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date: 23 January 2021

Southern Literature and the Civil Rights Erafree

  • Julie Buckner ArmstrongJulie Buckner ArmstrongDepartment of English, University of South Florida


Southern literature provides numerous, diverse responses to the civil rights era. Produced during the movement itself and continuing into the 21st century, southern civil rights writing appears as poetry, drama, memoir, graphic narrative, short stories, and novels, including literary fiction and bestsellers. Movement-related works commemorate events, places, and people both famous and unknown. Authors speak of political awakening to systemic racism and violence. They consider the effectiveness of organizing tactics and the ethical implications of resistance strategies. They write compellingly about the ways segregation, protest, race relations, and sweeping social changes affect individuals and their relationships. Southern literature also exists in complex relationship to the civil rights era due in part to both terms’ fluid, evolving definitions. “Southern literature” can refer to works written in and about the American South, yet both of these categories remain more dynamic than static. The South is demarcated geographically as the United States’ southeastern and south central tier and historically as a region with ties to the former Confederacy. The South’s vexed legacy of slavery and segregation plays a role in defining a regional identity that some consider to be distinctive in terms of dialect, food culture, and an emphasis on conservative views of family, community, religion, place, and history. Many scholars, however, see constructions of a distinct southern identity with an accompanying literature as outmoded, particularly in an era of shifting demographics within the US and globalization more broadly. Like “southern literature,” the “civil rights era” resists rigid definition. The movement itself can refer to the period from the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision desegregating public schools to the 1965 Voting Rights Act—an era focused on specific civil rights leadership, goals, and, notably, the American South. Alternatively, one can define the movement more comprehensively to look at what happened before and after “the King years,” referring to the period’s iconic figure Martin Luther King Jr. This version of civil rights extends the movement to points North and West, includes Black Power (typically focused on the late 1960s and early 1970s), and links it to contemporaneous human rights and post-colonial struggles. Authors from the American South respond to this broader story by connecting the movement to issues such as immigration; policing and incarceration; economic and environmental justice; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights. Here writers depict a dynamic, multifaceted South that continues striving to transform political ideals into realities.

Southern literature provides numerous, diverse responses to the civil rights era. Produced during the movement itself and continuing into the present day, southern civil rights writing appears as poetry, drama, memoir, graphic narrative, short stories, and novels, including literary fiction and bestsellers. Movement-related works commemorate events, places, and people both famous and unknown. Authors speak of political awakening to systemic racism and violence. They consider the effectiveness of organizing tactics and the ethical implications of resistance strategies. They write compellingly about the ways segregation, protest, race relations, and sweeping social changes affect individuals and their relationships. Southern literature also exists in complex relationship to the civil rights era, due in part to both terms’ fluid, evolving definitions.

“Southern literature” can refer to works written in and about the American South, yet both of these categories remain more dynamic than static. The South is demarcated geographically as the United States’ southeastern and south central tier and historically as a region with ties to the former Confederacy. The South’s vexed legacy of slavery and segregation plays a role in defining a regional identity that many consider to be distinctive in terms of dialect, food culture, and an emphasis on conservative views of family, community, religion, place, and history. Many scholars see this version of the South rooted more in constructions of national identity than southern idiosyncrasy. Houston A. Baker Jr. and Dana D. Nelson argue that “the South” is merely “the U.S. social, political, racial, economic, ethical, and everyday-life” writ small—and that even such notions as “southern literature” are outmoded.1 Writing in The Nation’s Region, Leigh Anne Duck shows how the concept of a racist, “backward South” within a “modern or ‘enlightened’ nation” came to dominate in the 20th century’s first half, explaining that this concept “disavowed both the contemporaneity of the South with the larger nation and the presence of apartheid in other areas of the country.”2 Certainly many prominent thinkers during the time perceived the South very differently. H. L. Mencken’s 1917 essay “The Sahara of the Bozart” defined the region as a cultural wasteland that got more depraved the deeper into the South one traveled. Gunnar Myrdal’s study of US race relations, The American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), cast the “problem” as primarily southern. Much recent scholarship has broken down binary divisions between “region” and “nation,” looking in particular at the South within what Katherine McKee and Annette Trefzer call “an intellectual and practical Global South, a term that embeds the U.S. South in a larger transnational framework.”3 Such a perspective is especially useful for examining the literatures of slavery, segregation, and civil rights—issues that were not confined to region but were national and global in scope.

