A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Critical Essays The Pre-Civil Rights South

The pre-Civil Rights era bridges the gap between the end of the Civil War (1865) and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement (1955). For African Americans, it spans the turbulent years between the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (January 31, 1863), which marked the beginning of the end of slavery, and the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guaranteed the rights of African Americans as full-fledged citizens.

For black Americans, the pre-Civil Rights era was a time of danger and turmoil, as they set out to claim their rights as U.S. citizens in a hostile country that refused to grant them those rights. As Gaines illustrates in depicting the lives of the people in the quarter, many blacks lived in poverty, denied the right to earn a decent wage by white landowners who kept them in a virtual state of slavery as sharecroppers.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in the Confederate states, it was not until the passage of the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution two years later (December 18, 1865) that slavery was abolished throughout the country. To mitigate its effect, the Ku Klux Klan, founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, began its reign of terror against newly enfranchised blacks, marking the beginning of a series of events geared toward keeping blacks "in their place."

Following the passage of the fifteenth amendment (March 30, 1870) granting all male citizens the right to vote, Southern states took immediate steps to prevent blacks from exercising their voting rights. These included establishing poll taxes, literacy tests, property and registration requirements, and the "grandfather clause," which allowed an individual to vote only if his grandfather could vote as of January 1, 1866. (The poll tax would finally be outlawed by the twenty-fourth amendment, adopted in 1964.) In 1875, Tennessee's "Jim Crow" laws legalized the segregation of public facilities. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Plessy vs. Ferguson, decreed "separate but equal" accommodations for African Americans. And in 1918, the end of World War I launched a renewed wave of violence against blacks when, as U.S. soldiers, they had experienced a respite from racism overseas and returned to their homes and demanded their civil and human rights. Hundreds were lynched, some still in uniform. The violence culminated in the Red Summer of 1919, when race riots erupted in July in the District of Columbia, and twenty-five major American cities.

The post-World War II years saw a continuation of the black struggle for equal rights, which held little hope. According to a report from the Southern Regional Council, in 1947, only 12 percent (around 600,000) of African Americans living in the South were eligible to register to vote. In 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, ending segregation in the U.S. armed forces, but integration was not officially "completed" until six years later (October 1954).

In the following chronology, events in the novel are presented within the context of historical events (italicized) that had a critical impact on the lives of African Americans and their ongoing struggle for civil and human rights. The frame of reference is provided by two major historical eras: the end of World War II (September 2, 1945) and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement (December 5, 1955). Note: (1) Since Gaines does not cite specific days or dates, all times are approximate; (2) Numbers in brackets [ ] indicate chapter numbers.

The events in the novel span approximately six months — from October 1948 to April 1949 — the period between Jefferson's trial and execution. These six months correspond to the "grinding season" and to the academic school year at the plantation church/school.

1939-1945

World War II

1946

Joe Louis successfully defends his world heavyweight boxing championship for the twenty-third time.

1947

CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality) sends the first April Freedom Riders into the South to test the 1946 Supreme Court ban on segregated interstate buses.

April 11 Jackie Robinson signs a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play professional baseball in the major leagues.

1948

June A. Philip Randolph forms the League for Nonviolent Disobedience Against Military Segregation.

July 26 President Truman signs Executive Order 9981, ending segregation in the U.S. armed forces. Six years later (October 1954), integration is officially "completed." Attempts by African Americans to vote stir a wave of violence in the South.

October 1948

Friday Jefferson's trial. The all-white jury finds Jefferson guilty of robbery and first-degree murder.

Monday morning The judge sentences Jefferson to death by electrocution. [1]

Monday afternoon Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Grant go to Henri Pichot's mansion to ask about prison visiting privileges for Grant.[3]

Tuesday Mr. Farrell Jarreau tells Grant that Pichot will meet him at five o'clock. [5]

Tuesday evening Grant is kept waiting in Pichot's kitchen for 2 1/2 hours. The sheriff tells Grant that he can start visiting Jefferson in "a couple of weeks." [6]

Thursday Dr. Joseph Morgan, the white school superintendent, makes his annual visit to Grant's school. [7]

The following week Two old men — Henry Lewis and Amos Thomas — deliver the first load of wood to Grant's school, marking the beginning of winter. [8]

November 1948

Grant and Miss Emma make three trips to the county jail to visit Jefferson. [9]

Friday Grant makes his first solo trip to the jail. On his way home, Grant stops by the Rainbow Club, where the men are discussing Jackie Robinson. [10-12]

'Termination Sunday Vivian meets the "church ladies." After inquiring into her background, Tante Lou declares Vivian to be "a lady of quality," signaling her acceptance into the community of women. [13-15]

December 1948

Monday Miss Emma tells Grant about Jefferson's rude behavior during her last visit. Grant tries but fails to convince her to discontinue the visits. [16]

Friday Grant visits Jefferson, and Paul Bonin, the young deputy, suggests they call each other by name. [17]

Grant learns that Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Rev. Ambrose have asked Sheriff Guidry's wife to see if they can visit Jefferson in a "more comfortable" room. After ascertaining that Grant had nothing to do with their scheme, the sheriff lets Jefferson choose whether he wants to meet his visitors in his cell or in the dayroom. [18]

Christmas Day People from the quarter gather for the annual Christmas program. [19]

1949

Grant and Rev. Ambrose are summoned to Henri Pichot's house, where Sheriff Guidry tells them that the date has been set for Jefferson's execution. [20-21]

Friday Grant visits Jefferson and they talk for the first time. Afterward, Grant stops by the Rainbow Club, where he borrows money to buy Jefferson a radio. [22]

Monday Grant learns that Jefferson refused to meet his visitors in the dayroom because he was not allowed to bring his radio. Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Rev. Ambrose accuse Grant of endangering Jefferson's soul by giving him the radio. Grant tells them that Jefferson needs the radio to help him keep his mind off his impending death.

Wednesday He convinces Jefferson to meet his visitors in the dayroom and promises to bring him a notebook and pencil. [23]

Grant talks to Jefferson about being a hero. That evening, Grant goes to the Rainbow Club and gets into a fight with two mulatto bricklayers. [24-26]

Sunday Rev. Ambrose confronts Grant about his lack of faith. The men debate religion, education, and the value of saving Grant's soul versus saving his pride. [27]

Grant persuades Jefferson to talk to Rev. Ambrose. They discuss prayer and dying. [28]

April 1949

Jefferson records the final days of his life in his diary. Paul tells Grant about Jefferson's death and presents him with the diary. [29-31]

Jackie Robinson receives the National League's Most Valuable Player award.

Joe Louis retires as World Heavyweight boxing champion,after holding the title for a record 11 years and 8 months.

1954

May 17 The Supreme Court outlaws school segregation in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, overturning the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling that established "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites.

1955

Dec 5 The Montgomery Bus Boycott in response to Rosa Parks' arrest on Dec. 1 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus launches the Civil Rights movement.

The movement has since made impressive gains with the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the 1990 Civil Rights Act, which addressed the most egregious discriminatory practices. However, issues such as the lack of good legal counsel for impoverished African Americans charged with crimes (resulting in a disproportionate number of African-American men in prisons and on death row) and inadequate representation of African Americans among the professional classes indicate the continuing need for attention to equal opportunity and civil rights.

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