The civil rights movement circulates through American memory in forms and through channels that are at once powerful, dangerous, and hotly contested. Civil rights memorials jostle with the South's ubiquitous monuments to its Confederate past. Exemplary scholarship and documentaries abound, and participants have produced wave after wave of autobiographical accounts, at least two hundred to date. Images of the movement appear and reappear each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and during Black History Month. Yet remembrance is always a form of forgetting, and the dominant narrative of the civil rights movement—distilled from history and memory, twisted by ideology and political contestation, and embedded in heritage tours, museums, public rituals, textbooks, and various artifacts of mass culture—distorts and suppresses as much as it reveals.1

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Centering on what Bayard Rustin in 1965 called the “classical” phase of the struggle, the dominant...

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