Yet conceptions of a South with a distinct history and literature often emerged most forcefully from within. During the 1920s and 1930s, authors of the “Southern Renaissance,” such as William Faulkner, saw themselves writing from a unique heritage rooted in the Civil War (1861–1865) and the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause.”4 Instead of a “problem South,” romanticized versions of the region appeared in both popular and critical literature. Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel Gone With the Wind (1936), adapted into an Academy Award–winning film in 1939, justified war to protect a way of life rooted in the land and chattel slavery as a system that benefited slaves as much as it did their masters, who claimed to see them as family. Writing collectively as “Twelve Southerners,” a group that included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren penned a defense of plantation society called I’ll Take My Stand: The South and The Agrarian Tradition (1930), which positioned the region as a bulwark against modern social change. The book takes its title from the popular song “Dixie,” or “Dixie’s Land,” (“In Dixie land / I’ll take my stand”), a nickname for the American South as well as a controversial symbol, like the Confederate flag, linked to racial oppression and the civil rights–era backlash.5

As the Twelve Southerners, or “Agrarians,” took their stand, however, the cohesive “South” they imagined grew increasingly elusive. Other authors who emerged during the Renaissance—such as Langston Hughes and Erskine Caldwell—and those who began writing in the generation after—such as Richard Wright, Lillian Smith, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty—used their work to expose structures of oppression and privilege or to grapple with their region’s tangled race relations. Hughes’s 1927 “Song for a Dark Girl” reworks lines from “Dixie” into anti-lynching protest. In “Way Down South in Dixie,” the poem’s speaker does not take a stand for southern heritage but mourns a lover hanged “from a crossroads tree.”6 Like Hughes, Wright left the rural South to live in the urban North and abroad. But both writers’ early experience continued to figure largely in their work. Wright was especially instrumental in developing what Brian Norman and Piper Kendrix Williams call the “segregation narrative,” which developed a set of aesthetic strategies for representing without reinscribing Jim Crow.7 This system of southern laws and unwritten codes to control the behavior of African Americans developed shortly after the Civil War’s end and took its nickname from a popular racist caricature of the time. Jim Crow would find its formal legal sanction in the US Supreme Court’s 1892 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that institutionalized “separate but equal” racial segregation.8 Norman and Williams explain that in works such as the collection Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and the memoir Black Boy (1945), Wright attempts to “get at the truth of the experiences of race segregation, but also to tell us something about how and why race segregation works, often with the hopes of influencing a change of heart or mind.”9 The civil rights era would focus on making that change a reality, through formal channels such as the Supreme Court’s reversal of Plessy in its 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling to desegregate public schools. Even an old guard Agrarian such as Warren showed that the regional façade had shifts and cracks in unexpected places. His nonfiction works Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956) and Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965)—the latter a collection of interviews with activists—supported civil rights.

Like “southern literature,” the “civil rights era” resists rigid definition. Some historians mark the period chronologically from 1954’s Brown to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Focusing on this decade casts the movement around iconic heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr., the quest for specific goals such as integration and voting, and organizing activities that took place in locations across the South. As Renee C. Romano and Leigh Raiford explain in The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory, this “consensus memory,” although dominant in popular culture, remains controversial—primarily on the basis of what it leaves out, such as stories of grassroots organizing, economic justice, self-defense, radicalism, and connections to other movements nationally and internationally.10 Conversely, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall defines a more comprehensive, “long civil rights movement” that examines what happened before and after the “King years.”11 This version of civil rights situates the movement within a context that includes earlier progressive movements and labor struggles. Historians such as Peniel Joseph likewise extend the civil rights era forward in time to include the late 1960s and early 1970s Black Power movement, to consider organizing and protest outside the South—in points North and West—and to draw connections to global human rights and post-colonial struggles.12 Different histories do more than raise questions of when. Underlying each is a consideration of the implications behind a particular narrative under construction. As Raiford and Romano ask, “What kind of civil rights movement is produced through this consensus memory and what vision of the present does it help to legitimate, valorize, or condemn?”13

The consensus memory speaks in particular to contemporary understanding of southern literature and the civil rights era. The dominant narrative identifies a “problem South” that the movement “solved.” A recent challenge to this story identifies a “New Jim Crow.” Although many Americans consider the period after 1965 a “post-civil rights” or even a “post-racial” era, Michelle Alexander argues, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”14 A system of disenfranchisement and discrimination affects communities of color in particular, through the war on drugs’ disproportionate sentencing frameworks that target African American and Hispanic men for increased scrutiny and incarceration. Southern literature also responds to this new conception of civil rights. Late 20th- and early 21st-century writers especially depict a heterogeneous South striving to transform American ideals into realities. Authors such as Howard Cruse, Anthony Grooms, Kiese Laymon, Natasha Trethewey, and Jesmyn Ward connect civil rights past and present by addressing policing and incarceration; immigration and access to voting; economic and environmental justice; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights. To map this shifting terrain of the New Jim Crow, Brian Norman describes the “neo-segregation narrative,” different from its ancestor, which challenges ideas of a post-racial society. Neo-segregation narratives “offer a new national narrative of a Jim Crow who remains relevant, not locked in an imagined past.”15 Neo-segregation narratives are not limited to the American South; they also resist ideas of the “problem” South within an “enlightened” nation. For instance, Ward’s lyrical, yet often painful, depictions of life in rural Mississippi—in her memoir Men We Reaped (2014), and her novels Salvage the Bones (2012) and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017)—take readers through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the loss of black lives to violence, and the impact of drug abuse on families. Her stories speak to readers because they are firmly rooted in individual experience of place: local yet national and global in scope. They stand as powerful reminders of the myriad ways in which the civil rights era remains tangible, alive.

