The American Historian

Beyond ‘Self-Congratulatory Celebration’: Complicating Civil Rights Anniversaries

Renee Romano

If you watch television, read newspapers, or listen to National Public Radio, chances are that in the past few years you have heard a story celebrating the anniversary of some milestone of the black freedom struggle. Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington; the mass protests in Birmingham, Alabama; and the Birmingham church bombing. This year marks the centennial of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer; the murders of Freedom Summer volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner; and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Next up: the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Fifty years on, these civil rights milestones have given rise to ceremonies on Capitol Hill and at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, mass gatherings in Washington, D.C., conferences in Mississippi, city celebrations and commemorations, and a host of new television documentaries.

Historians who study the past all year long may well wonder why the media and political figures only seem to recognize the significance of history on the anniversaries of big events. They may wonder, too, how to use these episodic forays into history—which tend to focus on a few key events or dates—as teachable moments for those interested in educating about a complex past. They may even question the educative value at all of commemoration celebrations, many of which seem more so an exercise in nostalgia than in history, especially in the case of celebrations of civil rights milestones.

Anniversaries attract attention because they have significance both for individuals and for larger groups. For individuals, marking anniversaries—whether of births, weddings, or traumatic events—helps provide shape and meaning to a life. Anniversary dates offer an occasion for remembrance, for celebration, and for reflection. They are ready-made markers that encourage people to consider where they are, how far they have come, and what is important to them.

For societies, anniversaries serve many of the same functions. Commemorating a historical occasion is a practice in collective memory; marking particular dates and events as worthy of widespread notice and remembrance construct them as a shared history. The practice of commemoration serves two important roles. It educates the general public about the past, offering history lessons that people can imbibe over their morning coffee or as they listen to the radio in their cars. One study of the impact of anniversary commemorations found that the public marking and discussion of particular events especially increased the historical knowledge of Americans without a college education. If commemorating events such as Woodstock—one the events tracked by this study—increases public knowledge of it, certainly the attention being paid to civil rights milestones by political leaders and the mass media must have some educative impact.

Commemorations also serve to define which events a society deems worthy of remembrance. History tells us what happened, but historical memory—the past that circulates in popular and political culture and shared public spaces—tells us what mattered and why it continues to matter in the present. By remembering and commemorating particularly meaningful events, societies define what issues and values are collectively important to them.

The marking of civil rights anniversaries as an important part of the nation’s history and identity represents a truly extraordinary shift in American culture and politics. Amid the annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the newly established memorial to King on the National Mall, and the growing number of museums dedicated to African American history and the history of the movement, it is easy to lose sight of how little African American history was incorporated into American national civic memory before the movement. African Americans, of course, had a vibrant alternative memory culture in which they celebrated dates such as Juneteenth (June 19, which commemorates the anniversary of the end of slavery in Texas), constructed their own museums, and held their own commemorative ceremonies. But for most of American history, blacks have had to fight for the right to use public space at all, let alone for any positive representation in public arenas. State-funded institutions largely excluded African American history. In heritage tourism sites, blacks—if represented at all—were relegated to roles as servants in a romanticized vision of the American past.

National collective memory and civic spaces excluded blacks almost completely. Only three blacks appeared on national postage stamps before 1965, and two of those stamps featured Booker T. Washington, a man known for his willingness to conciliate whites (the third honored the peanut king, George Washington Carver). There were no major museums or public history sites focused on black history before the 1960s. Only a very few statues anywhere in the nation represented blacks, and most of those depicted them as subservient to whites. The famous Freedman’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., which supposedly commemorated the end of slavery, managed to write into stone a clear racial hierarchy, with a poorly clothed former slave forever kneeling in gratitude at Abraham Lincoln’s feet. The exclusion of African Americans from public space and from national collective memory sent a clear message that blacks were not full and equal citizens and that their concerns, issues, and history had no relevance for the nation as whole.

In this context, the commemoration of civil rights anniversaries should be recognized as one aspect of the success of the black freedom struggle. The movement helped challenge the exclusion of the black past from the nation’s collective history and identity. But why, fifty years later, are civil rights anniversaries garnering such attention from the media and politicians? Like all forms of historical memory, the widespread marking of civil rights anniversaries is more about the present and contemporary politics than it is about the past. Societies commemorate histories that are political or culturally useful in some way. Once a past no longer proves useful, it recedes into the pages of books and archives rather than circulating in the broader culture. The fact that civil rights anniversaries have garnered so much attention suggests that the history of the civil rights movement is a particularly usable, vital past in our contemporary political moment.

