Movements for Civil Rights and against Racial Segregation

In the mid-20th century, various civil right movements were being held in the United States to focus on specific political or social issues. Two of the most influential movements were the Feminist and Civil Rights movement. Toni Morrison seems to have been inspired by the two movements because she voices the treatment of African-Americans throughout literature.

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In Toni Morrison’s Sula, the context of the novel takes place between the 1920s and 1940s. During this time, racism was a major issue in the United States. African Americans were looked down upon from the majority of white people because they did not look like them or act like them. Morrison’s writing style concentrates on rural African-American communities and how they are perceived by others. She explores these ideas with vivid details and vocabulary indicating vast knowledge or experience on the topic. For instance, in Sula African Americans were represented as the lowest social class because of the community that they lived in which was called the Bottom. The fact that their roles and expectations have been internalized by the gender roles in society explains how hard it much have been for them. In addition, African-American women were not given the same opportunities as men or white people. Sula is an unfortunate, yet excellent example of how black women were perceived in the mid-20th century by the United States. The Civil Rights movement was active from 1954 to 1968. It was a mass popular movement to secure African Americans equal access to and opportunities for the basic privileges and rights as white Americans.

One of the most influential leader of the movement was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote his famous letter, “A Letter From Birmingham Jail” responding to the criticism demonstrated by eight prominent white clergy man. His letter defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. Also, Dr. King says that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action for the injustice that is present rather than waiting for the change to just happen. Dr. King says in the letter, “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (King Jr. 1). He means Americans cannot conceive themselves as separate from all the other people in the world. If Americans allow something wrong to happen in one place, then they set the foundation for it to happen anywhere. In the United States of America, a democratic society is based on the idea that everyone is equal, which means all citizens of America have to take the view that anyone subject to injustice is being treated as unequal. In which breaks down the foundation of societal development and well-being as a whole. During Dr. King’s life, the way African-Americans were treated was horrible because they were not given the same opportunities and rights as white Americans. During his time in jail, Martin Luther King Jr. believed that in order for African-Americans to gain the same rights as whites they must protest in order to show the whites that it is important to create that “noise” to show that this matter is really important.

Aside from the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement of the 1960s rose and it focused on inequality in culture and law, more options for women, and dismantling workplace inequality between men and women. Feminist leaders were also inspired by the Civil Rights movement, through which many of them had gained civic organizing experience. One of leaders named Betty Friedan stood up for women rights and was a voice for all women against the majority to gain the same rights and privileges as men in the mid-20th century. Friedan wrote an article in 1964 titled, ‘Woman: The Fourth Dimension” in which she talks about how the tradition women has three roles be wife. Mother, and housemaker for the family. But, the “fourth dimension” Friedan talks about is what the women’s identity is and what she wants to do with her own time and desires. This was a very important article because more and more women decided to follow their own aspirations and will power to do what they want rather than tending to the men and their needs. Friedan says, “These women use their abilities.

They are growing with a changing world. And they find that they now move with new serenity and freedom in the three other dimensions” (“Woman: The Fourth Dimension). Friedan means as the woman start learning more about themselves and doing things they want to do new appreciation and satisfaction is given when they return back to their family lives. This can be interpreted as the family members sees the value of the wife/mother to be more superior to the husband/father because the man does not know how to handle the family aspect of life better than the woman. Friedan’s spoke to an audience of women, and her work had such an impact that it is credited with sparking the ‘second wave’ of the American feminist movement. Toni Morrison was exposed to racism by her parents when her parents moved to the North to escape the problems of southern racism. Morrison writes Sula (1973) to show the injustice how racism and sexism is presented in black women. The novel talks about the experiences of two black woman named Sula and Nel through their stages from childhood to adulthood. The women joined by a common issue which is a sense that they will be denied things since they are neither male nor white. Sula is all about perceptions meaning how others look at Sula and Nel and see their actions to be either “good” or “evil”. Morrison theme of “good vs. evil” is well-presented in Sula as well alongside the themes of racism and sexism.

Morrison was influenced by the two movements to develop a literature that can capture the majority and bring attention to the issues at hand that was facing African-American/ African-American women. In the Sula, there are several depictions how racism/sexism is being displayed throughout the novel. For example, a passage in the novel states, “You can’t do it all. You a woman and a colored woman at that. You can’t act like a man. You can’t be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever you like, taking whatever you want, leaving what you don’t” (Morrison 133). The dialogue was exchange between Nel and Sula about the desire and willingness for Sula to do what she wants, but Nel reminds her she is black woman living in system where they have no voice. This passage tells us some things about the oppression of women in Sula. Black women are perceived as the inferior minority because they are not men and do not have any freedom to do as they wish. Also another passage states, “. . . I know what every colored woman in this country is doing.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Dying” (Morrison 133).

This part of the novel is Sula’s response to Nel about not able to do as she wish to do with her life. Sula talks about how she knows what is happening to every black women in the country that is dying, not able to live life the way they want to live it. Sula assures Nel that she is going to die one day, but she is going to live life to the fullest as she wants. Sula’s statement shows the system of racism is a serious issue. She is saying that women of color are struggling to survive in the United States, and losing the struggle. Toni Morrison was inspired to write Sula because during the time period racism and sexism was major issues which caused unfairness and injustice for all African-Americans. Toni Morrison depicts the setting of the Bottom to show the living conditions African-Americans were succumb to. The Bottom has an unfinished tunnel that is constant reminder of the racism people of the Bottom is force to live with. The people were looking forward to the completion of the tunnel because that means the renovation of the Bottoms allows work for the people to obtain. Unfortunately, that never came into reality because it seems the white people want to keep the African-Americans jobless and not have opportunity to get any money.

Just from the setting alone racial segregation is present and in mid-20th century similar scenarios were depicted. For instance, Elizabeth Abel writes an article, “Bathroom Doors and Drinking Fountains: Jim Crow’s Racial Symbolic”, which examines the racial segregation that is displayed through segregated bathrooms and water-fountains. Abel says, “Jim Crow signs on bathroom doors and drinking fountains (which reinstate a simpler binary) constitute a racial symbolic that stabilized itself by appropriating, and thereby inadvertently destabilizing, the structure of sexual difference” (Abel 442). The Jim Crow act is the name of the racial caste system which operated primarily1877 and the mid-1960s. Black people would normally get the less-lavish drinking water and bathrooms to the white people. Just as in Sula, the African-Americans was given a community that was less attractive than living in the valley where the white people lived in. Racial segregation is lifestyle that people had to live with on a daily basis and a reminder to African-American population they were the inferior ones in country where everyone should be equal.

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Movements for Civil Rights and Against Racial Segregation. (2022, Oct 05). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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