Introducing Major Themes

Comparing two works helps to illustrate the complicated, shifting dynamics between southern literature and the civil rights era and to introduce some of the major themes that emerge from this dynamic. Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) provides a longstanding, yet controversial, approach to teaching about the Jim Crow South. Adapted by playwright Horton Foote into a widely popular 1962 film starring Gregory Peck, the book depicts its white narrator Jean Louise “Scout” Finch’s coming of age in the fictional, yet quintessential, small southern town of Maycomb during the Great Depression. Scout’s development centers on her growing awareness of, and compassion for, the differences between herself and other people—including her poor schoolmate Walter Cunningham, her mentally ill neighbor Arthur “Boo” Radley, and an African American man named Tom Robinson, whom her attorney father Atticus unsuccessfully defends in court against a white woman’s false rape charge. Published during the peak years of southern movement activity, when many white writers struggled with transformations taking place in the region, To Kill a Mockingbird posits segregation as a “problem” to be solved by white realization and redemption, not black agency. Scout watches Robinson’s trial with the family’s maid, Calpurnia, from the segregated, “colored” balcony and later thwarts a mob that attempts to lynch him. Calpurnia and other local African Americans do not organize or agitate for justice themselves but instead look to Atticus as their advocate and hero. In both instances, Scout and Atticus embody a common literary trope known as the “white savior.” Such a vision parallels the book’s message, as Atticus tells Scout, to see the world from another person’s point of view. When the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird garnered three Academy Awards in 1963, including Best Actor for Peck and Best Adapted Screenplay for Foote, a very different civil rights message was coming into focus. Among that year’s many pivotal events were the Birmingham Campaign’s violent clashes and the March on Washington’s galvanizing energy.

Lila Quintero Weaver’s graphic narrative Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White (2012) is set in Marion, Alabama, just ninety miles from Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, the model for Maycomb. Darkroom also focuses on a girl’s coming of age and growing awareness of racial injustice, but from the perspective of someone outside the black–white binary associated with the historical South. Weaver’s parents immigrated to Marion from Buenos Aires, Argentina. As native Spanish-speaking Latinos, they neither fit into the Jim Crow South’s strict racial hierarchies nor follow its behavioral codes. Lila’s father Nestor gets in trouble as a young seminarian for inviting an African American choir to a white church. In high school, Lila herself is reprimanded for befriending a black cadet at the local military school. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Darkroom draws much of its emotional impact from the South’s violent racial history. The book depicts a lynching and references incidents such as the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A pivotal scene focuses on Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Marion civil rights activist beaten and shot by white state troopers in February 1965. Jackson’s death galvanized support for the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches that took place a few weeks later and ultimately led to the Voting Rights Act. Weaver does not participate in these events, as she is a child when they unfold, but she is not exempt from a racial education. She clearly delineates how her society operates to reinforce segregation: from celebratory stories about slavery and the Ku Klux Klan in her elementary school history book, Know Alabama, to her observations of segregation signs and racist bullying. As in Lee’s book, shifting perspective is an important component of Darkroom. After Weaver trades in her eyeglasses for contact lenses, her vision shifts literally and metaphorically, and she begins to “see” people in new ways, especially her African American classmates. Unlike Scout, new vision prompts Weaver to question and rebel against racial structures. By extension, Darkroom casts civil rights progress as something different from a change in white feeling. Highlighting the ways that everyday people lived their daily lives amidst a shifting social terrain, the book shows how the movement transformed a range of individual hearts, minds, and laws.

Political Awakening

As To Kill a Mockingbird and Darkroom suggest, a predominant theme in southern civil rights literature involves political awakening. Fiction and memoir especially address the loss of childhood innocence or the transition into adulthood amid segregation and rising protests against it. The long list of works includes Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and Black Boy (1945), Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream (1949), John O. Killens’s Youngblood (1954) and ‘Sippi (1967), Elise Sanguinetti’s The Last of the Whitfields (1962), Ann Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968), Angela Davis’s Autobiography (1974), Alice Walker’s Meridian (1976), Ellen Douglas’s Can’t Quit You Baby (1988), Marita Golden’s And Do Remember Me (1992), Connie May Fowler’s Sugar Cage (1992), Nanci Kincaid’s Crossing Blood (1992), Mark Childress’s Crazy in Alabama (1993), Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby (1995), Elizabeth Nunez’s Beyond the Limbo Silence (1998), Anthony Grooms’s Bombingham (2001), Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees (2002), Sena Jeter Naslund’s Four Spirits (2003), and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (2009, adapted into a 2011 film). Not all books treat coming of age in the same way, however. Some white writers employ a convention similar to that of white savior: the black best friend. Others rely on a story known as the “white conversion narrative.” Black writers, and occasionally whites as well, confront loss of innocence through traumatic violence—stories that are particularly horrifying when the victims are children.

