"I think in some ways what America is doing with its civil rights history is trying to invent a history that is soothing and politically acceptable, and that we can live with and go forward without actually changing anything."

Some tough love from author Timothy Tyson on Tuesday's State of Things on WUNC.

"We have a hard time coming to grips with the failure of the civil rights movement.

For example, when George Bush Sr. first ran for public office, his central issue was opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ronald Reagan, a renowned opponent, he cut his political teeth fighting against the civil rights movement. Jesse Helms really came to public attention a one-issue candidate in 1972, constantly attacking the civil rights movement. Trent Lott from Missisippi, really a candidate from the White Citizens' Council. These people ascended to national power. And the narrative that we've told is that the civil rights movement worked, when most of the things that Dr. King marched for didn't happen.

In fact, in Wilson, and in Oxford, and in Fayetteville, and all across eastern North Carolina, all of these communities had to win freedom and full citizenship for black people on their own. And it was very complicated.

We also like an interracial story about it, when in fact most white people were opposed to the civil rights movement, or were terrified by it. And the white people that you see marching with Martin Luther King on the bridge at Selma are from Wyoming and Minnesota; they're Socialists, they're Unitarian seminary students; they're vegetarians, and Quakers... they're not local people in Selma. White people who were in favor of the civil rights movement in Selma or in Wilmington were terrified to say so. And white people who did that often lost their jobs.

By the time that most white people came around to supporting some form of what the civil rights movement was after, America was already on fire. We tell ourselves a kind of happy story about it, because we'd like to pretend that we were better than we were."

Keep listening here.

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