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One-day symposium “Memories of the Civil Rights Movement / Mémoire(s) du mouvement pour les droits civiques

University of Toulouse - Jean Jaurès, February 28, 2014
Wendy Harding

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1The one-day symposium on memories of the civil rights movement (Mémoire(s) du mouvement pour les droits civiques), held at the University of Toulouse - Jean Jaurès on February 28, 2014, brought together six scholars whose work evaluates how the cultural memories emerging from the mid-twentieth century civil rights struggle in the United States are shaped in words and images. Organized by two members of the Toulouse based research group “Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes” (CAS), the symposium was part of a larger, multi-disciplinary project, “MémoCris,” which brings together researchers in philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines to study the memories of minority populations. The papers presented at the symposium and the discussions that followed brought to light the selectivity of memory and considered how iconic representations of past events have been an inspiration and sometimes a burden or an obstacle to the descendants of those involved in the struggle. Whereas official versions of the period and of black history tend to focus on a small number of charismatic figures, the symposium gave a broader sense of the multiplicity of voices and viewpoints that contributed and still contribute to the ongoing work of making the United States a more just and racially equitable society.

Delphine Letort (Université du Maine), “Remembering the Civil Rights Struggle through the Nonfiction Films of Madeline Anderson”

2The symposium opened with a paper on “Remembering the Civil Rights Struggle through the Nonfiction Films of Madeline Anderson,” presented by the first keynote speaker, Delphine Letort (Université du Maine), author of Du film noir au néo-noir: mythes et stéréotypes de l’Amérique (2010). Delphine Letort began by observing that early representations of the civil rights movement through the biographies of a few major figures has given way to a more complete picture that takes into account the importance of local activists. In recent years, African American filmmaker Madeline Anderson’s short documentaries on the movement have been unearthed from the university archives in which they had lain dormant. Providing original footage of the period, they are important sources of memory, for they permit alternative forms of understanding. Anderson was engaged in the civil rights struggle as an African American woman committed to “filming history in the making.” Her documentaries exemplify the development of a black aesthetic on television—including the production of William Greaves’ Black Journal (1968-1970)—while conveying an inside view of the civil rights movement. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s notion of “subjugated knowledges,” Delphine Letort argued that Anderson’s films articulate the radical dimension of a fight that unfolded at a local level, pointing to unspectacular events that never hit the headlines. Selected footage from the films permitted Delphine Letort to show how the female gaze of Anderson’s camera eschews “documentary objectivity” and instead captures her emotional engagement with the filmed participants confronting issues of race, class and gender. Focusing on the Charleston Hospital African American female strikers, I Am Somebody uses one of the female participants’ voiceover (Claire Brown) to give personal reflections on her experience in the struggle, highlighting the empowering effect of the collective strike on the individual. The documentary’s subjective voice resonates with the biographical and autobiographical focus of innovative academic research since the 1990s. By drawing attention to less widely publicized struggles, Anderson shows the importance of the involvement of common citizens in local, grassroots actions. Her documentary portrayal of Malcolm X presents the leader as a model of black manhood; his pan-African cultural nationalism is presented as a rallying point for African Americans across the nation. She extols the power of Black Nationalist ideas among African Americans in the northern and the southern states, thus pointing out an aspect that the dominant narrative of the movement has often occulted. Anderson’s films also retrospectively reveal that the fight for racial equality and integration extended beyond what is known as the “classical phase” of the civil rights movement (1954-1965), thus prompting a critical look at the historiography of the period that long promoted the “dominant narrative.” Anderson challenges the dominant civil rights narrative by crafting a timeline that does not stop with the legislative gains of the 1960s, drawing attention to their concrete impact (or lack thereof) on the everyday life of African Americans across the country. Finally, Anderson’s films were devised as “calls for action” blending the personal and the political, following in the tradition of black feminism.

Hélène Charlery (Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès / CAS), “The Civil Rights Movement in Black Feminist Thought”

3In her presentation, “The Civil Rights Movement in Black Feminist Thought,” Hélène Charlery (Université Tolouse - Jean Jaurès / CAS) began by reminding the audience of the popular tendency to date the emergence of black feminism from the late 1960s, when black women rebelled against the subaltern role they were given in the modern civil rights movement and black power movement. While black feminist scholars do not contest those women’s discontent and agree that black feminist theorizing and organizing took a leap forward in the 1960s, they also insist on the necessity to acknowledge an earlier tradition embodied in historical figures such as Julia Anna Cooper or Sojourner Truth. They see 1960s black feminist activism as a continuum rather than a rupture. Sojourner Truth in particular has occupied a central position, since she embodies the simultaneity of race, class and gender oppressions. Nevertheless, questions have been raised concerning the accuracy of the frequently quoted and anthologized speech that white female member of the audience recorded at the women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Sojourner Truth’s afterlife as a cultural symbol may now overshadow her existence as historical subject.