White political awakening appears most often through tropes of conversion and the black best friend. Fred Hobson describes the former in But Now I See: The White Southern Racial Conversion Narrative. Like Puritan religious conversion narratives, this story focuses on guilt, sin, confession, and redemption, but here the sin explicitly centers on race. A prime example, Hobson explains, can be found in Killers of the Dream. Smith’s status as outsider, as female and lesbian, to the southern heteronormative patriarchal order allowed her to “see” what many others could not: how she and others had been brought up within an oppressive system that had been constructed and, therefore, could be dismantled.16 Smith’s memoir outlines her growing insight, which begins in her childhood, when her family welcomes another girl, who they believe is white, to live with them until they learn that the girl is “colored.” In stories different from what Smith recounts, the “black best friend” plot appears most frequently in authors who write about the civil rights movement as historical memory. Here the “friend” is often an employee, as in Sugar Cage, Crossing Blood and The Help, who midwifes the white character’s growing racial awareness. On the surface, The Help’s Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan appears to give local maids in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, a vehicle for speaking out. Skeeter gains their trust by writing down their stories to sell as a book to a New York publisher. However, she is the one whose eyes get opened to exploitation and violence—and who, in the end, gets a job with the publisher and moves away, leaving the women behind. Monteith maps this trend of white writers using black characters in service to political awakening, calling it “disturbing.” The plot does not occur in black-authored works, she explains: “There is no comparable paradigm in which black characters created by black writers achieve a politicized sense of self and become aware of the nexus of race and power as the result of a single intimate engagement with a white counterpart.”17 The black best friend plot suggests a version of civil rights like that of To Kill a Mockingbird, where the white character experiences a change of heart, but not necessarily a desire to change the best friend’s status from “help” to social equal. For a writer such as Smith, however, the goal is to dismantle such hierarchies of race, class, and gender.

Some of the most poignant and visceral wake-up calls involve characters facing or learning about acts of violence. In Wright’s story “Big Boy Leaves Home,” from Uncle Tom’s Children, the protagonist Big Boy watches his friend’s lynching while in hiding and barely escapes the same fate. Such a harrowing tale provides an affirmative answer to a question that Wright poses in his memoir Black Boy—whether words could function as effective weapons in the fight for justice. Many contemporary writers—including Elizabeth Nunez, Anthony Grooms, and Sena Jeter Naslund—continue to address this issue via violence against child and young adult victims, in particular the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi during 1964’s Freedom Summer (Nunez), and the four girls killed in the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama (Grooms and Naslund). Perhaps the most famous case was the 1955 murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi. His brutal death, the subsequent acquittal of two white men charged for his murder, and their later confession in an infamous Look magazine article galvanized civil rights and black power movement activists alike. Christopher Metress’s The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative (2002) gathers selections from journalism, memoir, poetry, and fiction to show the extent to which the case registered far beyond its place and time. In an edited volume with Harriet Pollack, Metress catalogs over 150 literary representations of Till’s death, including Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, James Baldwin’s play Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964), Bebe Moore Campbell’s novel Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine (1992), Louis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle (1993), and Marilyn Nelson’s cycle of poems A Wreath for Emmett Till (2009). In each case, child and young adult victims function as traumatic events that symbolize the rupture between national ideals and realities that the movement strove to rectify and has yet to be fully healed.

Segregation, White Supremacy, and Privilege

While some writers focus on the most visible and egregious forms of racism, others expose the underlying and interlocking structures of oppression. As with To Kill a Mockingbird and Darkroom, differences arise in ways that literary responses address segregation as a factor in southern life. For Lee, lower-class outliers such as Bob Ewell (whose daughter Mayella falsely accused Tom Robinson of rape) are responsible for racism. For Weaver, segregation is systemic, with no one immune. Indeed, sickness is a metaphor frequently used to describe that system, as authors outline symptoms and search for cures. In Killers of the Dream, Smith casts segregation as a social “illness” that allows some people to have power over others because of their race, gender, class, and other forms of privilege. Likewise, Moody, in Coming of Age in Mississippi, wonders about her chances against the white “disease.” In Moody’s memoir, one learns quite a bit about specific movement-related events, people, and places, but her title indicates that she wants readers to focus on her “coming of age,” her awakening into illness of the racist, sexist southern way of life. Moody vividly describes the toll that fighting against that system exacts on her own health and on the lives of people such as Emmett Till and Medgar Evers—demonstrating that the fight to defeat that system will be long and difficult, because it has stood firmly in place for a very long time. For Howard Cruse in the graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, the metaphor is not sickness but explosions. Both hotels and heads blow up as Cruse breaks down the connection between violent words and violent actions. His protagonist Toland Polk experiences and witnesses microaggressions in his daily life, from characters who pepper their speech with racial slurs to those who assume that everyone around them, even Toland, is heterosexual. These daily acts provide the roots from which larger acts grow, such as the bombing of the Melody Motel, a locus of civil rights activity, and the murder of Sammy Noone, Toland’s out, and outspoken, friend. Like Smith and Moody, Cruse bases his work on his own experience—in this case growing up as a gay man in civil rights–era Birmingham—to show how different fights for civil rights intersect.

