The best books for understanding racial violence in the South after the Civil War

Kristina DuRocher Author Of Raising Racists: The Socialization of White Children in the Jim Crow South
By Kristina DuRocher

The Books I Picked & Why

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee

Book cover of To Kill a Mockingbird

Why this book?

While fictional, Lee’s story reflects white southerners reactions to real and perceived threats to white womanhood, as white females embodied the contradictions and anxieties consuming white southerners during segregation. Told through the eyes of Scout, Atticus’s daughter, this novel explores racial and gendered tensions embedded within the justice system. Lee’s book represents a complexity of emotions surrounding segregation that cannot help but impact the reader with its empathy while offering insight into injustice, racism, and oppression.

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Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940

By Grace Elizabeth Hale

Book cover of Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940

Why this book?

In this academic work, Hale explores what she terms as “spectacle lynchings” and the shift from private to public violence. Hale considers how newspapers, photographs, and radio broadcasts brought news of these brutal scenes to an audience of tens of thousands. Through her careful examination, Hale lays out how the media shaped a national narrative that is relevant for both understanding conversations about racial violence and for considering how mass media shapes our current perspectives.

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Killers of the Dream

By Lillian Smith

Book cover of Killers of the Dream

Why this book?

This autobiography of white Civil Rights activist Lillian Smith unpacks the society that shaped her as she struggled against her childhood lessons about how to interact with Whites and Blacks in the South. Smith deftly immerses you into her world with anecdotes, leading the reader through the interactions that shaped her and other white children across the South, including her experiences with racial violence and racism. Despite being written more than half a century ago, connections remain to our world. My recommendation is to read the 1994 version with an updated introduction placing the work into context.

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Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America

By James Allen

Book cover of Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America

Why this book?

Not for the faint of heart, this collection of lynching images bears witness to the extreme violence used to enforce segregation. Leon Litwack’s introduction contextualizes these displays as violence aimed to reinforce white supremacy and leads the reader through the reality of these events and their lasting consequences on race relations. The photographs are irrefutable evidence of how such events must be recorded to ensure they never again occur. Despite the horror of the images within, this book will forever change your understanding of our past.

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Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases

By Ida B. Wells

Book cover of Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases

Why this book?

In this tract, Wells became the first person, Black or white, to distribute a systematically researched explanation for the rise in lynchings in the South during the late nineteenth century. Wells’s investigation into lynchings across the South countered the image perpetuated by the media that Black males possessed an uncontrolled sexual desire for white women. Instead, Wells noted that lynchings were a form of terrorism; acts of racial violence intended to maintain white economic, social, and political power. It was a gutsy move for a young, southern, Black woman, and it resulted in her being exiled from the South for fear of her life. The truths she exposed resonated with the Civil Rights Movement and reverberate in modern times as we consider race, Black masculinity, police authority, and legal equality.

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