History Isn’t a Series of Stories

By Josh Spring


When we talk about history, we tend to discuss particular individuals, groups or campaigns that were covered in abundance by the press and that accomplished specific changes. Or we look at history as a series of highlighted stories through decades. These parts of history are very important and certainly can serve as inspiration for our work continuing. But not looking at the whole picture and instead seeing history as a limited number if inspirational stories can make systemic change seem unobtainable. Take for example the “Civil Rights Movement”. We learn about “Brown v. Board of Education”, “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott”, the “Little Rock Nine”, the “Lunch Counter Sit-Ins”, “Ruby Bridges”, “Freedom Riders”, “Marches, Dogs, Hoses and Bombs in Birmingham”, the “March on Washington”, “I Have a Dream”, the “Civil Rights Act”, the “March to Montgomery”, the “Poor Peoples’ Campaign” and the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I list each of these in quotations because the way history is taught and discussed, these actions have in many ways been made into products that sell books, movies and are used by corporations to fain care. For many they have become stories of the past you hear about, with larger than life characters who had some genius ideas, unfettered focus and through these this limited list of events, accomplished major changes.

What do most people think about this information? They feel uplifted and thankful. What does history told in this way lead most people to do? You might say to yourself, “Well, I can’t have that unfettered focus because I have to go to work, I have to feed my kids, I have to pay the rent” or “I have to find a home, I have to avoid harassment by the police, I have to deal with family issues, I have to play with my children…”. Or perhaps, “Well, I don’t have any genius ideas”, “I’m not good at giving speeches”, “I don’t know how to lead a march or organize a boycott.” So then we say, “I really wish we had a ‘Martin Luther King’ today, we really need a strong leader.”

But here’s the thing, history, systemic change and over-throw of systems don’t actually happen in a series of stories led by fearless, other-worldly strategic geniuses with nothing else going on in their lives. No, changing systems and creating and implementing new systems are accomplished by the hard work of many people, with different sets of strengths and limitations and with lots going on in their lives. The larger than life characters in these stories were not larger than life. They struggled, screwed up, got distracted at times, had other close people to care for, got confused and were not isolated islands spitting out perfect ideas and plans. These stories are not story-book at all. They all involve people going to long meetings, arguing about tactics, trying to agree on goals, planning actions and then having to reschedule them, implementing plans that work and plans that don’t. People didn’t one day just decide to make some major move that would have long-lasting impact. People planned, evaluated, fed their kids, attended marches, went to school, gave speeches, cleaned their dishes, cried, looked for employment, clapped, struggled to pay the rent, felt scared but supported each other, read, led, followed and everything else humans have to do both to live and force change. The gathering of people created support systems that allowed this to be possible.

We learn about all of these stories that from the tell of it seemed to achieve major accomplishments through a limited number of wonderful actions. We don’t learn about all of the many, many more other actions, both successful and unsuccessful. We don’t learn about the many boycotts in small towns, the neighborhood marches to stop displacement, the workers gathering to demand fair wages, the many lawsuits to challenge inhumane municipal laws, the disruption of discriminatory meetings, the rallies against red-lining, the establishment of neighborhood-serving organizations, the sit-ins at public offices, etc. We don’t learn about the hours, days, months and years of knocking on doors, street-corner conversations, hanging flyers, making phone calls, cooking meals for gatherings, documenting evidence, honing statements and crafting demands.

People and organizations behind current inhumane systems want us to think that movements are the result of one or a few special people. In fact, they, themselves, want to believe that too, because, for them the reality that movement and the topple of injustice is led by small groups of regular people who build into larger and larger groups of regular people,

is much scarier. We have the power.

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