The emphasis on civil rights anniversaries stems, at least in part, from the fact that the history of the freedom struggle can be used to tell a story of racial progress and reconciliation in an increasingly multiracial society. Anniversary celebrations often highlight the successes of the movement to portray the United States as a nation committed to equality, justice, and democracy, where peaceful change within the system is possible. This dominant or consensus version of the movement history often serves to buttress claims that American institutions are color-blind and that race today should play no role in public policy.

That version of movement history tends to focus on key figures—Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks, Lyndon B. Johnson—and seminal events such as the March on Washington and the 1963 protests in Birmingham. It represents the movement as a nonviolent struggle for civil rights, with far more attention being paid to its demands to end legal segregation than its demands for economic justice, and it portrays the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act as proof of the movement’s success. Indeed, many invocations of civil rights history suggest that the movement was so successful at rooting out discrimination from national life that we no longer need civil rights laws to prevent discrimination, as Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts recently argued in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) to that key components of the Voting Rights Act were no longer necessary. Historical representations of the movement like these may actually impede further struggle for racial and social justice.

Anniversary commemorations, even more than other common civil rights sites of memory such as museums, can easily play into this kind of simplified consensus memory. Most by definition focus on a definable event—such as the day the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed—in ways that reinforce a top-down understanding of the movement and its legislative accomplishments. Marking the dates of particular deaths, such as those of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, serves to keep their memory alive but further reifies particular figures of the movement while doing little to raise awareness of the many others who also sacrificed for the cause. Anniversaries also have an episodic quality—they mark historical events out of a broader context. They are thus not particularly useful at uncovering the complexity of the historical record. Many of the commemorations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act have focused rather narrowly on the actions of President Johnson, for example. Such commemorations can also reinforce the notion that the racial violence of the era was unusual or extraordinary rather than, as Angela Davis recently noted while raising concerns about the emphasis being placed on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, “very much the norm.” These representations also lend themselves to tourism campaigns such as Birmingham’s major initiative 50 Years Forward, which features a website (50yearsforward.com) that offers not only a history of the events of 1963 in Birmingham but also links to local tourist sites, hotels, and dining opportunities.

But anniversary celebrations can be much more than a nostalgic celebration or the impetus for a tourism campaign. While civil rights anniversaries can be used to promote a simplistic story of American racial progress, these milestones have attracted so much attention precisely because civil rights history has so many different potential uses to those across the political spectrum. Former president George W. Bush, speaking at a ceremony marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act in April, turned his act of remembrance into a call for educational reform and higher educational standards. Congressional leaders used their commemoration of that same act as a platform to call for more bipartisanship of the type that helped that bill come to fruition. Some also used the occasion to call on their fellow lawmakers to pass an amendment to the Voting Rights Act that would put back into place the voting protections recently overturned by the Supreme Court.

Most powerfully, veterans of the civil rights movement have used that same anniversary moment to criticize the nostalgic, sentimental view of the movement prevalent in much of popular culture and political discourse and to generate new energy to continue the struggle for justice today. At the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington last August, Martin Luther King III insisted that it was not the time for “nostalgic commemoration” or “self-congratulatory celebration.” The work of his father was not yet done, he insisted. Former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist John Lewis focused on the need for new voting rights protections, while Jesse Jackson called for a revival of the war on poverty. Members of the audience carried placards with pictures of Travyon Martin, the 17-year-old African American shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012, and chanted slogans that called for an end to the widespread incarceration of black men. In June, movement veterans organized the Freedom Summer 1964 50th Anniversary Conference, hosted by the University of Southern Mississippi, which aimed not only to recognize those who had worked in Mississippi in 1964 but also to brainstorm how to further the struggle for full equality there. Veterans of the movement have sought to use the attention being paid to civil rights anniversaries to nurture a new generation of activists who will continue the fight against poverty and racism.

For historians, anniversary commemorations offer both challenges and opportunities. While public celebrations tend toward nostalgia, they can and often do raise awareness about the past among the general public. They may also offer historians a platform to share their knowledge and research with a wider audience than we may typically reach. Classroom teachers may find commemorations to be a useful launching pad for discussion and analysis of history that goes beyond a single date or event. But we must also remember that civil rights anniversaries teach us at least as much about our contemporary political moment as they do about the events of the 1950s and 1960s. By asking our students to compare different anniversary commemorations, we can engage them in important discussions about the ways that narratives about how history can be mobilized to promote political agendas what history can tell us about the politics of race in the contemporary United States. Fifty years on, the celebration of the black freedom struggle offers us the opportunity to understand not only our past but also our present.

RENEE ROMANO is professor of History, Comparative American Studies, and Africana Studies at Oberlin College. She is the author or editor of several books, including Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America (2003), The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory (2006), and most recently, Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders (2014).