The Master Narrative: The Popular, but Problematic Memory of the Civil Rights Movement

November 21, 2016
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Many people in the U.S. seem to think there is some magical date when the nation achieved victory over racism. Maybe they trace this social V-day back to 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. Maybe the date is 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Acts. Or perhaps that momentous year, 1968, when the Fair Housing Act was passed, and the man who most exemplified the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

No matter the date, we have not crossed any historical line into a society where race is no longer a salient category.

Diluted Stories

Rather than accurately understanding the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and race relations today, we have, in fact, constructed a story about the movement that prevents progress. In his book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, Charles M. Payne summarizes what he calls the “Master Narrative.” It is the diluted story of the Civil Rights Movement that has been imbibed decades.

“Traditionally, relationships between the races in the South were oppressive. Many Southerners were very prejudiced against Blacks. In 1954, the Supreme Court decided this was wrong. Inspired by the court, in the form of sit-ins, bus boycotts, and Freedom Rides. The nonviolent protest movement, led by the brilliant and eloquent Reverend Martin Luther King, aided by a sympathetic federal government, most notably the Kennedy brothers and a born-again Lyndon Johnson, was able to make America understand racial discrimination as a moral issue.

Once Americans understood that discrimination was wrong, they quickly moved to remove racial prejudice and discrimination from American life, as evidenced by the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Dr. King was tragically slain in 1968. Fortunately, by that time the country had been changed, changed for the better in some fundamental ways. The movement was a remarkable victory for all Americans.

By the 1970s, Southern states where Blacks could not have voted ten years earlier were sending African Americans to Congress. Inexplicably, just as the civil rights victories were piling up, many Black Americans, under the banner of Black Power, turned their backs n American society.”1

He also quotes another historian, Emilye Crosby, who relates an even briefer and more scathing summary of the Master Narrative as written by one of her college students:

One day, a nice old lady, Rosa Parks, sat down on a bus and got arrested. The next day, Martin Luther King Jr. stood up, and the Montgomery bus boycott followed. And sometime later, King delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and segregation was over.

“Just Get Over It”

While these summaries are simplistic, many people still believe the Master Narrative. Its clear divisions between heroes and villains, and the definitive conclusion of the Civil Rights Movement in the form of legislative milestones makes for a pleasant tale. The Master Narrative also makes it easy for Americans to dismiss current initiatives concerning race as passé and accuse the initiators of being “race-baiters” or re-builders of the divisions they seek to dismantle.

But the Master Narrative of the Civil Rights Movement ignores the complicated reality of racism and hastens people to “just get over it.” Absorbing this fantasy robs contemporary citizens of the tools to understand the present and constructively move into the future.

Truths of the Past

A facile understanding of the United States’ racial past and present has particularly harmful effects within the family of God. It makes it harder for people of any race to listen to one another with empathy. It keeps our churches segregated by race. It lends to the “us” vs. “them” mentality of opposition and confrontation. Uncritical acceptance of the Master Narrative hinders the wintess of the Church and placates our consciences with half-truths.

What is needed is more intensive, critical study of the racial history of this nation—not only the public movement from 1955-1968, but the struggle for racial justice dating back to the earliest days of this nation.

Christians must grasp the historical continuity between events like the killing of Mike Brown and the centuries-long tension between authorities and black people. We must see the cause-and-effect dynamic between legalized segregation during Jim Crow, and current residential segregation. Above all, we must realize that because of total depravity, a sin like racism never disappears. It simply evolves into subtler, more nefarious forms.

Reconciliation only happens in the context of truth. We can be thankful for the work of many people, especially historians, in bringing the truths of the past into the light of the present.

This article was previously published on The Reformed African American Network. Republished with permission.

About the Author
  • Jemar Tisby is the President and Co-Founder of the Reformed African American Network (RAAN) where he blogs about theology, race, and culture. He is also the co-host of the podcast Pass The Mic, which features dynamic voices for a diverse church. His writing has been featured on Urban Faith, Christianity Today, and the Christian Research Journal. Jemar serves as the Director of the African American Leadership Initiative and Special Assistant to the Chancellor at RTS Jackson. He is a PhD student in History at the University of Mississippi. He is a member of Redeemer Church, is married and has one child. Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby.

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  1. We need to fight the racial tensions in our nation by loving everyone who God created. We need to love everyone equally. Only then will we shed our greatest sin which Jim Wallis calls America’s Original Sin. Thank you for your comments. Our country needs them. Our churches need them.