Where Is the Public Sociology in Public Social Movement History Sites? the Case of the Civil Rights Movement

By Foster, Johanna E. | Michigan Sociological Review, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Where Is the Public Sociology in Public Social Movement History Sites? the Case of the Civil Rights Movement


Foster, Johanna E., Michigan Sociological Review


On July 24, 2013, former congressman (Democrat; Maryland) and former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Kweisi Mfume, testified before the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys in its first hearing, convened in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman on charges related to the shooting death of young Trayvon Martin. Amidst the moving set of testimonies, I was struck by Mfume's position that among whatever else we might do to protect young black people from the tide of racial inequality and racialized violence, we must recognize that "we have not provided the explanations to young people about why their circumstance is so very different from what they see on [television] where there is such great energy and belief that everything is well when we know that everything is not well" (Johns et al. 2013). Here, Mfume was calling on adults to provide young people with the same kinds of analytical tools that many sociology instructors situated within the long-standing tradition of "public sociology" (Agger 2000) try to inspire in our students, namely a quality of mind that, as C.W. Mills so famously articulated, helps us understand the connections between our personal troubles and public issues and to use that knowledge outside of conventional academic settings to bring about progressive social change (Mills [1959] 2000).

It is in this spirit that over an eight-year span, reaching from Seneca Falls to Alcatraz to Stonewall and Chicano Park, my sociologist friend and I, along with my two elementary school-aged children, toured various public social movement history sites to educate ourselves about the long history of, and resistance to, systematic inequalities in U.S. history. Each trip taught us enormous lessons and deepened our gratitude for the sacrifices made by freedom fighters in our nation's past, though as a macrosociologist, I was admittedly surprised to find that on each journey, an explicit analysis of structural advantage and disadvantage was absent from the public narratives at most of the social movement history sites we explored, whether they were sites associated with the women's suffrage movement, the Chicano farm workers' movement, or the American Indian movement. While we toured nearly a third of the sites designated by the U.S. Park Service as National Historic Sites commemorating histories of civil rights struggles, in this article I specifically examine the public narratives that are presented to tourists as late as 2013 at African American civil rights movement history museums in nine cities in the South, including Greensboro, NC; Selma, AL; Montgomery, AL; Birmingham, AL; and Little Rock, AR. I discuss the patterned ways in which key sociological insights about white racism that have been a hallmark of the discipline since the classical theory of W. E. B. Du Bois (e.g., [1903] 1989) are often omitted from most of the public discourse at the museum sites, mostly notably the central sociological lesson that racism is not simply a once-horrific problem of interpersonal relations solved years ago but rather a social system of white privilege that is both interpersonal and institutional, as well as material, persistent though variable (Winant 2004), and kept in place today through the rise of "color-blind" ideologies that deploy seemingly race-neutral narratives of political liberalism to perpetuate racial advantage (Bonilla-Silva 2014). In particular, I describe what I consider to be the major dimensions, and the importance of, a sociological perspective on structural racism, followed by a discussion of the relative absence of such a perspective in civil rights history sites. I conclude with a call for those of us committed to "public sociology" to begin to imagine ways to better contribute to public discourse at social movement history museum sites about the nature, extent, and endurance of structural inequality in the United States.

TRAVELING THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

Over the course of two trips, one in 2013 and one in 2006, we traveled to seven civil rights history museum sites, four on the first round and three on the second. …

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