Some of the most frightening works to explore oppression’s violent underbelly are those that speak from or about a white supremacist’s point of view. Eudora Welty published “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” shortly after Medgar Evers’s 1963 assassination. While she did not know the murderer (Byron de la Beckwith, convicted in 1994), she eerily captures the mindset of someone who felt empowered enough by the time period’s racist rhetoric to shoot an unarmed man in the back and then sing happily to himself, as if he had done a good deed. Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man” captures the generational, and sexual, nature of racial violence. As a child, the main character Jesse witnesses a lynching, an act that underlies the sadistic way he treats other people, including his wife and the African Americans he arrests. Other authors write about organizations rather than individuals, including Stetson Kennedy’s thriller/memoir I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan (1954), Ben Haas’s The Troubled Summer (1966), and William Bradford Huie’s novel The Klansman (1967, made into a 1974 film of the same name). Kennedy’s and Huie’s works, equally popular and criticized for portraying the South too darkly, function as exposé, revealing their authors’ journalistic roots. Huie also reported on the murders of Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Jr., James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. It would be Huie that Till’s murderers J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant turned to for their Look magazine confession. Articles and stories by Huie, Baldwin, and Welty, which speak from a perpetrator’s perspective, portray white supremacists not necessarily as “monsters,” who lived as outsiders to society, but as ordinary people tightly woven into its very fabric.

Protest, Resistance, and Leadership

Many writers question the proper response to systemic racism and violence. The strategies of nonviolent direct action are traditional reference points for knowledge about the civil rights era, perhaps through familiarity with Martin Luther King Jr. and texts such as his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The responses of southern writers to civil rights change, however, help to create an understanding of civil rights leadership, heroism, and activism that extended well beyond King and his philosophies. Writers who served on the front lines of organizing and protest, whether they published fiction, nonfiction, or other genres, provide especially compelling and detailed portraits of the movement as it occurred on a daily, local level. In works by Anne Moody, Michael Thelwell, and Alice Walker, readers see individuals engaging in a variety of resistance forms that range from individual acts of defiance to more revolutionary tactics. In stories such as “The Organizer” by Thelwell, an activist in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one learns about the physical and mental toll, as well as the dangers, of doing work such as registering voters in rural communities. Moody details the exhaustive work of fighting segregation. Nonviolent direct actions such as voter registrations, sit-ins, boycotts, protests, and marches did not just happen. One had to plan, coordinate, attend mass meetings to keep up one’s spirits, and train to know how to respond when threatened. One place that Moody learned to fight back was through her work as a teenage domestic, at first through strategic silence—listening to her white employers talk about segregation when they thought she was not listening—and later through strategic action—quitting jobs when employers did not treat her well. Each time, she grows braver, paving the way for later courage as a movement activist.

Southern civil rights–era texts, however, also advocate tactics other than nonviolent direct action as a means for fighting segregation. Historians such as Christopher Strain and Hasan Kwame Jeffries describe self-defense strategies that communities in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana employed during the civil rights era.18 Literary responses the movement from Ernest Gaines’s novel A Gathering of Old Men (1983) to Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry collection Magic City (1992) explore this theme as well. Protestors participate in traditional forms of direct action in both Grooms’s “Negro Progress” and Killens’s ‘Sippi, but when white backlash threatens their communities, black men with guns keep watch and, if necessary, fight back. Nightriders patrol William Demby’s Beetlecreek (1958). Retribution is a key theme of both Alice Walker’s Meridian (1976) and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977). While Morrison is not a southern writer per se, her novel responds to a key moment in southern civil rights history, the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Because the character Guitar belongs to a vigilante group called the Seven Days as the “Sunday Man,” he is tasked with bombing a white church after events in Birmingham. Meridian, the title character of Walker’s novel, struggles with the concept of retaliation that her friends embrace. Like Moody, she finds herself becoming physically and emotionally sick from her movement work, especially struggling with the question of whether she is able to take a life. It is only within the safe space of community—inside a loving black church—that she feels as if she can contemplate the ethics of such life-and-death questions. For Anthony Grooms, in Bombingham, violence breeds only more violence. His protagonist Walter, traumatized by childhood events in Birmingham, grows up to be a military sharpshooter in Vietnam, perceiving the need for redemption and healing but also measuring their distance.

