Erin Devlin, Assistant Professor, University of Mary Washington
- Seeking Additional Presenters
- Seeking General Feedback and Interest
- Civic Engagement
A celebratory public history of the civil rights movement– which casts racial injustice as a relic of the past– has been deployed in federal courts to rollback oversight of school desegregation, voter registration, and to legitimize police brutality and mass incarceration. In the legal arena, civil rights organizations and their “colorblind” opponents struggle to define the memory of the mid-century movement and its legacy today. While the public history of the movement is subject to manipulation and appropriation by those in power, it can also be mobilized to nurture oppositional narratives that empower movements for social change. This roundtable explores how public historians have been and can be engaged in this power struggle.
Contested public histories of the mid-century civil rights movement and its legacy are repeatedly deployed in courts of law. On this contested terrain, dominant and politically powerful groups advance historical narratives designed to cultivate consent and legitimize the current state of American race relations, while civil rights advocates continue the struggle to recast our collective understanding of the past and its relationship to current conditions. This roundtable explores how public historians have been and can be engaged in this struggle over public memory.
In courts of law, “colorblind jurisprudence” has constructed a celebratory narrative of civil rights achievement, which casts racial injustice as a relic of the past. This public history of the civil rights movement has been purposely deployed over the course of the last 30 years to roll back federal court oversight of school desegregation, voter registration, and to legitimize police brutality and mass incarceration. As courts weigh the impact of racial injustice in these areas, as well as reopened criminal cases related to racial violence, their decisions draw directly on the public memory of the mid-century black freedom struggle, popular perceptions of civil rights activism and the scope of white resistance. In courts of law, a triumphal narrative of progress has been reified in legal “findings of fact” and the “burden of proof” required to challenge its dominance has shifted back onto the shoulders of civil rights organizations and their clients.
In the effort to secure social justice in the United States, civil rights organizations and their allies work to craft alternative narratives of mid-century discrimination and resistance, and to underscore their legacy in the present. In the legal arena, they advance a careful recitation of history, and evoke powerful symbolic memory, in an attempt to defuse the willed amnesia of their colorblind counterparts. In doing so, these litigants demonstrate that the public history of the movement is not simply subject to manipulation and appropriation by those in power, but also can be mobilized to nurture oppositional narratives that empower movements for social change.
As this proposal develops over the next few weeks, please forward feedback that may help to focus the central issues of concern in the proposal or illustrate its relevance to the field in our current moment. I also hope to recruit additional contributors.
If you have a direct offer of assistance, sensitive criticism, or wish to pass along someone’s contact information confidentially, please get in contact directly: Erin Devlin, [email protected]
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