The Antebellum, or Pre– Civil War, South
Events in the South during Faulkner’s life cannot be understood without knowing something of the American Civil War (1861–1865). The essence of the situation is that the northern and southern sections of the United States had, over the course of the last two centuries before the Civil War, followed different paths. The North had become, by 1860, an industrial powerhouse, a full participant in the Industrial Revolution that was then sweeping across the advanced nations of the world. The South had remained agrarian, growing cotton, sugar, and rice. After the invention of the cotton gin, a device that separated cotton from its seeds with high efficiency, the South became the Cotton Kingdom, exporting vast quantities to Great Britain, where the cotton was spun into cloth. The entire system, unfortunately, rested on the backs of millions of slaves, who grew the cotton and kept the gins running.
Because they followed different paths, the two regions, North and South, began to look like different countries, with their own separate languages and cultures. When Northern activists began to make some progress toward their long-cherished goal of banning slavery, it looked, to Southerners, like an attack on their entire economic system. When the war began, it seemed an invasion of a sovereign nation by another nation bent on conquest. The average Confederate infantryman was not wealthy enough to own slaves; he was fighting the invasion of his native country. And, in spite of the Confederacy’s impressive military qualities, he lost. The South was devastated, and the slaves were freed, at the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Segregation and Integration
To deal with the former slaves, in what remained a thoroughly racist society, the South soon developed a system of segregation. All public facilities would be, as the phrase went, ‘‘separate but equal.’’ So blacks and whites lived almost entirely separate lives, interacting only as white employers and black employees. In practice, the separate facilities for blacks were never equal to white facilities; a black school, for instance, never got as much money as a white school of comparable size. Blacks tolerated the situation because they were usually outnumbered, and violence could break out if, like Lucas Beauchamp, they insisted on their dignity. In practice, many simply left the South in what historians call the ‘‘great migration,‘‘ leaving for Northern cities, just as Beauchamp’s married daughter left for Detroit.
But as of 1948, the year of Intruder in the Dust, change was coming fast. In 1947, Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in major league baseball. In 1948, Harry Truman introduced the first civil rights legislation. That summer, Truman took matters into his own hands, signing an executive order that desegregated the United States armed forces, which had previously been separated into black and white units. What is now called ‘‘the Civil Rights Movement’’ gathered speed throughout the 1950s, especially under the leadership of the charismatic Martin Luther King Jr. The movement culminated in the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which substantially outlawed racial segregation.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010