Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Bounds of Thinkable Thought and What Lies Within

The popular memory of the civil rights movement is essentially a memory construct—an artificial memory created by popular culture through received media. What people see and hear in relation to the words “civil rights movement” and the connotations those words take on essentially form what I will refer to as a feasible conceptual region. This feasible conceptual region is comprised of all participants, times, places, ideas, and feelings that could feasibly be associated with the idea of the civil rights movement. The boundaries that divide what is included and excluded in this region are drawn by popular culture—the books, TV shows, movies, music and so on that deal with the civil rights movement. This also generally includes what one learned in middle and high school social studies classes. Thus when someone evokes the civil rights movement in conversation, for example, the various media we have received relating to the movement determine the thoughts and images that come to mind, simultaneously shaping and reinforcing the bounds of conception. Popular culture determines not only what is included in this region, but also what is excluded. An example is black liberation. Because received culture does not present black liberation theology in connection with the popularized memory of civil rights movement, it ceases to lie within the movement’s feasible conceptual region and thus remains separated from the movement in popular conception.

The media has essentially taken control of popular memory in the case of the civil rights movement and has been manipulating that memory to include and exclude certain conceptions and ideas since it was first being given national attention. On a basic level, mass media in a capitalist society is continually striving towards two objectives: it is trying first to maximize consumers and thus profits, and second to maintain the capitalist system that supports it. These objectives factor heavily in how both current and past events are portrayed in any mass media outlet and ideological generalization seems to be one of the most used tactics in achieving them. In an article entitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten: Media Culture and the Public Memory of the civil rights movement,” Edward Morgan writes,

With a function of entertaining rather than educating… the mass media simplifies the past in a way that is inherently ideological, even though it seeks impartial balance between competing viewpoints, typically presented as two sides of a conflict.”(1)

He goes on to state that, “While there is no media conspiracy to silence radical critiques of the American system, the media regularly reduces radical ideas to barely credible conspiracy theories,”(2) partially explaining why civil rights memory is focused almost exclusively in the South. The reason the media does this is because more radical critiques do not fit very neatly into the simple and personal ideological struggles with which people tend to identify and that the media is therefore trying to portray. These critiques also posed a threat to the institutional structures which maintained the various media outlets’ continued existences, and thus their presence was to be minimized. The result is their exclusion from popular consciousness and, as a result, collective memory of the civil rights movement.

(1) Morgan, Edward. “The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten: Media Culture and the Public Memory of the Civil Rights Movement” in The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory, ed. Renee Romano and Leigh Raiford (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 139.
(2) Ibid.


  1. I agree that the Civil Rights movement seems have some images specially created by the media. There were certain images, positive or negative, which always seem to crop up in textbooks. I think this is one of the problems with the domination of the major narrative of the Civil Rights movement. When the same images are used over and over, certain stories will begin to dominate and become the only part of history we remember.

  2. I second Margaux. Were these particular pictures (MLK giving "I Have a Dream", I AM A MAN, KKK) not as prevalent, we may see that schools would teach a more in depth view of the movement. There would be the three or four main points that everyone learns, teachers would have to actually pick pieces of the movement; hopefully these pieces would vary from school to school and our society would be more knowledgeable about this movement.