Exposing the manipulation of the ’60s civil rights legacy by many diverse movements today that are trying to co-opt it for their own ends.
In this special Juneteenth edition of the WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Hajar Yazdiha, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Southern California and author of The Struggle for the People’s King: How Politics Transforms the Memory of the Civil Rights Movement.
Yazdiha provides examples of how various movements, including those on the far right, have manipulated the symbols and rhetoric of the civil rights era to advance their own agendas.
Yazdiha argues that this manipulation dilutes the impact of the original civil rights struggle. She highlights how some groups, portraying themselves counter-factually as oppressed minorities, use the legacy of civil rights to justify their positions, thereby distorting the original purpose of the movement.
In underscoring the dangers of this co-optation, Yazdiha emphasizes that these are not mere rhetorical blunders but intentional strategies with a long history. She explains how these strategies are even used to claim that figures like Martin Luther King Jr. would have opposed movements such as Black Lives Matter or legislation like affirmative action.
She draws parallels between the commemoration of Juneteenth and the King holiday, cautioning against the risk of whitewashing the complexity and radical history of these events.
It’s no surprise, Yazdiha says, that Black communities have been leading the fight against revisionist misuses of our collective memory.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to this special edition of the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman. Our celebration of Juneteenth today is a direct result of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. The battles led by Martin Luther King Jr. and many others created an enduring legacy on which the continued fight for civil rights rests. But what happens when this legacy is manipulated, distorted, and appropriated to further agendas far removed from the original purpose? What does it mean when various causes are labeled the “civil rights struggle of our time?” Does it dilute the impact of the original battle? When wielded in the wrong hands, could it even be seen as an affront to 50 years of civil rights progress? These questions form the central theme of our conversation today with my guest, Hajar Yazdiha.
Hajar is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, and she has critically examined how various movements, including those on the far right, have appropriated the symbols and rhetoric of the civil rights era to advance their cause. In her analysis of the interplay between history, politics, and race, we see how some groups that portray themselves as oppressed minorities are actually using the legacy of civil rights to justify their positions and thereby potentially perpetuating racial inequality.
So much of the rhetoric from another time reflects the current state of our multicultural democracy and the contentious process of historical reinterpretation. To talk about this further, it is my pleasure to welcome Hajar Yazdiha here to discuss The Struggle for the People’s King: How Politics Transforms the Memory of the Civil Rights Movement. Hajar, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Hajar Yazdiha: Thanks for having me.
Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here. Talk about this idea, first of all, of the constant use of that phrase “the civil rights struggle of our time,” and the way that phrase has been used by so many different groups these days.
Hajar: Yes, that’s right. If you really think about it, we see this minority rights revolution, as it’s called, that emerges out of the gains of the civil rights movement. And we have all sorts of groups that have been historically oppressed that are now claiming their rights — so everybody from LGBTQ coalitions to advocates for Chicano rights; we see immigrant rights movements growing, we see disability rights. And all of these movements are using the tools and the messages, the frames, and the successes of the civil rights movement to really claim rights for themselves.
And so, exactly as you said, it ends up looking like this sort of language of all this is the new civil rights movement, this is the new civil rights struggle. And in a lot of cases, they’re also describing themselves as the new Blacks. So there is this appropriation of the memory of the civil rights movement. But for a lot of these minority movements, they are building on, they are directly speaking to the civil rights struggle.
Now, one of the big findings of the book, and you started to mention this, is that over time, increasingly since the ’80s, it’s really the conservative right-wing movements that are picking up the memory of the civil rights movement and claiming it as their own. And so, in these new civil rights struggles, as we call them, this is where white people come to see themselves as the new victims, as the new minorities under multicultural democracy. And as I go on to show in the book, this is really where the problem lies.
Jeff: Is there a fundamental, core difference in the way this rhetoric and tools, as you talk about, the way they’re used for causes like women’s rights or gay and lesbian rights, and the way they’re used and co-opted by the right? Is the problem the way it is used in general, or is it specifically because it is being used by the right in such a distorted way?
