History teaching is within the confines of a curriculum and under the pressure of examinations is riven with unfortunate compromises and unintended outcomes. The question of the civil rights movement in America is a case in point. Textbooks in the UK tend to focus on the 1950s and 1960s, centring mainly around the story of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the south. The narrative becomes more complex after the passage of the Voting Rights Act 1965 and then after 1968 most textbooks shift to an examination of the black power movement and nod towards progressive changes that happen during the 1970s. We learn that America saw a generation of black sports stars and entertainers in the 1980s and a smattering of politicians, judges and civil servants. Most students are left with the firm impression that the civil rights struggle ended in success, that black America’s problems were largely resolved by the advent of civil rights and freedoms and that liberalism triumphed. Would that it were.
Most UK teaching of the civil rights movement ignores the fact that many of the gains of the 50s and 60s were stripped away in the 80s and 90s by Reaganite welfare cuts and urban decay in black neighbourhoods (the blame for the resulting deprivation and criminality being dumped on impoverished black communities), and mass incarceration under Bill Clinton. The explosion of anger against endless police brutality last summer has reawoken interest in Britain on the subject of systemic injustice and state violence against black Americans and here I talk with Larry Auton Leaf about the problems of teaching a truncated and ahistorical view of the civil rights movement: