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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.

Article

The continued growth of the Asian American population in the US South has redefined the region in terms of its economy, culture, and identity. While the literature associated with the region predominantly focuses on whites and African Americans, several narratives explore the experiences of Asian Americans. These texts span a variety of genres, including memoirs, young adult fiction, and historical analyses. From Chinese immigrant laborers who migrated to the Mississippi Delta during Reconstruction to second-generation Korean Americans growing up in the suburbs of northern Virginia, Asian Americans in the South engender more nuanced interpretations of concepts like race, region, and place-based identities. Writers of Asian descent like Monique Truong and Cynthia Kadohata as well as non-Asian writers like Cynthia Shearer and Robert Olen Butler illustrate the ways in which Asian immigration complicates long-standing notions of Southern culture and identity. Some of their works address the ambiguities of segregation-era racial politics as those defined as neither white nor African American struggle to navigate their place along the color line. These texts feature local-born southerners who perceive Asians as outsiders and in turn, establish both overt and subtler forms of exclusion and surveillance to maintain control. However, the growing visibility of Asians in the region also hints at the possibility of new multiracial and multiethnic coalitions and new communal identities centered on the shared struggle against economic, political, and social inequalities. Several narratives set in the post-Jim Crow South underscore the global networks that connect the South to the rest of the world. Writers have used and continue to employ the Asian American figure as a means to destabilize the white–black racial binary that has long characterized the Southern literary tradition and position the South in a broader, more global context. The emergence of Asian Americans in addition to Latinos and indigenous populations on the Southern literary landscape highlights the diverse cultures and histories that mark the South not as a monolith but rather as a region experiencing constant transformation.

Article

Distinctive patterns of daily life defined the Jim Crow South. Contrary to many observers’ emphasis on de jure segregation—meaning racial separation demanded by law—neither law nor the physical separation of blacks and whites was at the center of the early 20th-century South’s social system. Instead, separation, whether by law or custom, was one of multiple tools whites used to subordinate and exclude blacks and to maintain notions of white racial purity. In turn, these notions themselves varied over time and across jurisdictions, at least in their details, as elites tried repeatedly to establish who was “white,” who was “black,” and how the legal fictions they created would apply to Native Americans and others who fit neither category. Within this complex multiracial world of the South, whites’ fundamental commitment to keeping blacks “in their place” manifested most routinely in day-to-day social dramas, often described in terms of racial “etiquette.” The black “place” in question was socially but not always physically distant from whites, and the increasing number of separate, racially marked spaces and actual Jim Crow laws was a development over time that became most pronounced in urban areas. It was a development that reveals blacks’ determination to resist racial oppression and whites’ perceived need to shore up a supposedly natural order that had, in fact, always been enforced by violence as well as political and economic power. Black resistance took many forms, from individual, covert acts of defiance to organized political movements. Whether in response to African Americans’ continued efforts to vote or their early 20th-century boycotts of segregated streetcars or World War I-era patterns of migration that threatened to deplete the agricultural labor force, whites found ways to counter blacks’ demands for equal citizenship and economic opportunity whenever and wherever they appeared. In the rural South, where the majority of black Southerners remained economically dependent on white landowners, a “culture of personalism” characterized daily life within a paternalistic model of white supremacy that was markedly different from urban—and largely national, not merely southern—racial patterns. Thus, distinctions between rural and urban areas and issues of age and gender are critical to understanding the Jim Crow South. Although schools were rigorously segregated, preadolescent children could be allowed greater interracial intimacy in less official settings. Puberty became a break point after which close contact, especially between black males and white females, was prohibited. All told, Jim Crow was an inconsistent and uneven system of racial distinction and separation whose great reach shaped the South’s landscape and the lives of all Southerners, including those who were neither black nor white.

Article

Examining American history through the lens of black girlhood underscores just how thoroughly childhood everywhere is not “natural” but depends heavily on its social construction. Furthermore, ideas about childhood innocence are deeply racialized and gendered. At the end of Reconstruction, African Americans lost many of the social and political gains achieved after the Civil War. This signaled the emergence of Jim Crow, placing many blacks in the same social, political, and economic position that they occupied before freedom. Black girls who came of age in the 20th century lived through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, Black Power, and the rise of the New Right. Moreover, black girls in the 20th century inherited many of the same burdens that their female ancestors carried—especially labor exploitation, criminalization, and racist notions of black sexuality—which left them vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual violence. In short, black girls were denied the childhood protections that their white counterparts possessed. If fights for cultural representation, economic justice, equal access to education, and a more just legal system are familiar sites of black struggle, then examining black girlhood reveals much about the black freedom movement. Activists, parents, and community advocates centered black girls’ struggles within their activism. Black girls were also leaders within their own right, lending their voices, bodies, and intellect to the movement. Their self-advocacy illustrates their resistance to systemic oppression. However, resistance in the more obvious sense—letter writing, marching, and political organizing—are not the only spaces to locate black girls’ resistance. In a nation that did not consider black children as children, their pursuit of joy and pleasure can also be read as radical acts. The history of 20th-century black girlhood is simultaneously a history of exclusion, trauma, resilience, and joy.

