A More Beautiful and Terrible History

A More Beautiful and Terrible History

The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History

Book - 2018
Average Rating:
Rate this:
"The civil rights movement has become national legend, lauded by presidents from Reagan to Obama to Trump, as proof of the power of American democracy. [The author believes that this notion], featuring dreamy heroes and accidental heroines, has shuttered the movement firmly in the past, whitewashed the forces that stood in its way, and diminished its scope. And it is used perniciously in our own times to chastise present-day movements and obscure contemporary injustice. In [this book, she] dissects this national myth-making, teasing apart the accepted stories to show them in a strikingly different light"--Dust jacket flap.
Publisher: Boston : Beacon Press, [2018]
ISBN: 9780807075876
Characteristics: xxv, 253 pages ; 24 cm


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Sep 28, 2018

One of the most important books I've read in a long time. Theoharis draws back the curtain of fables that have been built up around the Civil Rights Movement of the 50's and 60's and that mislead us about how we can move forward today. By doing the background on such events as the Montgomery bus boycott and the Watts riot, Theoharis shows how these were not events of the moment but instead were the result of years, and often decades, of hard work and community building, a process that we often son easily forget is often messy and difficult. She also takes on the mainstream media of the day in the way The New York Times and other northern newspapers, such as the Boston Globe, highlighted what was happening in the South but "papered over" the segregation and inequality in the North and West. If you want to be inspired to move forward today, read this very important book.

Feb 24, 2018

I’ll admit it’s hard for me to review a book like this because I wish I could write down each strong, thought-provoking, or challenging point the author makes.

This narrative speaks on the tendency for many Americans to relegate the civil rights movement to something that’s (safely) behind us. It speaks on the tendency for people to applaud figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks while separating them from the totality of their messages, from their anger, from the fact that they were controversial and that the civil rights movement was disruptive and unpopular to most Americans at the time.

This book puts clear language to ideas I’ve been chewing on, including how racism isn’t merely about people’s feelings, that as long as enough individuals don’t feel or express personal malice toward people of color, then social injustice in America is no longer a real or serious problem.

My one issue with the reading was that it often seemed redundant, repeating the same information or quotes in places or using different words to make the same points over again.

America has much more work to do for civil rights, and it’ll take having an accurate view of our history.

Feb 19, 2018

If this book had been printed on sticks of dynamite, it could not have done more to blow wide open my perception of our current national fable about the Civil Rights movement and whose purpose it serves. What the author makes quite clear is that the sanitized version we have of the people and events in the movement is far too limited, tidy, and self-congratulatory to get to the essential truth that the work of desegregation and racial justice is incomplete and that white resistance to change across the nation is the reason.

Ms. Theoharis' main contention is that there is a difference between the "history we get and the history we need." The history we get gives the impression that once courageous individuals peacefully stood up to the systematic racism that existed only in the Jim Crow south, they garnered the respect and support of the nation, compelling our just system of government to act, and culminating in reaching all the goals of the movement through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This tidy fable is soothing because it allows many of us to believe the work is complete and that our nation and her citizens are responsive to injustice.

The history we need reveals the less flattering and more uncomfortable truth that the work of desegregation and racial equality is unfinished and that the resistance to change operates today much as it did fifty years ago. A more accurate and complete telling of civil rights history would reveal that individual acts of courage could only have impact when the hard work of organizing was accomplished, that systemic racism was not limited to the Jim Crow south, and that whites outside the south also resisted change through more subtle systemic manipulation while decrying the more obvious violence of the poor and uneducated southern whites. These same principles apply today when concerned citizens call out white supremacists while they ignore ongoing segregation and racial injustice in their own communities. These same mechanisms operate today when commenters across the political spectrum criticize today's activists for not acting more like Dr. King, forgetting that our nation rejected him too when his message and his actions became too uncomfortable.

For as impactful as the themes of the book were, I did find some obstacles in the writing. Ms. Theoharis is most effective when she explores an event or person with depth, such as when she provides a fuller story of the events leading up to Rosa Parks’ decision to stay seated on that Montgomery bus, or when she reveals the life long work for economic justice that is the legacy of Coretta Scott King. She is less effective in chapters where she offers too many examples of events or leaders related to a particular theme, like school desegregation. While these chapters are still important, they lack a necessary focus that draws the reader more fully into the story. Still, I highly recommend this book to anyone who care about the ongoing struggle for justice and equality in communities of color or are interested in the uses and misuses of historical narratives.


Add a Quote
Feb 19, 2018

"The recounting of national histories is never separate from present-day politics."

Feb 19, 2018

"The way the nation has memorialized the civil rights movement has been as way to maintain silence."


Add Age Suitability
Feb 19, 2018

MelissaBee thinks this title is suitable for 16 years and over


Add a Summary

There are no summaries for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at CPL

To Top