Blood Done Signed this Blog

John Turner, More on Religion and the Civil Rights Movement

Paul's recent post on religion in the 1960s (and particularly about David Chappell's Stone of Hope) prompted me to think about another recent book on religion and the civil rights movement: Timothy Tyson's Blood Done Sign My Name. Tyson's book has gained numerous plaudits and won the 2007 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion (which comes with a $200,000 prize).

The honors are richly deserved. Blood Done Sign My Name is one of the very best books I have read in recent years. Part autobiography but much more, Tyson's narrative hinges on an unpunished murder of a young black man in Oxford, North Carolina in 1970.

There are some similarities to Stone of Hope. Religion takes center stage in the civil rights movement. Tyson's father, who pastors a white Methodist church in Oxford, takes courageous stands for racial progress over the stiff resistance of many of his parishioners. In both books, religion also infuses early black struggles for civil rights.

Chappell observes that the civil rights movement succeeded "with remarkably few casualties … astonishingly nonviolent." Here Tyson's narrative offers a very different (though not entirely contradictory) conclusion. Violence -- or at least the threat of violence -- was at the heart of racial progress in Oxford. As Tyson argues, "The struggle was far more violent, perilous, and critical than America is willing to remember … It had taken the physical threat of 'Black Power' to make the moral argument of civil rights mean anything on a local level." Change only took place when southern blacks threatened the white establishment with violence and chaos.

Tyson's book is eminently readable -- it is narrative history at its best (and would be very accessible to undergraduates). It is also challenging, because it overturns some now cherished beliefs about the civil rights movement. The book is also sobering, as violence succeeds where religion fails. The civil rights movement is not a redemptive chapter in American History, or at least it wasn't at the time. See Tyson's discussion of Blood Done Sign My Name in the Christian Century.

Tyson also intelligently and effortlessly integrates religion into his narrative. The reader meets a wide variety of southern religious movements (even the Free Will Baptists get an introduction), and even when the narrative moves out of Oxford's churches, religion haunts the story. Blood Done Sign My Name may or may not alter the place of religion in the historiography of the 1960s, but it provides a model example of how to put religion at the heart of one of the central struggles of that long decade.


DEG said…
I debated assigning Tyson's book in my survey post-Civil War class. I instead went with Laura Wexler's Fire in a Canebrake, mostly I've used it before and because the events detailed are right up the road from UGA. Wexler's book doesn't deal with religion much, but it's also a marvelous way to show students why certain things about race in America have been remembered and forgotten.

Thanks for the post, John.
Julia said…
Tyson's book is the 2007 selection of the "One Community, One Book" program in Iowa City, IA. The program is sponsored by the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights, and has been around since 2001. This book is one of my favorite selections from the program -- it's beautifully written, accessible to non-academic readers, thought-provoking, and heartbreaking.

Tyson will be coming to Iowa City next Friday (Oct. 26) to read from the book; he will be accompanied by a gospel singer, Mary Williams, who will sing hymns that were featured in the book. I can't wait!
Phil said…
Thanks for bringing attention to this book, John. This is one of the better books I've read in grad school. It is a profound work, and Tyson is a gripping story-teller.

Two of my high school students actually read it last year and really liked it, although they thought it was slow moving in places.

The latter portion of the book where Tyson offers his own perspective on the memory of the civil rights movement is worth the price of the book, and the personal perspectives woven into the stories is amazing.

Julia--I hope you report back on Tyson's visit to Iowa.

Popular Posts