4Hélène Charlery went on to demonstrate how the famous speech has taken on different meanings in varied contexts and before diverse audiences. She compared four performances, three by African American actresses (Kerry Washington - 2006, Alfre Woodard - 2007, and Cicely Tyson - 2009) and one by black feminist writer Alice Walker (2006). The different readings vary significantly in the emphasis placed on the text’s leading sentence “Ain’t I a Woman”—repeated at key rhetorical moments of the text—and on the dialect. Moreover, factors such as the guest reader’s renown and the way she performs race and gender also shape the symbolic dimension of the text. Hélène Charlery argued that along with the reading or performance itself, the site where the text is read or performed and its immediate reception influence whether it is taken as the declaration of a historical subject or a cultural icon. She analyzed how the four black women’s differing pace, emphasis, and intonation evoked for their respective audiences laughter, approbation, or complicity. In contrast to the three actresses, who strove to embody Sojourner Truth as cultural symbol, Alice Walker looked at the text at key moments, emphasizing its message rather than its speaker’s charisma.

5Hélène Charlery’s presentation prompted a discussion about the reliability of oral testimony as a source of memory. Moreover, there were questions about whether reenactments of the famous speech that was scripted in part by a white woman and perhaps reflecting nineteenth century racial prejudices, did not serve to travesty rather than honor the memory of this important historical figure. Indeed, Hélène Charlery replied that the dialect in which the speech is written probably misrepresents Sojourner Truth’s voice; it imitates a Southern accent and she was from the North. The question of whether the ex-slave deliberately gave a kind of black-face minstrel performance cannot be answered.

Françoise Coste, (Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès / CAS), “Ronald Reagan’s Long Crusade against the Civil Rights Movement: A Failed Endeavor?”

6In a paper entitled “Ronald Reagan’s Long Crusade against the Civil Rights Movement: A Failed Endeavor?” Françoise Coste (Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès / CAS), evaluated the former U.S. president’s paradoxical attitude toward issues of race and equality. Françoise Coste drew on archival sources that include Reagan’s personal notes, to illustrate the contradictions between Regan’s stances on public policy and his personal professions of belief. Though Reagan was unfailingly hostile towards the civil rights movement, when it came to expressing his views on racism, Regan voiced pride at having being raised in an anti-racist family. He saw race as a personal issue that government should not interfere with. His experience as a member of a football team convinced him that sports would provide a solution to the racial problem in the U.S. He was unable to admit the systemic and structural nature of American racism. In 1964, while still working in Hollywood, Reagan supported Barry Goldwater and applauded his refusal to vote for the Civil Rights Act. Reagan blamed the civil rights movement for the rise of violence in the U.S. He believed that Martin Luther King’s ideas were responsible for his death. Racial rhetoric became the hallmark of Reaganism throughout the 1970s, from his famous denunciations of the “welfare queen” in the 1976 Republican primaries to his rants against bussing and affirmative action in the 1980 presidential campaign. Reagan held two main ideological stances from which he would never deviate. First, he claimed that, thanks to his parents, he was not racist. Second, on civil rights issues he would adopt the most conservative position. Though he claimed to oppose prejudice and bigotry, he defended the right of individuals to demonstrate those qualities. For him, it meant distinguishing morality from legality. For Reagan, this twofold approach was not paradoxical at all.

7Françoise Coste raised the question of whether the Reagan years marked a step backwards in the history of civil rights in the U.S. She pointed out that the economic reforms and the great wave of deregulation launched in 1981 disproportionately affected black people. At the end of Reagan’s first year in office, only 14% of Blacks had a positive opinion of the president. Faced with such numbers, Republican advisors panicked, yet Reagan proved completely unresponsive to their concerns. Françoise Coste cited a number of examples to illustrate Reagan’s insensitivity to the concerns of black voters, including his opposition to the creation of a new federal holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On this issue, Reagan failed to convince the country to follow him, and he grudgingly signed MLK Day into law. An even more meaningful defeat for Reagan came in the field of voting rights. When the 1965 Voting Rights Act came up for review, Reagan saw it as a great opportunity to advance his racial conservatism and please the millions of white Southerners who had supported him in 1980. Republican members of Congress ended up ignoring the President and voting for the renewal of the Act. Françoise Coste concluded that though Reagan hurt the African-American community from a social and economic point of view, he still failed to interrupt the long march of the United States towards racial justice and civil rights. Trapped in the ideological reflexes of the past, he never understood that his country was finally ready for more peaceful race relations.