Hajar: Yes, that’s an important question. There are different levels of distortion and, of course, any time you pick up a collective memory, you are remaking it, and that is the nature of collective memory. It is always dynamic, it’s always contested. And so, I never want to present this as a unique story because the past is always something that’s up for question. It’s always been experienced differently by different groups, so there’s always going to be competing stories of exactly what happened.
But I think the difference here is that we see these minority rights movements, including the women’s rights movement, really building on the legacy of the civil rights movement. In a lot of ways, they incorporate civil rights leaders into their own struggles; they learn from them. The difference here is that the right-wing movements are intentionally distorting the past. It’s actually part of the strategy.
And this was one of the glaring — and honestly, a little disturbing — findings: that in writing, we see all of these documents where they are saying specifically— even President Reagan when he signs the King holiday into law, he’s saying, “I don’t actually support civil rights. Rest assured, we are going to be commemorating a very selective version of Dr. King. And it’s one that’s going to be sanitized, it’s going to be freed of its radical history, of all its complexity. It’s going to instead be used in the service of upholding power, rather than challenging it.”
Jeff: Does it also have the positive effect at all of keeping the memory of the original civil rights struggle, keeping it alive in the public consciousness, and is there some positive value in that?
Hajar: I think that’s a really interesting way to think about it, and I think it’s something a lot of listeners will ask — something that my own interlocutors ask is: Why is it actually a problem? If the civil rights movement is remembered through these ideals of unity and color blindness, these wonderful ideals of the promise of America and its exceptionalism, why is that actually a problem?
What I would say is that it becomes a problem when it acts as if racism ended with the civil rights movement.
And so, it’s been kept alive, and yes, we could definitely celebrate that there is a national holiday celebrating the gains of the civil rights movement. But we also have to think really critically about what story is being told, how does it represent the past, how does it represent who we are as Americans — and, more significantly, who we are now.
There’s always that connection between past and present, where the story of who we were shapes the story of who we are. And if we’re telling the story that racism ended with the civil rights movement, that Dr. King was dedicated solely to love and non-violence, then we’re neglecting to confront the real roots of why the civil rights movement happened, why Dr. King was so deeply unpopular at the end of his life.
Jeff: Are there other civil rights struggles historically that the civil rights movement of the late ’50s and ’60s drew upon that you could twist the same argument about, that many of the tools and rhetoric of the civil rights movement came from other historical movements?
Hajar: There is always a lineage. There is no social movement or even moment in politics that’s created anew, right?
Hajar: So, there’s always going to be a trajectory, there’s always going to be an influence. And the civil rights movement, as a lot of historians have shown, didn’t begin in the ’50s. It really has a long history. It dates back even to Reconstruction and a lot of the efforts to retain Black freedom and to reclaim it, to tell a story about Black Americans’ central role in the founding of the country, willingly or not.
And the 1619 Project, for example, has been a significant effort to really rewrite and reclaim Black Americans’ role in American history and American culture, in the foundational story of who we were and why we are the way that we are. So, absolutely, the civil rights movement was not created anew. This is a story of a series of civil rights activists that are building on their elders’ knowledge, the intergenerational transmission of political resistance, political knowledge.
And by their very nature, a lot of these movements also end up gleaning some insight and knowledge from transnational movements, from global politics. And this is another place where the resurgence of a movement to reclaim Dr. King, that has emerged out of Black Lives Matter in present day, also builds on the unfinished work of the civil rights movement, so we can see a real through-line all through American history and into the future, really.
Jeff: And talk about what you have discovered in terms of the specific dangers to the cause of civil rights as a result of the way this rhetoric has been co-opted.
Hajar: I think this is really the crux and the big red flag that I’m waving — the idea that these co-optations, these misuses of collective memory, they are not just these rhetorical blunders. We shouldn’t think of them as these one-offs, like, “Oh, that was just a political flub.” The real issue is that these are intentional strategies and that they have a long history. And so, they have been building on one another.