Article

Christopher W. Schmidt

One of the most significant protest campaigns of the civil rights era, the lunch counter sit-in movement began on February 1, 1960 when four young African American men sat down at the whites-only lunch counter of the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Refused service, the four college students sat quietly until the store closed. They continued their protest on the following days, each day joined by more fellow students. Students in other southern cities learned what was happening and started their own demonstrations, and in just weeks, lunch counter sit-ins were taking place across the South. By the end of the spring, tens of thousands of black college and high school students, joined in some cases by sympathetic white students, had joined the sit-in movement. Several thousand went to jail for their efforts after being arrested on charges of trespass, disorderly conduct, or whatever other laws southern police officers believed they could use against the protesters. The sit-ins arrived at a critical juncture in the modern black freedom struggle. The preceding years had brought major breakthroughs, such as the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling in 1954 and the successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956, but by 1960, activists were struggling to develop next steps. The sit-in movement energized and transformed the struggle for racial equality, moving the leading edge of the movement from the courtrooms and legislative halls to the streets and putting a new, younger generation of activists on the front lines. It gave birth to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most important activist groups of the 1960s. It directed the nation’s attention to the problem of racial discrimination in private businesses that served the public, pressured business owners in scores of southern cities to open their lunch counters to African American customers, and set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations across the nation.

Article

The civil rights movement in the urban South transformed the political, economic, and cultural landscape of post–World War II America. Between 1955 and 1968, African Americans and their white allies relied on nonviolent direct action, political lobbying, litigation, and economic boycotts to dismantle the Jim Crow system. Not all but many of the movement’s most decisive political battles occurred in the cities of Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Greensboro and Durham, North Carolina; and Atlanta, Georgia. In these and other urban centers, civil rights activists launched full-throttled campaigns against white supremacy, economic exploitation, and state-sanctioned violence against African Americans. Their fight for racial justice coincided with monumental changes in the urban South as the upsurge in federal spending in the region created unprecedented levels of economic prosperity in the newly forged “Sunbelt.” A dynamic and multifaceted movement that encompassed a wide range of political organizations and perspectives, the black freedom struggle proved successful in dismantling legal segregation. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expanded black southerners’ economic, political, and educational opportunities. And yet, many African Americans continued to struggle as they confronted not just the long-term effects of racial discrimination and exclusion but also the new challenges engendered by deindustrialization and urban renewal as well as entrenched patterns of racial segregation in the public-school system.

Article

In the final decades of the 19th century the Central American nation of Guatemala represented some intriguing employment and entrepreneurial possibilities from the point of view of US citizens. The lure of coffee cultivation, mahogany harvesting, even mining was real. Additionally, the promise of employment building an inter-oceanic railroad resulted in significant numbers of African Americans journeying to Guatemala. The relocation offered good pay and many apparently believed that it would also take them to a place where Jim Crow racism was not the predominant and limiting factor that it was in the United States. For at least one of those men however, railroad work was not the primary enticement to the region. By 1893, such alleged opportunities in Guatemala had attracted the black athlete, entrepreneur, and entertainer Billy A. Clarke. During his two years in the country, with his sometime business partner and sparring mate, Rod Lewis, also an African American, Clarke operated a gymnasium where he taught the “Art of Pugilism,” staged several prize fights, and, for a time, captured the imagination of the capital city with the example of modern, imported entertainment and professional sports. Between 1892 and 1898, Guatemala was ruled by, first president, and later, dictator, General José María Reina Barrios. A globalizer enamored of modernization, European architecture, and North American technology, the environment fostered by Reina Barrios attracted not only contractors and African American workers from the United States to build railroads but also other foreigners who made for the Central American nation, bringing the outside world to the mile-high capital of Guatemala City. Into this setting came Billy A. Clarke, drawn by the same baseline possibilities of solid work and the prospect of less Jim Crow as his African American railroad compatriots, but with the additional promise that his individual skills as a fighter and promoter might reap even bigger rewards. The story of Clarke in Guatemala is one of race, identity, and creative self-promotion. Building an image that combined ideas of the exotic and powerful African with ideas of the North American armed with “know-how” and scientific fighting skills, Clarke became a Guatemala City celebrity and was eventually known as the “Champion of Central America.”

Article

Brenda F. McGadney

Rosa Parks (1913–2005) was best known as an African American civil rights activist, who in 1955 refused to give up her seat to a White man on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus, leading to conviction for civil disobedience and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The 112th U.S. Congress celebrated her 100th birthday as National Day of Courage with a resolution recognizing her as the “first lady of civil rights” and the “mother of freedom movement” and commemorates her “legacy to inspire all people of the United States to stand up for freedom and the principles of the Constitution.”

Article

In the midst of the long black freedom struggle, African American military participation in the First World War remains central to civil rights activism and challenges to systems of oppression in the United States. As part of a long and storied tradition of military service for a nation that marginalized and attempted to subjugate a significant portion of US citizens, African American soldiers faced challenges, racism, and segregation during the First World War simultaneously on the home front and the battlefields of France. The generations born since the end of the Civil War continually became more and more militant when resisting Jim Crow and insisting on full, not partial, citizenship in the United States, evidenced by the events in Houston in 1917. Support of the war effort within black communities in the United States was not universal, however, and some opposed participation in a war effort to “make the world safe for democracy” when that same democracy was denied to people of color. Activism by organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged the War Department’s official and unofficial policy, creating avenues for a larger number of black officers in the US Army through the officers’ training camp created in Des Moines, Iowa. For African American soldiers sent to France with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), the potential for combat experience led to both failures and successes, leading to race pride as in the case of the 93rd Division’s successes, and skewed evidence for the War Department to reject increasing the number of black officers and enlisted in the case of the 92nd Division. All-black Regular Army regiments, meanwhile, either remained in the United States or were sent to the Philippines rather than the battlefields of Europe. However, soldiers’ return home was mixed, as they were both celebrated and rejected for their service, reflected in both parades welcoming them home and racial violence in the form of lynchings between December 1918 and January 1920. As a result, the interwar years and the start of World War II roughly two decades later renewed the desire to utilize military service as a way to influence US legal, social, cultural, and economic structures that limited African American citizenship.