The Civil Rights Movement: a literary history

Sharon Monteith’s literary-historical study will be the first to analyse the relationship between literary culture and political and social change in the US civil rights movement. It will uncover the significance of literary activism from the post-Civil War Reconstruction era to the present and, by mapping and analysing civil rights literary culture, it will extend civil rights historiography. 

Image reproduced courtesy of Howard Rambsy/Psyche Southwell.

In the era of Black Lives Matter and transatlantic concerns about social, racial and ethnic divisions foregrounded by Brexit and the US and EU elections, my research mines a useable activist past in narrative culture. The cultural and intellectual history of the civil rights movement has lagged behind its social and political history and so my fellowship will uncover the fiction – novels, poetry, drama and short stories – that locates civil rights as a political paradigm in a longer freedom struggle for equality and justice. 

In 2001–2002, I was a Rockefeller Humanities Fellow based at the University of Memphis and researching the Mississippi Delta when I began to perceive a significant gap in both civil rights and literary history. Since then I have been recovering neglected texts by renowned American writers and published and unpublished works by overlooked activist-writers. The oldest civil rights organisation still in existence, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1909, positioned writers as leaders from its inception, believing in literature as a force for change. Even so, the civil rights movement’s literary culture remains uncharted, as does the role that literary activism played in other civil rights organisations. Many activists were writers before they joined the movement; others became writers because of it. The narrative culture of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s is the subject of my forthcoming book SNCC’s Stories which includes the recovery and analysis of an unpublished novel by Executive Secretary James Forman and memoirs, plays, poetry and stories by many of SNCC’s organisers.

‘A Study in Black’. A display in Memphis State University bookstore photographed by Vernon Matthews, Memphis Commercial Appeal, 29 April 1969. Courtesy the Mississippi Valley Collection, Ned R. McWherter Library, University of Memphis.

The African American freedom movement did, of course, inspire writers with socialist beliefs down the decades and this study will analyse that work. Upholding a social fiction of white supremacy demanded considerable effort by racial segregationists which translated quickly into novels written by those who sought to hold back racial change. Other writers, black and white, exposed and satirised racist demagoguery, especially in the Deep South, and still others depicted white racial moderates to explore the fear of social change and the difficulties of challenging the status quo. By the 1950s journalists were also turning what they witnessed on ‘the civil rights beat’ into fiction and more writers in other countries were drawn to civil rights as a subject. Movement stories are not limited by genre, race, or a writer’s political standpoint but literary criticism about the African American freedom struggle has typically focussed on slave narratives, the Black Arts Movement since the late 1960s, or fictions published by white writers in a ‘New South’ of racial reconciliation since the 1980s. The historically different – and sometimes clashing – concerns of civil rights organisations are lost in fictions in which civil rights history is merely backdrop and contribute to the forging of a false paradigm of ‘civil rights literature’ that is mythologically thick but historically thin. This study aims to uncover a nuanced literary history of a long and complex civil rights movement as explored in imaginative writing. It will involve examining political fiction grounded in historical understanding of movement tenets and culture and will bring literature focussed on activism to the attention of readers. This Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship allows me to undertake more archival research and to write this study. 

Professor Sharon Monteith
Nottingham Trent University
Major Research Fellowship