Sunday, February 8, 2009

Considering The Long Civil Rights Movement and "Praying Away the Gay"

There is quite a bit to ponder from Joseph Crespino's excellent study In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution, which I recently finished reading. Crespino, an associate professor of history at Emory University, argues that Mississippi did not simply provide "massive resistance" against the civil rights movement, as we often believe. Instead, as he writes:

"...despite segregationist' popular pledges that they would never submit to racial integration, white leaders in the state initiated a subtle and strategic accomodation to the demands of civil rights activists and the federal government, one that helped preserve the priorities of white elits and that put Mississippians in a position to contribute to a broad conservative countermovement against the liberal triumphs of the 1960s" (4).

Crespino notes in his conclusion that there are several implications to this argument. One of the implications that stood out to me was how we should think about the time span of the civil rights movement. Just as it's easy for us to imagine Mississippi as being what he calls a "closed society" (one that was more racist that anywhere else in the U.S.), it's also easy to imagine that the struggle for civil rights ended in the 1960s, when segregationists in the South lost their fight against the Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board of Education. Yet Crespino makes a case for " 'the long civil rights movement,' " a term he quotes from fellow historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. In documenting Mississippi's racially charged "battles over access to schools, jobs, and political power" during the 1970s and 1980s, he argues that those battles "flowed directly out of civil rights battles of earlier decades" (276).

Crespino provides a good example of the long civil rights movement in his November 2007 article about President Ronald Reagan's infamous campaign visit to the Neshoba County fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The article responds to an argument between New York Times columnists David Brooks and Paul Krugman over the racial meaning of "states' rights," a term that Reagan used in the speech he gave at the fair. While Crespino criticizes Krugman for generally oversimplifying the role of racism in conservative politics, he also finds that Brooks' defense of Reagan is unwarranted. As he finds, "Reagan was content to let southern Republicans link him to segregationist politics in the South’s recent past." The reference to "states' rights" was a clear signal of support to Mississippi conservatives who had resented federal efforts to bring about school desegregation and biracial poverty programs in their state. To this constituency, the battle over political control of their state--and the civil rights that consequently remained at stake--was quite alive and well.

Admittedly, this is a very watered-down take on a complex argument, but Crespino's book and the above article are well worth reading.

--In her review of the Lifetime television movie Prayers for Bobby, Tanya Erzen (an assistant professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University) finds fault with the movie's good intentions:

"The film hews to the conventions of Lifetime, in which tragedy inevitably leads to personal growth. There are archetypal characters: the jock brother who makes gay jokes, the sinister psychiatrist, the judgmental minister from the Griffith’s church, and the sympathetic gay man with whom Bobby shares a drink at a dance club. It is a film designed to teach us a lesson about religious intolerance, but in doing so it reproduces the unspoken rules for rendering gay people sympathetic or likeable to a television audience: they were “born that way,” they never have sex, and, of course, they die tragically."

Erzen also writes that the "film’s response to the ex-gay argument that gay people can and should change is that sexuality is biological or genetic—a politics that grants full citizenship regardless of whether sexuality is immutable is illegible for the television genre." It's not all bad, as Erzen identifies the transformation of Bobby's mother, Mary (played by Sigourney Weaver), as "the most meaningful form of redemption in the film." But her critique is a timely one, and should force us to consider how seemingly positive representations of gay people can actually be stereotypical and deterministic. Erzen has written a book on the "ex-gay movement" within certain stains of conservative Christianity, and her 2006 interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio's Fresh Air is a good introduction to her work.

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