Texas Tech University

Texas Tech Civil Rights Expert Available During Black History Month

Glenys Young

February 18, 2016

Matthew Johnson specializes in social movements with research exploring the institutional implementation of the civil rights movement.


More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, and more than 50 years since the civil rights movement, civil rights are still not a given for African-Americans in the United States.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s sought to end the racial segregation and discrimination against African-Americans that persisted since the Civil War. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination based on race, among other factors, and ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, workplaces and public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 restored and protected voting rights, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.

It seemed a step forward when Black History Month was recognized by the United States government in 1976 as part of the U.S. Bicentennial. But to this day, debates continue about the usefulness and fairness of designating a month to the history of one race. Critics argue Black History Month facilitates a lack of integration of black history into mainstream education during the rest of the year and oversimplifies complex historical figures into objects of hero worship.

Matthew Johnson, an assistant professor in the Texas Tech University Department of History, specializes in social movements with research exploring the institutional implementation of the civil rights movement. He teaches courses on the history of dissent, mass incarceration and human rights. He previously served as the James Farmer Postdoctoral Fellow in Civil Rights and Social Justice at the University of Mary Washington.


Matthew Johnson, assistant professor, matthew.j.johnson@ttu.edu

Talking points

  • Martin Luther King's memory has been distorted to make him more palatable to a broad audience.
  • We need a better understanding of the civil rights movement if we want it to speak to our time.
  • Incarceration is an issue that makes it difficult to tell a story about great progress since the 1960s.
  • Mass incarceration has weakened the legacy of the civil rights movement.


  • “This is often a month when historians try to reclaim Martin Luther King Jr. from popular memory. Rather than viewing him as a leader stuck in his 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom speech where he famously outlined his dream for a world where his children would ‘not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,' we try to remind Americans that he was also a supporter of affirmative action, a spokesperson for economic justice, an outspoken critic of American imperialism and police brutality. But it says something about the state of American politics, given that King was one of the most moderate of all civil rights movement leaders, that we've had to forget most of his ideals in order to accept him as a national icon.”
  • “We are on the cusp of a newly emerging civil rights movement that challenges incarceration and police brutality, economic inequality and racial disparities in higher education. All of these issues were core parts of the civil rights movement that we celebrate every February. And yet, every February our popular celebration seems to leave out all of the ways the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s speaks to our time.”
  • “In 1970, 300,000 people were incarcerated in the United States. Almost 50 years later, about 2 million people are now behind bars and about 7 million are under some form of correctional control. And racial disparities in the prison population have only increased since 1970. African-Americans face incarceration rates that are nearly six times the rate of whites. The number of African-Americans in prison is so significant that they represent about 9 percent of the world's prison population.”
  • “Mass incarceration undermines goals for economic justice, it turns schools into prison pipelines and greatly harms race relations in the United States. African-Americans have suffered the most from mass incarceration and any contemporary civil rights movement has to place criminal justice reform at the center of its agenda. That's what we're seeing in the Black Lives Matter movement and will likely continue to see in the future.”

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