‘Reclaiming the Legacies of the Civil Rights Movement’ book event recap
On Thursday, October 5, 2023, USC Equity Research Institute (ERI) and USC Office of Religious and Spiritual Life co-hosted a book talk celebrating Professor Hajar Yazdiha’s recent publication of The Struggle for the People’s King: How Politics Transforms the Memory of the Civil Rights Movement. Dean of Religious Life Dr. Varun Soni moderated the discussion between panelists Dr. Walter J. Nicholls, UCI Professor of Urban Planning, and Dr. Marcus Anthony Hunter, UCLA Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, to dive into intersectional themes and insights of the book related to multicultural democracy, identity, and the remaking of collective memory.
ERI Associate Director and USC Professor Dr. Jody Agius Vallejo kicked off the event with an introduction of ERI and the panelists, land acknowledgement, and co-sponsors USC Department of Sociology and the Levan Institute of Humanities before turning it over to Dr. Soni to start with an overview of the book.
Book origins and key takeaways | Professor Yazdiha
Dr. Soni began the discussion by asking Professor Yazdiha to share why she wrote the book and her learnings. Yazdiha shared that the changing landscape in the post-Obama years during her graduate years led her to investigate reactionary right-wing politics, its rise to the Supreme Court and pertinence in mainstream life, as well as its distorted utilization of Dr. King’s words to justify their agenda to roll back voting rights, claim affirmative action as a form of reverse racism, and more. Combing through 40 years of data and thousands of documents from 1980-2020, Yazdiha sought to trace the evolution of how Dr. King’s words are currently used to fight against what he fought for.
Yazdiha shared three takeaways of the book to lead the discussion: (1) intentional strategy of misusing the past and convenient posturing by political strategists; (2) severe consequences for multicultural democracy with misuses of memory on who counts as an American; and (3) wealth of learning opportunities in the civil rights movement and the legacies of the Black freedom struggle to light the way for us.
Curricular Revisions and Black History | Professor Hunter
Next, in referencing Professor Hunter’s Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, Dr. Soni invited Professor Hunter to touch on book bannings and curricular revisionism related to recent events and themes of the book. Hunter’s favorite aspect of the book was its theme of time and memory as currency—with recognition of currency beyond common forms of money—due to the explicit and implicit demonstration of the power that Black memory holds. He expanded that although this power is deep and widely-used to advance action, it is barred from being taught, learned, and used.
“We, as Black people, are constantly told through a steady diet of information and misinformation that our history is vacant.” – Professor Hunter
He described political Blackness and the tokenization of the identity that Malcolm X helped actualize among people to lean into an American identity and place themselves adjacent to Blackness. With the memory of Black history and its ability to move the needle in America, Hunter hoped that the book would encourage Black people to reclaim and use that power.
Political empowerment and identity | Professor Nicholls
Bringing in intersectional themes of memory and storytelling in immigration, Dr. Soni then asked Professor Nicholls to discuss the construction of identity that stigmatized groups undergo to legitimize representation. Introducing his research focused on undocumented immigration, Nicholls stated that it is necessary for stigmatized groups to construct political representation to achieve voice in the political sphere. Nicholls pointed to the idea of assimilation, central to Dr. King’s message in “American Dream” and the undocumented immigrant youth movement’s DREAMers, in generating legitimacy for inclusion for groups that have been othered. Through this necessary process of constructing representation and reconstructing identity, these groups employ language, images, representations, and performances that resonate with dominant cultural norms—raising the issue that this necessity is contradictory for inclusion due to its effect of changing, rather than transforming, the boundaries of citizenship.
By constructing representation that aligns with dominant norms to pursue inclusion, groups will have an elevated platform in the political sphere that is systematically placed in a hierarchy of representation that ultimately reinforces and reproduces the exclusionary and dominant norms of citizenships against other stigmatized groups. Calling to the kingmakers and gatekeepers mentioned in Yazdiha’s book, Nicholls described the hierarchy in the representational process of producing voice, representation, and identity, in which those constructing those representations are often those with cultural, financial, and political resources within movements of the most marginalized people. Ultimately, he said, achieving political empowerment means alienating yourself from the means of representation.
Narratives as racial wedges | Professor Yazdiha
In sharing his own experiences of benefiting from civil rights movements and effectively participating in historical retelling, Dr. Soni brought up the weaponization of narratives used against Black and Latinx communities that Professor Yazdiha wrote in her Los Angeles Times Op-Ed. He asked Yazdiha to talk about the tension of being the beneficiaries of something and in some ways exploiting it. Yazdiha explained that the model minority trope is used as harmful talking points for meritocracy and the American Dream because of the history of U.S. migration in making claims to and approximating whiteness. Anti-Blackness is so deeply embedded in society that non-white immigrants making their way often do reproduce and recreate anti-Blackness, despite not having ill will, as history does not allow them to be separate from white supremacy. In describing the depth of solidarity politics to bridge solidarity across race and class, Yazdiha said there must be a true and honest commitment to seeing each other’s humanity while confronting immigrant communities’ anti-Blackness and understanding complicity in racialized systems in the process of historical reckoning.
State of movements | Professor Hunter
In explaining how Professor Hunter coined Black Lives Matter, Dr. Soni asked his thoughts about the connection with the civil rights movement in memory and storytelling to BLM. On racial reckoning, Hunter said that it is some form of progress to even talk about it. Despite the civil rights period often being lauded as a defining moment in American history and many of its figures are still alive today, Hunter describes that the key difference now is there is no mass demonstration aligned with progressive legislation for Black Liberation at all because it must be demonstrated on the steps of the White House. Recalling his own organizing experiences, Hunter stated that movements are not connected in the way we think we are because of the lack of presence and awareness. Hunter ended by saying that this prolonged period of reflection must be realized into collective action in order to hold electeds accountable on their equity promises.
Incubating activism | Professor Nicholls
Dr. Soni guided the discussion to Professor Nicholls’ research on lived environments of cities and its intersection with storytelling and historical reimagination in incubating activism at scale. Nicholls affirmed that intersection by explaining the materiality of oppression and resistance, and linking that to people’s ability to resist within the conditions of places that support the most marginalized. With cities providing vital resources and aid for marginalized groups, these places also give rise to Nancy Fraser’s, New School Professor of Philosophy and Politics, idea of the “counterpublic”—spaces for storytelling and dialogue in which people connect in and make sense of their oppression. It is at this scale of local spaces that the conception of oppression seeds to give understanding to issues brought by systemic design, while also building an identity to act and mobilize as a collective. These multiscalar strategies of starting locally and building through state and national networks to get to the federal government, Nicholls critiqued, is what the left is lacking due to its centralized focus on legislation at the federal level. This is trending at the left across its various movements, leaving counties and cities open to the right, who have built their capacity and created absolute lines down to the level of school districts, and solidified their hold upward. In the end, Nicholls stated, the city still matters.
Book Reflections | Professor Yazdiha
As the book celebration came to a close for Q&A, Dr. Soni invited Professor Yazdiha to share some final reflections. Yazdiha revealed that she always wanted to write a book, as books were a space to escape from a world that made her feel like an outsider. She saw this process as an escape, but it was precisely through writing that she realized the multipurpose of words that serve to awaken, confront, and reimagine. As multicultural democracy must be fought for and preserved, she reframed how words can be a place to envision and speculate about futures as a space of liberation to imagine what could be. Professor Yazdiha closed the panel by imparting one of her favorite quotes empowering imaginations from Dr. King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech:
“Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world.”