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Jim Crow Books

Thomas Dixon, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905)

The second novel in a trilogy about Radical Reconstruction, The Clansman depicts the post-war years as a catastrophe in which former black slaves terrorized the white South, made a mockery of government, and raped virginal southern belles. The book provided the inspiration for D.W. Griffith's blockbuster film, The Birth of a Nation, which portrays the Ku Klux Klan as a group of southern freedom fighters. Despite the claim in its title, Dixon's novel isn't historically accurate. It is, however, an important historical artifact from the Jim Crow era, one that reveals the popular mythology surrounding the Radical Reconstruction era, a period in which black southerners voted, held political office, passed laws, and, for a brief moment, wielded control over their own lives.

Theodore Rosengarten, All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw (1974)

All God's Dangers is a rich autobiography of an illiterate Alabama sharecropper who recalled for his interviewer, Theodore Rosengarten, vivid details from nearly every moment of his life in the Jim Crow South. It's a powerful and moving account of the economic and social obstacles facing black southerners from generation to generation.

Richard A. Wright, Black Boy (1944)

African-American author Richard Wright takes his readers on a personalized journey, first through the Jim Crow South and then into the urban North. Wright, who was born outside Natchez, Mississippi in 1908, describes his confusing and painful racial coming-of-age; through a series of interactions with southern whites, southern blacks, friends, and family members, Wright discovers the strict boundaries within which he and other African-Americans must act each day in order to survive. What is it that ultimately compels Wright to travel to Chicago? Why do others, equally brutalized by segregation, discrimination, terror, and violence, remain? And is the North truly the Mecca of opportunity and equality that Wright and other southern blacks expect? It's a gripping story worth reading twice.

Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (1998)

Historian Leon Litwack offers an abundantly detailed account of the ways in which blacks in the Jim Crow South were disenfranchised and stripped of their opportunities to advance themselves intellectually and economically. He describes the sometimes brutal tactics used by whites to punish those who were too assertive, too ambitious, or too successful, and reveals the many different ways black men, women, and children responded to the day-to-day pressures to remain subordinate. Litwack's vivid narrative is difficult to stomach, but essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the dark history of American race relations.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

A classic of American fiction, To Kill a Mockingbird is set in Alabama during the years of the Great Depression and narrated by the young daughter of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who has decided to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Though you may have once read this book in an English class, we suggest revisiting the text with your new knowledge of the intricacies of Jim Crow legislature and the legacy of anti-black violence in the South.

James Allen, ed., Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000)

This book is the companion text to collector James Allen's extraordinarily disturbing website of the same name. The text includes many of the postcards and photographs taken as souvenirs at lynchings all across America during the Jim Crow years, a document for anyone skeptical of the reality of this grim piece of United States history. Essays by Historian Leon Litwack, Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, and collector James Allen accompany the book's images.

Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery (1901)

Up From Slavery is the second autobiography published by Washington, but remains, to this day, his best-selling work. His first-hand account of slavery, emancipation, and his life-long struggle to gain an education is often upbeat and optimistic—a tale of a man seeking to achieve the "American Dream." Does he succeed? Does he think he succeeds? Is there a difference? Up From Slavery is a fascinating read, both for what Washington says and for all that Washington doesn't say.

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

Historian, novelist, and black activist W. E. B. Du Bois published this collection of autobiographical essays after spending years living and teaching in the Jim Crow South. Within the text, he reflects on race relations in the post-Civil War South and offers a sharp critique of Booker T. Washington and his policies of accommodation. The work of Du Bois is a poignant counterpoint to Booker T. Washington's best-selling autobiography, but it also stands on its own as a powerful narrative about the physical and psychological challenges facing all African-Americans in the early twentieth century.

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