This is the time of year when we used to watch documentaries about the civil rights movement of the 1960s in elementary and middle school. Class was set aside for assemblies where an actor read the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the gospel choir sang out in faithful strains. These were the only moments when the school curriculum acknowledged that religious communities were at the center of the civil rights struggle.
The movies showed us an inspiring story of progress. Whether the movements began in Montgomery, Ala. in 1954, or in Little Rock, Ark. in 1957, they marched us from one southern city to the next until we arrived with hundreds of thousands of people in Washington, D.C. to watch King tell us of his dream in 1963.
My teachers liked to say that the “Dream” speech was made up on the spot. Last year, I heard a recording of King’s speech to a crowd in Detroit, two months before the March on Washington D.C.. He reminded listeners that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and then rebuked satisfied Northern sympathizers, “No community in this country can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood,” King said.
King came to Detroit — and marched with labor leaders like Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers — to protest the “subtle and hidden” discrimination African-Americans faced in the North, where racialized realty practices and discriminatory hiring segregated the public schools.
“I have a dream this afternoon,” King said, “that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere their money will carry them, and they will be able to get a job.”
We’ve all seen videos of Bull Connor’s cops beating marchers. Every civil rights documentary shows peaceful protesters forced to the ground by white men with water cannons.
Most of us haven’t seen images of whites rioting during a 1966 march for fair housing in Chicago. King was hit on the head by a thrown brick, and told reporters, “I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”
The public school curriculum left out Northern civil rights battles completely. Perhaps that’s because what King and others were fighting against — realtors’ subtle ways of keeping non-white homebuyers out of certain neighborhoods — rarely produced shocking images like those caught during the Southern marches.
There is an easy way to tell the story. Documentarians already have a story arc in the boycotts and marches of the 1950s and early 1960s, from Rosa Parks to the “Dream” speech. It’s an arc full of pathos, replete with images that challenge viewers to understand how America has not always lived up to its ideals.
By ending with the March on Washington, or with the signing of the great civil rights laws, the story of the civil rights movement becomes a closed narrative of triumph. African Americans suffered. Then — led by King — they overcame.
That narrative is incomplete. In the years after the March on Washington, King fought with other great leaders for fair housing and an end to de facto discrimination in schools. That struggle never really came to an end. After California adopted a law — now part of the federal code — that made it illegal to refuse to sell property to someone on the basis of the buyer’s race, whites rose up in protest. A year after the March on Washington, Californians overturned fair housing by an overwhelming majority.
If you visited a school in Detroit today, you would see that de facto segregation continues to deny children the opportunities they deserve. Walking down the city’s empty streets, you would see that one of King’s dreams — that one day Detroiters could get jobs, never came to pass.
Teaching the struggle for racial equality as something that happened long ago in the South sends a misleading message. This narrative tells us that the American community has already overcome discrimination and its legacies. It teaches Northerners to look down on Southerners for their intolerance, leaving us blind to the inequalities that continue to shape our own communities. We should be honest with ourselves and teach the whole story, so that someday, we might overcome.