Characters like Meridian and Walter, who grapple with—and sometimes are paralyzed by—large moral problems, raise questions about what it means to be a hero. The consensus memory’s version of history manufactures sanitized, untouchable icons, more superhero than human: the quiet seamstress Rosa Parks who got tired one day and so remained immobile on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus or the minister King who, like a biblical Moses, led his people to the Promised Land of Freedom. Indeed, much recent civil rights scholarship focuses on the ways that ordinary people’s activism inspires more accessible models of leadership, such as the female foot soldiers who typed, photocopied, and circulated the Montgomery Bus Boycott fliers, or even the prior history of Parks herself, who investigated violence against black women.19 Even the literature that considers familiar figures—such as Williams’s The Man Who Cried I Am, Julius Lester’s And All Our Wounds Forgiven (1994), Rita Dove’s On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999)—seek to create nuanced portraits of Parks, King, and those around them. Such responses inspire and uplift, providing space for readers to imagine themselves as leaders in an ongoing civil rights story.

Love, Family, and Community

Love, family, and community have always played a large role in southern literature, and the literature on civil rights is no different. To Kill a Mockingbird and Darkroom provide clear examples of authors exploring how segregation’s dynamics affect a variety of personal and social relationships. Jim Crow extended into the most intimate and basic human interactions: from raising children, to love relationships, to sharing food, to greeting one another on the street. Many works of fiction and memoir similarly explore the movement’s effect on individual relationships. In Grooms’s Bombingham, domestic life marches on—and Walter’s mother battles cancer—while demonstrations take place down the road. Other books, such as Rosellen Brown’s Civil Wars (1984) and Half a Heart (2001) and Rebecca Walker’s memoir Black, White and Jewish (2002), examine how the movement affected future generations. The latter two books focus in particular on participants’ children, who often played a second role to their parents’ commitments. Walker’s parents, Alice Walker and Mel Leventhal, met while working as activists, a story that informs the novel Meridian. That novel, along with Killens’s ‘Sippi, looks provocatively at dating relationships in the movement, especially interracial ones taboo at the time. Richard H. King argues that Walker—and, by implication, fiction more generally—makes a significant breakthrough in contemporary understanding of the civil rights era: “Meridian does at least confront the issue of sex and race, while mainstream historiography/historians still lack the language, or perhaps the will, to handle the agonizingly personal, racial, and sexual confrontations that Meridian insists were at the heart of the Movement.”20 Literary representations, it seems, do something that historical documents cannot. Such a notion is clearly, and quite differently, demonstrated in Bebe Moore Campbell’s Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine (1992) and Ladee Hubbard’s The Talented Ribkins (2017). Campbell’s novel traces the fallout of a civil rights–era murder (based on Emmett Till’s) on the lives of everyone involved: the perpetrators and their descendants, the victim’s family, and the community itself. Hubbard’s play on W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of “The Talented Tenth” follows its protagonist Johnny’s search for the treasures and talents, some quite magical, that were lost after his civil rights–era self-defense team, the Justice Committee, disbanded. His search yields family and communal empowerment. Like many works of southern literature that reflect upon the civil rights era, both books reveal the past’s long afterlife, particularly with regard to the movement’s continuing legacy.

Discussion of the Literature

Within the academic literature, scholars have traditionally looked at intersections between the discrete units “southern literature” and “the civil rights era” rather than locating one cohesive line of critical analysis in “southern civil rights literature.” In its earliest iterations, scholarship reinforced the Agrarian equation of southern with white. James McBride Dabbs, in Civil Rights in Recent Southern Fiction (1969), briefly mentions Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison before devoting his attention to works such as Elizabeth Spencer’s The Voice at the Back Door (1956), Ben Haas’s Look Away, Look Away (1964), Jesse Hill Ford’s The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones (1965), and William Bradford Huie’s The Klansman (1967). Conversely, Melissa Walker’s Down from the Mountaintop: Black Women’s Novels in the Wake of the Civil Rights Movement, 1966–1989 (1991) discusses works such as Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966), Alice Walker’s Meridian (1976), Alice Childress’s A Short Walk (1979), and Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters (1980) as African American, but not southern, literature. The difference lies in the fictional representation of an era more than racial construction. Down from the Mountaintop examines how women writers during and just after the black arts movement evaluated the current state of social protest. Their works measure the extent to which the civil rights movement achieved a long black freedom struggle’s aims and goals—considering, as Martin Luther King Jr. posed, Where Do We Go From Here? Conversely, Thomas Haddox argues that white southerners who began writing about civil rights during the 1940s had a different concern: their region as a moral “problem that requires attention.” Novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird, William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1948), Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit (1944), Carson McCullers’ Clock Without Hands (1961), as well as those that Dabbs discusses, “identify typically southern positions on race, place them in dialogue with each other, and attempt to adjudicate their competing claims.”21 These novels reflect a larger pattern of thought that prevailed in the mid-century white South: a belief that southerners could work out their own civil rights issues gradually, without outside interference, and that racial problems could be solved through individual, rather than systemic, transformation.

