Civil Rights Movement. Bryant chose to quote Rosa Park’s statement, “If we can protect ourselves against violence, it’s not actually violence on our part. That’s just self-protection.” This image is much more in line with what the public knows of Malcolm X instead of the sweet, matronly figure plastered on the memory of Rosa Parks. Bryant says Rosa Parks remains “an emissary of non-violence whose interest in the Black Power Movement and outspoken embrace of the necessity of Black self-defense becomes an inconvenient footnote.” An inconvenient footnote. Such is what years of sanitation has done to both Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. But what is now the respectable pinnacle of Black protest was once a heavily criminalized movement. Specifically, the FBI saw all forms of Black liberation movements as a threat to the state. In an interview with NPR Tim Weiner, author of Enemies: A History of the FBI, said, “[J. Edgar] Hoover saw the civil rights movement from the 1950s onward… as presenting the greatest threats to the stability of the American government since the Civil War. These people were enemies of the state, and in particular Martin Luther King [Jr.] was an enemy of the state.” This “enemy of state” title was a particular type of categorization. While it seems synonymous with criminal, one doesn’t necessarily have to do anything illegal to end up in that position.
Rosa Parks remains “an emissary of non-violence whose interest in the Black Power Movement and outspoken embrace of the necessity of Black self-defense becomes an inconvenient footnote.”As a result this distinction the FBI was legally allowed to target King and all of his affiliates. Regardless of the peaceful manner in which him and the movement is seen today, it still stands that, at the time, they were criminalized just as activists are today. In this light the seemingly stark contrast between the “tame” Civil Rights Movement and the “radical” Black Panthers unravels. While today they are pitted against each other like some twisted trope of good and evil, they are much closer to simply being forms of Black protest differing perhaps only in their historical portrayals. This problem continues today. These sterilized narratives steal legitimacy from the visceral reactions in current movements. Media coverage characterized protesters in Ferguson as rioting mobs acting through anger. When similar chaos occurred after contested sporting events, after the firing of a sexual predator and after the release of new electronic devices mainstream media characterized those creating havoc as fans celebrating a victory or even as college students just being college students. The media framed images of flipped cars and fires as revelry instead of senseless destruction. The politics of respectability infiltrates these reports to portray communities protesting injustice as irrational. These protests have a rich history in American culture because they are, in every way, inconvenient. As Professor Hesse stated, “There’s never been a good or safe time in American history for black populations to protest against violence, racism, oppression.” How these inconveniences decide to manifest themselves can be highly individualistic.