And what I show in the book is the model of a tree branch, and it keeps growing into these gnarled and fragmented interpretations of history. Those in turn end up having these really detrimental effects on multicultural democracy, which we see as the right-wing having co-opted Dr. King’s memory increasingly to claim that King himself would have been opposed to civil rights legislation like affirmative action, for example. And so often they’ll use his words of caring really about character and not the color of one’s skin from the “I Have a Dream” speech as if that was, for one thing, the only speech he gave, and also as if it was completely de-contextualized from this space in which he’s speaking to the racism that’s so systemic in American culture.
And so I think one of the big things to think about is how Dr. King gets invoked in all of these moments. We even see them today with the moral panic around Critical Race Theory. There was a really interesting NPR report that came out last year showing that in a press conference with Republicans, half of them invoked Dr. King to play up the threat of Critical Race Theory.
And so we have to think about what that means. That should really raise a red flag for us. That should really cause alarm.
When the words of Dr. King — a radical activist who really believed that the triple evils of American society were racism, economic exploitation, and militarism — what does that mean when he’s being invoked to claim that he himself would have opposed a movement like Black Lives Matter, legislation like affirmative action, that he would have opposed the Voting Rights Act, for example?
So all of these contradictions really show us how this is an intentional strategy and quite a powerful one.
Jeff: Talk about the intentionality of it, particularly on the right.
Hajar: I think this has been one of the toughest pills to swallow — that there is this idea, is it sincere? This is a question I get a lot. And the sincerity isn’t the point. And I think this is really where the sociology comes in, because sociology shows us that you may have the best intentions, you may truly believe in your cause, but what really matters for society is the consequences of the action.
And in a lot of ways, we could say, some of these guys, this is the history they learned in schools. This is the version of the civil rights movement, the version that they’ve been fed from a young age. And so when they make these claims about the power of color blindness, the importance of opposing race-conscious legislation, they really believe it in their guts. But I have the documentation of the behind-the-scenes strategies to use Dr. King, to use the language of civil rights, to draw wedges between progressive groups.
For example, in the immigrant rights struggle, the right-wing groups will invoke King to draw Black Americans away from the cause of immigrant rights, to say, Immigrants are claiming that their civil rights are like yours, but they are not Americans. They are not from here. And so they try to invoke this to create the perception of threat. This is where the intentionality comes in. So even in these cases where perhaps it’s not on paper that somebody behind closed doors said, “We are going to use Dr. King to do X, Y, Z,” we still see the patterns that show how it is a political strategy that’s been deeply effective and, in that way, institutionalized.
Jeff: What has been the reaction to this specifically among those people who are still around who were deeply involved in the civil rights era?
Hajar: Yes, this is really important because I think it’s easy to say, “Oh, well, this co-optation just means that people in power retain power and there’s no hope for the rest of us.” I want to really draw out that Black communities have been resisting these misuses of civil rights for centuries, frankly; but especially with civil rights movement memory in particular, they have been resisting it since the very founding of the national holidays.
So these are all the ways that it’s been a question of where are we going? And Black communities are really the ones that we want to look to because they are the ones that have been leading the fight against revisionist memory, founding their own historical knowledge that has been passed down through generations, through families. Black historians, in particular, have been at the forefront of this struggle.
And that is something that I really call out in the book — that rather than centering ourselves, our own experiences of civil rights memory, of the way that we understand these moments, we really need to be learning from the Black communities that carry that memory. They carry it in their bodies, many of them in their minds and their family histories. And civil rights activists themselves who are still alive — including, until his passing, Congressman John Lewis — have been really outspoken about it. They have shown up in every moment where this collective memory is being co-opted, where it’s being used in the service of rolling back democracy, and they’re calling it out.