Writing in the Cambridge Companion to Literature of the American South, Sharon Monteith destabilizes classifications between black “protest” and white “moral” fictions. She defines civil rights literature in ways that are both more specific and more expansive: “stories about civil rights organizations, voter registration and demonstrations, and activists in the African American freedom struggle [which differ] from fiction that locates ‘civil rights’ within the broad theme of race relations.”22 By honing in on the movement’s people, places, and events, Monteith recovers texts that critics such as Dabbs and Walker miss. Not only does Monteith call attention to works that capture the civil rights era’s intensity from within a historical moment—including Junius Edwards’s If We Must Die (1963), John O. Killens’s ‘Sippi (1967) and John A. Williams’s The Man Who Cried I Am (1967)—she also reminds readers that the movement generated a variety of literary and popular genres. Ann Fairbairn’s melodramatic bestseller Five Smooth Stones (1966) follows the saga of a black man named David and the white woman named Sara who loves him as he makes his way toward a confrontation with history: the stones refer to those that the biblical David carried for his showdown with Goliath. Jay Milner’s Incident at Ashton (1961) and Elliott Chaze’s Tiger in the Honeysuckle (1965) transform their writers’ experience as journalists into thrillers. Both Henry Dumas, in “Fon” (1968), and Alice Walker, in “The First Day: After Brown” (1974), employ fable as a means to depict the movement’s turbulent emotional impact upon children. But the civil rights era was not without its humor, as Michael Thelwell’s “Direct Action” (1963) and Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (1965) attest. Writing about very different forms of social protest—nonviolent sitting-in for Thelwell, a more aggressive act of standing-up for O’Connor—these stories show that the southern response to civil rights was never predictable.

Monteith is one of many scholars bringing critical consciousness to the breadth of civil rights–era writing. Margaret Earley Whitt’s anthology Short Stories of the Civil Rights Movement (2006) features classics from the time and later works that look back. Junius Edwards’s “Liars Don’t Qualify” (1961), Eudora Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From” (1963), and James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man” (1965) illustrate how violence operates on a continuum from hate speech to physical force. Alice Walker’s “Advancing Luna—And Ida B. Wells” (1977) and Anthony Grooms’s “Negro Progress” (1994) show that the past is often messier than it exists in official public memory. Writing in The History of Southern Drama, Charles Watson reminds readers that fiction and memoir are not the only genres to treat civil rights. In the early and mid-20th century, playwrights such as Randolph Edmunds, Paul Green, Du Bose Heyward, Lillian Hellman, and Lillian Smith broke barriers with their depictions of African Americans and handling of race relations. As the movement progressed, many black dramatists and theater workers left the South—including Loften Mitchell, author of Land Beyond the River (1963); Douglas Turner Ward, founder of the Negro Ensemble Company; and Ossie Davis, actor and author of Purlie Victorious (1961)—but staged compelling plays about civil rights issues back home. Late 20th- and early 21st-century playwrights such as Pearl Cleage and Alfred Uhry reflect on the movement as it affected the lives of ordinary people confronting larger historical forces. Cleage’s Bourbon at the Border (2005) recounts the story of May and Charlie, two of the hundreds of college students who converged on Mississippi for 1964’s Freedom Summer voter registration drives and whose lives were changed forever. Uhry’s Atlanta Trilogy, which includes the 1987 play Driving Miss Daisy (made into a popular 1989 film), The Last Night of Ballyhoo (1996), and Parade (1998), focuses on the intersecting lives of southern African Americans and Jews who found themselves targets of different forms of discrimination and violence.

Both drama and poetry continue to be understudied literary resources for tapping into the range of human reactions that the movement evoked. However, as Jeffrey Lamar Coleman argues, poetry was the genre that writers turned to most often for responding to the day’s events.23 Coleman ably demonstrates this point via Words of Protest, Words of Freedom: Poetry of the American Civil Rights Movement and Era (2012). The book includes over 150 works by 100 poets writing about topics such as violence, protests, and connections to events such as the Vietnam War and the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As with Monteith, Whitt, and Watson, Coleman draws readers’ attention to texts from familiar and forgotten voices: alongside the likes of Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, and Sonia Sanchez, one finds John Beecher, Pauli Murray, and Maria Varela. Coleman’s anthology also shows how the civil rights era expanded beyond the American South. Events that took place regionally radiated nationally and internationally, as poets from Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, and Adrienne Rich to Aimé Césaire, Nicholas Guillen, and Léopold Sédar Senghor demonstrate.