Leigh Raiford (University of California, Berkeley), “Civil Rights Movement Photography and Its Legacies”

8The symposium reconvened in the afternoon with the presentation by the second keynote speaker, Leigh Raiford (University of California, Berkeley), author of Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle (2013). Leigh Raiford’s paper, “Civil Rights Movement Photography and Its Legacies” grew out of the work that she did for her recent book. In Fall 2010, while Leigh Raiford was doing research on key civil rights photographers and just as it was announced that a museum would open to celebrate the life and work of one of them, Ernest C. Withers, the shocking news emerged that Withers had worked from at least 1968 to 1970 as a paid FBI informant. The debates that ensued among civil rights activists, historians, journalists, photography buffs, pundits, bloggers and everyday folk about Withers’ guilt or innocence revealed continuing anxieties about black heritage, the legacies and memory of the civil rights movement, and the darker side of a movement Americans have enfolded into their popular culture as the apex of the nation’s efforts to better itself. It also brought to the surface concerns about artistic intent and aesthetic value. Leigh Raiford promised to leave aside the debate over Withers’ guilt or innocence on one hand, or as aesthetic testimony to the enduring power of the images themselves on the other. Her concern in her talk was to explore the entanglement between politics and aesthetics. Rather than trying to separate Withers’ work as a movement photographer from his work as a “racial informant” she wondered whether the two roles were not in fact complementary. What if Withers’ work as an FBI informant actually made him a better photographer, made his eye sharper, focused his camera in ways that he might not have otherwise, that he was looking with multiple purposes? Posing this provocative question led Leigh Raiford to explore the role that photography—as document, as art, and as surveillance—played in the modern civil rights movement. A recent spate of exhibits of both civil rights and black power photography has not simply presented the movements and their images; they have also placed the photographers themselves in the public eye, men such as Charles Moore, Bruce Davidson and Stephen Shames, as well as Withers. According to Leigh Raiford, these exhibits tend to imagine and celebrate a form of masculine fearlessness, coupled with political and artistic passion wrapped in racial innocence. Her talk worked to complicate the figure of the civil rights photographer by focusing as well on two lesser-known figures, Danny Lyon and Julius Lester, the first and last members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Photo Agency. Danny Lyon, a nineteen year old white man from Queens, New York, started his lifelong career as an artist and documentarian as SNCC’s first official photographer in 1962. And as head of the SNCC Photo Agency from 1966 to 1967, Julius Lester embraced photography for the medium’s ambiguities and for the ways it allowed him to speak to multiple audiences while working as a counterpoint to Lester’s own fiery writing on the meanings of black power. Leigh Raiford then concluded her presentation by moving to contemporary artwork by artists Glenn Ligon and Hank Willis-Thomas. Each engages Withers’ most iconic images in an artistic conversation that signifies on the earlier works. These contemporary African American artists suggest that such photographs, along with the movement itself, are always and should always be available for re-evaluation.

Zachary Baqué (Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès / CAS), “Music and Politics: Staging the ‘Beloved Community’ in Wattstax (Mel Stuart, 1973)”

9One of the lesser know artifacts that remains as a memorial to the civil rights movement is a film documenting the concert organized in 1972 by Watts Records in conjunction with the already existing Watts Summer Festival to commemorate the Watts riots of 1965. Film specialist Zachary Baqué (Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès / CAS) discussed this documentary in a paper entitled “Music and Politics: Staging the ‘beloved community’ in Wattstax (Mel Stuart, 1973).” Zachary Baqué reminded the audience that the riots took place one week after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, and they showed that the struggle for racial equality was far from over. According to the website for the Wattstax DVD, the goal of the festival was to “redirect […] the energies of the community into tangible, positive solutions and alternatives by developing community pride, cultural awareness and political consciousness.” Zachary Baqué contrasted this little-known festival documentary to other concert movies of the 1960s that have gained near mythical status and are often considered chronologically as a metaphor for the rise and fall of the 60s counterculture. He argued that the film is the most politically conscious of all the festival documentaries. True to genre, Wattstax cuts between performers and the audience, but it goes beyond by including testimonies by local residents reflecting on their social and political conditions and on gender relations within the black community.

