Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 693

Racism in the 1950s South
In the 1950s in the American South, discrimination against black people was commonplace. In Orpheus Descending, Carol mentions that she protested against the execution of a black man named Willie McGee. This was an actual case that occurred in 1951 in Mississippi. McGee was accused of raping a white woman, although in fact he and the woman had a long-standing sexual relationship. McGee's defense counsel challenged the fact that blacks had been excluded from the jury, and that the death penalty for rape was used only against blacks, never against whites. During the trial and appeal, white supremacist groups threatened violence, and although the Supreme Court twice ordered a stay of execution, McGee was eventually put to death.

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At this time in the South, many white people were vehemently opposed to any sexual relationships between blacks and whites. The practice was referred to as miscegenation, and many states had laws that banned it. During the 1950s and 1960s, fourteen states repealed those laws, but sixteen others, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas, kept their antimiscegenation laws on the books until the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in 1967.

The routine mistreatment of black people is obvious in the play, in which they are referred to by white authority figures such as Talbott and Jabe as "niggers." When Val is told to leave the county, Talbott mentions a county where a sign says,"Nigger, don't let the sun go down on you in this county." Carol and Val are the two characters who are keenly aware of these injustices. Val has the name Bessie Smith inscribed on his guitar, and he says, "Jim Crow killed Bessie Smith, but that's another story." He is referring to the fate of a famous black blues singer named Bessie Smith, who was known as the "Empress of the Blues.'' In 1937 Smith was involved in a car accident in Tennessee. What happened next has not been established beyond doubt, but some historians say that she was taken to a hospital that refused to admit blacks, and she died on her way to another hospital; other versions of the story say that the black hospital she was taken to was too poorly equipped to save her life. Either way, the story of Bessie Smith passed into local legend as an example of the injustices done to black people.

During the 1940s and 1950s in Tennessee, however, there were already signs that things were changing. In 1948 a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed in Jackson-Madison County, Tennessee. In 1952 four black students were admitted to graduate programs at the University of Tennessee.

In 1954 the Supreme Court handed down its historic decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that school desegregation must quickly be brought to an end. Earlier in that same year, however, Frank Clement became governor of Tennessee with the promise that he would never integrate the state's schools. And in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, there was much resistance to desegregation in the South, and this led to a resurgence of the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan.

But the tide towards integration and civil rights for blacks was inevitable. From 1955 to 1959, Memphis State University began gradual desegregation, and in 1956 Clement called out the National Guard to integrate schools in Clinton. In 1959 the Federal government sued Tennessee's Fayette County Democratic Executive Committee after its officials refused to let blacks vote in a Democratic primary. It was the first lawsuit of its kind filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1957. In 1960, as the civil rights movement gathered momentum, black college students in Nashville, Tennessee, began sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters at Kress's, Woolworth's,...

(The entire section contains 2299 words.)

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