These varied responses to the civil rights era, from the American South and beyond, prompt discussion of what role literature plays in social movements. During the moment itself, writers used their art to raise awareness, to puzzle through change, and to process traumatizing acts of racial violence. Those who write about the past address the construction of historical memory and connections between civil rights past and present. For many years, scholars in the field have argued for literature as an essential component in the study of civil rights. Historians such as Barbara Melosh see creative writing as another type of documentary resource: as “primary sources, historical evidence of ideology.”24 Many literary scholars approach creative works as an affective or epistemological tool. Christopher Metress describes literary representations as a “valuable and untapped legacy” for understanding both the movement itself and how it “circulates in American memory.”25 Those circulatory routes can be convoluted and fragmentary, full of “aesthetic challenges and ethical complexities,” Minrose Gwin notes, especially when they involve the “reverberating impact of the nation’s and the South’s hard and broken past.”26 Monteith acknowledges that civil rights–movement literature can sometimes be “a tough and dispiriting read,” especially when it deals with violence and systemic racism that seems intractable.27 However, Gwin’s “challenges” and “complexities” can appear as both problems and possibilities. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee faced the problem that Norman and Williams would identify decades later in Representing Segregation: how to describe Jim Crow without replicating it. While attempting to speak out, Lee denies her black characters any real voice. Others, especially more contemporary and multiethnic southern writers, strive to “imagine new ways of racial knowing,” explains Suzanne Jones in Race Mixing: Southern Fiction Since the 1960s.28 Weaver’s Darkroom provides just one example of a southern writer responding to both the discursive and social possibilities that the civil rights era offered, demonstrating, as its title ironically suggests, that no perspective is ever black or white.

In the future, scholars will likely consider the extent to which terms such as “southern literature” and “the civil rights era” function as a pair. Certainly, some individuals living in the American South retain a fierce sense of regional pride, even as the coherence of that identity begins to fracture under globalization, immigration, and shifting demographics with the United States more generally. Debates over Confederate monuments and other forms of iconography persist, perhaps the result of a changing sense of what constitutes the American South: a distinct region or a direction on a map. As books about the New Jim Crow suggest, the movement keeps moving, but where? In his study of neo-segregation narratives, Norman explains that the South retains a “gravitational pull,” but many who write in this genre do not hail from the South: “as the segregation narrative evolves in a post-civil rights era, the distinction between North and South becomes less important than that between de jure and de facto modes of segregation. In fact many neo-segregation narratives purposefully deemphasize North-South distinctions or position the distinction as a relic of a bygone era.”29 Scholars involved in examining southern literary responses to civil rights during the late 1990s and early 2000s were active primarily in recovering works, genres, and themes. The following decade’s scholarship began to situate these works within broader aesthetic and international frames, considering such issues as comparative struggles, legacy and influence, and historical memory.30 How reading civil rights literature as a global story, rather than a southern problem, will change the academic conversation remains to be seen.

Further Reading

  • Armstrong, Julie Buckner, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Civil Rights Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Armstrong, Julie Buckner, and Amy Schmidt, eds. The Civil Rights Reader: American Literature from Jim Crow to Reconciliation. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.
  • Coleman, Jeffrey, ed. Words of Protest, Words of Freedom: Poetry of the American Civil Rights Movement and Era. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.
  • Gray, Jonathan W. Civil Rights in the White Literary Imagination: Innocence by Association. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013.
  • Gwin, Minrose. Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013.
  • Haddox, Thomas F. “Elizabeth Spencer, the White Civil Rights Novel, and the Postsouthern.”MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 65, no. 4 (December 2004): 561–581.
  • Hobson, Fred. But Now I See: The White Southern Racial Conversion Narrative. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.
  • Jones, Suzanne. Race Mixing: Southern Fiction Since the 1960s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
  • King, Richard H. “Politics and Fictional Representation: The Case of the Civil Rights Movement.” In The Making of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Edited by Brian Ward and Tony Badger, 162–178. New York: Washington Square Press, 1996.
  • Metress, Christopher, ed. The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.
  • Metress, Christopher. “Making Civil Rights Harder: Literature, Memory, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” Southern Literary Journal 40, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 138–150.
  • Monteith, Sharon. “The 1960s Echo On: Images of Martin Luther King Jr. as Deployed by White Writers of Contemporary Fiction.” In Media, Culture, and the Modern African American Freedom Struggle. Edited by Brian Ward, 255–272. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.
  • Monteith, Sharon. “Revisiting the 1960s in Contemporary Fiction: “Where Do We Go From Here?” In Gender and the Civil Rights Movement. Edited by Peter Ling and Sharon Montieth, 215–238. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
  • Monteith, Sharon. “SNCC’s Stories at the Barricades.” In From Sit-Ins to SNCC: Student Civil Rights Protest in the 1960s. Edited by Philip Davies and Iwan Morgan, 97–115. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012.
  • Monteith, Sharon. “Civil Rights Fiction.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American South. Edited by Sharon Monteith, 159–173. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Norman, Brian. Neo-Segregation Narratives: Jim Crow in Post-Civil Rights American Literature. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010.
  • Norman, Brian, and Piper Kendrix Williams, eds. Representing Segregation: Toward and Aesthetics of Living Jim Crow and Other Forms of Racial Division. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.
  • Pollack, Harriet, and Christopher Metress, eds. Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.
  • Walker, Melissa. Down from the Mountaintop: Black Women’s Novels in the Wake of the Civil Rights Movement, 1966–1989. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.
  • Whitt, Margaret Earley, ed. Short Stories of the Civil Rights Movement: An Anthology. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006.