So we definitely don’t want to underplay the fact that this resistance exists. But I do think it’s important to note that it is power. It is the power that exists in who gets represented in the media, whose stories are told. That’s the power that shapes the larger mainstream collective memory, which is the one that most of us learn in schools, see on TV, and understand from the media.
Jeff: And how should we think of it in the context of, for example, this Juneteenth holiday that we celebrate today?
Hajar: I think that’s the perfect question because in so many ways the Juneteenth holiday is having some eerie memory and echo of the King holiday — in the sense that it arose as a, I don’t mean to be cynical, but a confession. It was arising out of the George Floyd moment, the Black Lives Matter uprising; and it was far overdue.
So there’s this moment where we institutionalize a collective memory that’s really meant to evoke the somber feeling of Juneteenth, the reality of the historical moment that, while it represented a form of emancipation, a form of the rebirth of freedom for Black Americans, also represented the reality that they had received this news. They had received this news two years after they were freed. And I think the reality of the complexity of that is exactly like the King holiday, where his complexity, his radical history has been whitewashed. And we have to be really careful not to do the same thing with the Juneteenth.
Jeff: Is there a danger to the continuing genuine civil rights movement by pointing these issues out, by creating pushback to this? Is there a danger of some backlash?
Hajar: I think there’s always going to be backlash. And that has been the story of every moment of attempted racial reckoning. And In the book I talk about this really powerful op-ed written by the scholars Victor Ray and Hakeem Jefferson, where they talk about how America has never really experienced a racial reckoning. Because in all of these moments where the moment was ripe, where we really could have grappled with the past, contended with it, thought about what it means, and potentially worked toward truth and reconciliation, instead these moments were painted over with legislation — for example, civil rights, or a national holiday — rather than actually thinking about that moment of reflection and what it means, and admitting harm. And I think the admission of harm is so critical for a true reckoning.
So I think that’s one of the things we really should be thinking about as we move forward and think about what to do. It’s not as simple as passing a law or even passing a certain set of legislation around education. I think it goes much deeper than that.
I think of it almost as the metaphor of a house. If you have cracks in the walls of your house, certainly you could paint it over, but the house would eventually fall apart and probably more quickly than if you actually addressed the root cause, discovered what was wrong with the foundation, thought about the conditions that the house exists in. And this is a metaphor for thinking about how important it is to understand the context of these historical moments and how we ended up where we are.
Jeff: And from a practical perspective, though, how best to deal with the way this appropriation is taking place?
Hajar: Yes. It’s a question I think about all the time, especially as the mother of two young children who on holiday inevitably come home with some worksheet that really minimizes what the holiday means. It’ll have words like love and unity and friendship, and it’ll be a little coloring sheet. And I think that’s important because, of course, we want our children to learn about the civil rights movement. And, of course, we want to think about age-appropriate developmental stages. We’re not talking to them about lynching, for example, when they’re five years old.
But with that said, I think there are concrete ways that we can make a difference. And one of the big pieces of knowledge, the big pieces of hope that came for me as I researched this book, was the very fact that Black communities with so much grounded knowledge can point us in the right direction if we listen to them and let them guide the way and support their efforts. And in a lot of ways, that means community-based efforts.
And so even for those of us who may be overwhelmed, who may not know where to start, simply turning to the organizations in our community is a good place to start. We want to resist the educational efforts to limit curriculum around racial education. I know that no White parent wants their child to feel guilty for being White, but that is not the point of learning about the past. We truly cannot move forward without knowing where we’ve been.
And so, I do think it’s important that this resistance happens in all sorts of ways. And everybody has a different skillset, a different set of passions, and a different level of comfort with the forms of resistance that they’re going to take. But to sit at home and merely allow the revisionist memories to take shape, to be institutionalized, is the most dangerous thing that we can do.
Jeff: Hajar Yazdiha — her recent book is The Struggle for the People’s King: How Politics Transforms the Memory of the Civil Rights Movement. Hajar, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on this special edition of The WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Hajar: Thank you so much, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on The WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.