Restoring Justice to Civil Rights Movement Activists?: New Historiography and the “Long Civil Rights Era”

Document Type


Publication Date



This paper seeks to engage ongoing discussions and conceptualizations about the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project and its meanings, boundaries, and goals. It tells two different but overlapping stories of the civil rights era and argues that the dominant abbreviated story of the movement, focusing on the ten-year period centered on the King-led nonviolent movement in the South, should be rejected as a framework for the Project. This ten-year story truncates, decontextualizes, and tames the movement while rendering it legalistic, episodic, triumphant and nostalgic. The effect is that it obscures the movement's relevance to today's circumstances; it distorts the nature, objectives and activities of the masses of ordinary black people who fought its battles, including their broad egalitarian democratic agenda; and it allows forces hostile to the movement's objectives to easily appropriate and misappropriate its ideas. As such it undermines the goals of the Project, justice for civil rights activists. Based on new historiography, this paper advocates for an understanding of the civil rights period as constituting what Nikhil Pal Singh calls the long civil rights era, and part of what scholars such as Manning Marable and Clayborne Carson call the black freedom struggle. New historiography is beginning to expose the limitations of the truncated civil rights story and to provide a fuller picture of the era. For instance, it suggests that the civil rights era begins in the 1930s, is transformed in the 1950s, and again in the mid-1960s and ends but remains unfinished sometime around the early eighties with its broad egalitarian democratic agenda largely unmet.


Univ. at Buffalo Sch. of Law, Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 2008-12