10Zachary Baqué analysed a series of clips from the film to show how it featured individuals’ commentaries on their experience and how their testimonies transmitted the values of the civil rights movement. In terms of form, Wattstax borrows from various modes of documentary, taking in, but going beyond, the genre of festival movies. It is unusual in blurring the division between performers and audience, so as to suggest that the so-called stars are simply the catalysts for a communal expression of pride and togetherness. It represents the audience as a peaceful community of families, using humor to reconcile divisions of gender and class. Focusing on participants’ self-definition, the film works toward affirming a sense of black identity. Wattstax tries to reignite the communal dream and show how music can mend fissures in the social fabric. Both the festival and the film should thus be understood as political tools to unite a community. Moreover, the film works to include the spectator within that community by emphasizing the shared values of black culture.

11Zachary Baqué concluded by evaluating the utopian impulse of the film. He sees Wattstax as featuring the dreams and hopes of the 1960s, but also its contradictions and failures. It should be taken seriously as historical document showing the union between a cinematic belief in the capacity of the camera to capture the real as it is, without any form of mediation by the director, and a cinematic subject that was itself bent on transforming the real to make it a better place. Though both utopias failed, the film still testifies to the possibility of change and of recording that change.

Anne Stefani (Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès / CAS), “Memoirs / Autobiographies of Activists: Re-appropriating the Past”

12Anne Stefani (Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès / CAS), author of a forthcoming book on white southern women’s private experiences of the long civil rights movement, presented a paper entitled “Memoirs / Autobiographies of Activists: Re-appropriating the Past.” Her paper insists on the importance of sources that were once neglected by historians: autobiographical narratives, memoirs, oral history interviews and private correspondence. Some of these sources were produced in opposition to what participants in the movement saw as an elite-centered historiography that produced a “master narrative” focusing on the acts of a small number of male leaders. In a two-way exchange, autobiographers not only respond to historians but also transform the work of scholars in turn, recalling the human dimension of events in the civil rights struggle. Drawing on texts by both black and white writers, Stefani argued that they chose to testify about their experience for different reasons. Some tell their stories in order to make sense of their own lives, to examine their motivations and actions retrospectively. Personal narratives become a means for authors to re-interpret their experiences in the light of later social, political, and cultural developments, and to redefine themselves in the process. Other writers are compelled to reconstruct a collective past by adding their own stories to the larger narrative. Their memoirs sometimes seek to correct mistakes or misinterpretations found in previously published works. As actors in the civil rights movement, former activists claim legitimacy in the reconstruction of the past they participated in.

13Anne Stefani stressed the importance of these personal sources for historians of the civil rights movement. They reveal the roles of individuals and groups that have been omitted from the grand narrative. Many emphasize the key role of women in the movement at large. Others shed light on local, grassroots movements that have not drawn the attention of historians. Such works are essential because they lead the public and historians to consider the movement as a complex combination of interacting and sometimes contradictory forces. In some cases, the same events are told from two different perspectives that hardly ever converge. Anne Stefani recognized that the activists’ contribution to historiography can prove problematic, since personal testimonies are not completely reliable. However, their personal stories enrich the “grand narrative” by reconstructing its subjective, human dimension, which does not rest on factual information but on emotions, feelings, and the impact of events on personal relations. The new interest scholars have shown for emotion reflects an epistemological revolution brought about by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, starting with the black liberation movement. By challenging the domination of white, male, middle-class values in American society and culture, the civil rights movement and the feminist movement in particular also challenged the analytical models that prevailed in the humanities and social sciences. Subsequently, with the advent of the post-modernist era, such concepts as objectivity and truth came to be seen as constructions of an elite bent on imposing one single perspective on a multifaceted world. Subjectivity and emotions now represent important facets of social and cultural history. In the field of civil rights history, the new bottom-up approach challenged the grand narrative by shedding light on a multiplicity of experiences, a multiplicity of personal, individual truths that, taken altogether, constituted a much more complex and richer story. Anne Stefani showed that the multiplication of perspectives, sources, and testimonies coming from the many participants in the civil rights movement have produced a much more complex narrative than the one that prevailed in the 1980s.

14Discussion after this final contribution to the symposium affirmed that the past is not static or fixed; it is always re-membered and inflected by past omissions or present concerns. Political action overlaps with aesthetic production; in fact, the two are not distinct but in dialogue. Similarly, historians, political activists, and cultural producers engage in an ongoing conversation, transforming their responses to past events and memorializing them for the present. One of the hopeful insights that emerged from the day’s conversations was that the dominant never have the final word about the past; memory is always contested, revised, and revitalized in an ongoing dialogue.

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Wendy Harding, « One-day symposium “Memories of the Civil Rights Movement / Mémoire(s) du mouvement pour les droits civiques », Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 11 juillet 2014, consulté le 25 juin 2018. URL :

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Wendy Harding

Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès

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