The Civil Rights Era as Cultural History
“I could sing things that I couldn’t say,” Odetta once noted of a folk repertoire that carried a palpable air of protest and rage from both before and after emancipation. “We were bigger than Jim Crow,” Sammy Davis, Jr. recalled of the moment when he and his trio broke the whites-only rules of the Las Vegas strip. This talk analyzes the political work that culture did in the long Civil Rights era through the middle decades of the twentieth century—cultural forms that eloquently spoke a rising brand of racial egalitarianism and social justice; cultural workers who helped to break down barriers and to forge a Civil Rights “public”; cultural genres and industries that became sites of struggle in and of themselves.
Matthew Frye Jacobson is William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and History at Yale University. He is the author of seven books on race in US political culture, including Odetta’s One Grain of Sand and The Historian’s Eye: Photography, History, and the American Present.