The Center for Community Engagement’s AmeriCorps’ MLK Day of Service book club on A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History took place during Winter Term 2021.
 

Book Cover image: A More Beautiful and Terrible History by Jeanne Theoharis

CCE AmeriCorps VISTAs Jilly dos Santos and Tenzin Dorjee held a 4-week-long, fully-funded book club on A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History as part of the Center for Community Engagement’s participation in AmeriCorps’ MLK Day of Service.

We chose this book because it focuses on the dangerous distortions of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s and other civil rights leaders’ legacies and it provides a framework for understanding the complex history of racial justice in America. Our goal is to hold thoughtful discussions so that participants can more critically engage in anti-racist community engagement. We want participants to ask themselves, what really was MLK’s philosophy on civic engagement? How do my efforts (to be anti-racist, to promote fair housing, to fight against wage inequality, etc) support that philosophy or contradict it? What can I do with this information? 

We met over Zoom to discuss these questions and more throughout Winter Term! Participants received each week’s topic and discussion questions in advance of each meeting. This winter term workshop was possible thanks to support from the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the Anderson Freeman Resource Center and the Charles P. Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life.

Book Club Questions

Week 1 - Preface and Introduction: A Misleading Redemption Fable

  • What “fables” about the civil rights movement were you taught growing up?
  • Do these commemorations and tributes bring justice? Does it help or harm the purpose?
  • How do these celebrations/commemoration makes ordinary citizens feel good about the country and themselves?
    • Why does virtually every institution/person feel the need to celebrate/commemorate MLK Day?
  • In what ways does the United States flatter itself with this national fable?
  • How do we continue to prescribe racism through this national fable?
  • Why does the author differentiate between the usage of “the civil rights era” versus “the Black freedom struggle”? 
  • What purpose does the “split-screen” serve politicians/white society?
  • In what ways does focusing the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century on a handful of “heroes and heroines” harm the Black freedom struggle today? 
  • How does the deflection of blame (with education, motivation, values) onto black families harm them even more?

Week 2 - Chapters 1-3: Erasure of Activism: Northern Struggle and the Polite Racism of White Moderates

  • What are your main takeaways from this section? What happened? 
  • How does polite racism/moderate white racism manifest itself at Middlebury? 
  • Why do white people struggle to/refuse to identify this type of racism? Why do they struggle to/refuse to shut it down?
  • Racial injustice is supported through actions and inactions. How does inaction silence the issue? Why, how, and for whom, are these silences designed to be comfortable?
  • Fables rely on tropes. What trope does the South fill? Why does White Supremacy need the South to remain this 2-dimensional stereotype? With the movement largely focused in the south, how does the South & North feed into the narrative in order to promote themselves and the country’s identity?
  • Why do you think the long history of activism in Detroit and Los Angeles doesn’t live within the fable of the civil rights movement?
  • What is the concept of “the carceral state?” How does it play into the Detroit riots and aftermath? (p.77-79 for reference. Theoharis does not name the concept, but you can search it up)
  • How does the idea of “the mean/redneck/evil racist” prevent a full understanding of how racism operates on an interpersonal and structural level throughout the United States? 
  • In what ways is the role of language and words used dusting racial issues under the rug?
  • The book states racism is often personified as being violent, aggressive, and in the “barbaric South and by doing so we easily let go of offenders of polite racism. In what ways have you seen polite racism?

Week 3 - Chapter 5-7: Who and What Made Up the Movement? Black Women, Youth and Progressive Ideas

  • What was the Poor People’s Campaign?
  • How did civil rights era activists see structural change necessary to achieving racial equity? (ex: criminal justice reform, housing, labor reform)
  • How does the erasure of specific policy recommendations of Civil Rights Era activists affect the Black Lives Matter Movement today?
  • How does early indoctrination of the fable affect young people’s ability to engage with anti-racist action?
  • In what ways was the movement conscious of their image (or: the fable) and how did that affect whose stories they were elevating?
  • Before Rosa Parks there was Claudette Colvin - why has her story been lost to history?
  • How did Coretta Scott King’s goals and accomplishments differ from, and influence Martin Luther Kings’? Why have they been obscured?
  • How is the work of Black women sidelined and co-opted by the movement?
  • What is the difference between recognizing and idolizing people for their work?
  • Is criticizing the movement, or elements of the movement, inherently damaging to the Black Freedom Struggle, or necessary?

Week 4 - Chapter 4, 8-9, Afterword: Media and Government: (Mis)representation and Repression

  • Why did white media misrepresent activists and movements during the civil rights movement? How has the media’s representation of black activists evolved?
  • How is passive voice employed in media, textbooks, and other literature to reinforce the Civil Rights Movement fable?
  • What does it say about the US government’s priorities that the FBI saw the Civil Rights Movement as a threat? How do we see those same priorities expressed by the government today?
  • What would it take for the U.S. government to recognize Black Freedom movements as legitimate?

Wrapping up the Book

  • What was Theoharis’ goal in writing this book? Did she achieve it? What work is there still, to advance that goal?
  • What did you learn from this book? What are your main takeaways?
  • How should history about the Black Freedom Struggle be taught? What are the barriers to changing how it is taught?
  • What are some common ways MLK Day is celebrated, and how do they participate in the misrepresentation of civil rights history?
  • What are some ways a historically and philosophically accurate MLK Day could be celebrated?
  • If you were talking to someone who was misrepresenting civil rights history, what would you say to them?

Frequently Asked Questions

A

Your instructors for this workshop are CCE AmeriCorps volunteers and Midd alums:

Jilly dos Santos - jdossantos@middlebury.edu

Tenzin Dorjee - tndorjee@middlebury.edu

A

Format: Synchronous, recurring weekly on Thursdays from January 19-February 19, 2021 5-6pm EST

Duration: 1 hour

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No, this workshop is fully funded and books will be provided. 

Center for Community Engagement
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753

communityengagement@middlebury.edu
(802) 443-3580