Between Memory and History: Autobiographies of the Civil Rights Movement and the Writing of Civil Rights History

By Nasstrom, Kathryn L. | The Journal of Southern History, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Between Memory and History: Autobiographies of the Civil Rights Movement and the Writing of Civil Rights History


Nasstrom, Kathryn L., The Journal of Southern History


IN 1988, AT A REUNION OF THE STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING Committee (SNCC), Joyce Ladner had this to say about scholarship on the civil rights movement: "It was not until a decade after leaving SNCC that I began to read some of the works on the movement, maybe even a little longer than a decade. Sara Evans's Personal Politics was totally rubbish. I mean, it's revisionist to the core. She didn't even interview the right people, the people she should have talked to who could have told her what really happened. Michelle [sic] Wallace, I would put at an even lower scale when she talks about Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman--I've waited for this chance [to say this] for about ten years." Martha Prescod Norman made much the same point more succinctly and more poignantly: "When all is said and done, it shouldn't be left to history to give our children a sense of us, because we're still here." Casey Hayden concurred, "Don't ever believe what you read in the history books. At best it's a pale approximation." Responding to these remarks, historian Allen Matusow wryly observed, "the veterans of this movement have clearly identified two enemies: sheriffs and historians." (1)

This critique of histories of the movement subsequently made its way into print, as former activists took up the pen to write their autobiographies and memoirs. (2) In the introduction to Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement, a collection of essay-length memoirs by nine white women of the student generation of activists, the authors reveal that they began by "examining what has been written by others about our lives" and "arriving at the clear perception that no one could tell our stories but we ourselves." (3) Peter Jan Honigsberg prefaces his memoir, Crossing Border Street: A Civil Rights Memoir, with "A Memory": "This memoir is my personal witness. I encourage others in the Louisiana movement to tell their stories, too, before all we have left is history." (4) Ralph David Abernathy, in his introduction to And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography, pays historians this decidedly backhanded compliment: "Historians do an excellent job of re-creating the past, but for the most part they do so by superimposing their own abstractions on the concrete particulars of experience." For Abernathy, those "concrete particulars" amounted to an autobiography of 612 pages. (5) Scholars themselves have picked up the refrain: sociologist Doug McAdam, author of the well-received Freedom Summer, praised Honigsberg's memoir as "a welcome addition to the literature of the civil rights struggle, serving to leaven as other memoirs have a literature too often dominated by dry, scholarly studies." (6) History is under assault from autobiography, and, at least as some former activists have it, memoir trumps history at nearly every turn. Autobiography is more accurate, more concrete, more compelling, and truer to the "experience" of the movement. (7)

Upon closer examination, however, the issue does not resolve itself so neatly, certainly not for historians--who approach autobiography warily and are more likely to see memoirs, particularly those of a political nature, as partial, partisan, and even self-justifying--but not even for the autobiographers themselves. (8) For all the vehemence of Joyce Ladner's assertion, she acknowledges that she reads scholarly works and they shape what she has to say about the movement. The contributors to Deep in Our Hearts reveal that their method was to read history first and write memoir second. Ralph Abernathy admits to a close working relationship with historians. Of the numerous interviews he granted to scholars over the years, he writes, "I now realize that in helping other historians research their works, I have been preparing to write my own account. After all, each time I told a story I remembered more about what had happened, thereby filling in the details of what may have been on the first telling a sketchy and incomplete narrative.

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