Remembering Racial Progress, Forgetting White Resistance

Senator_John_C_Stennis_in_unidentified_location

A young Senator Stennis. John C. Stennis Collection. Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.

My article on John Stennis, colorblindness, and American memory of the civil rights movement is out in the latest edition of History & Memory.* A taste:

On October 19, 1987, Stennis announced that he would retire at the end of his term. The Wall Street Journal summed up his career as a feel-good story of racial progress. “He succeeded white supremacist Theodore Bilbo,” the Journal declared, “and lived to vote for a holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.” As a narrative arc to make sense of the nation’s progress and the career of one of its longest-serving senators, this was extremely compelling. It was also flatly false. In fact, Stennis announced his retirement four years to the day after being one of only four democratic senators to vote against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on October 19, 1983. Had they wished, journalists and pundits might have noted this irony and constructed a rather different narrative arc for Stennis’s career. Instead, the legislative record itself became a casualty of the need to rehabilitate a figure who did not fit within the familiar media frames of American civil rights memory.


*If you don’t have access through your library or school I’d be happy to send you a pdf.

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