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Parties down at the square amid courtroom melodramas: a reconsideration of the modern civil rights movement demonstration

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The most memorable feature of the civil rights movement in the United States was its public demonstrations, especially the violent ones during which non-violent protesters clashed with Southern authorities. That these demonstrations, when viewed on televisions or in photographs, excited intense national interest is both obvious and well documented. What remains largely unexamined is the deeper cultural context for these events. Kuryla argues that two forms of public ritual explain their impact best. The first is the vigilante lynching, which activists symbolically reversed and revived for public scrutiny over twenty years after spectacle lynchings had become a thing of the past in the South. The second is the courtroom melodrama, whether in film or fiction, which Americans consumed at a colossal rate during the years of some of the most violent conflicts of the civil rights era. Using more traditional historical sources, along with works of film and fiction—including Ralph Ellison's short story 'A Party Down at the Square', the Stanley Kramer film Judgment at Nuremberg and Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird—Kuryla examines this phenomenon in more detail. Non-violent direct action, when mediated by sympathetic press coverage of the demonstrations, revisited the spectacle lynchings of the Southern past, inviting public shame, outrage and fascination. At the same time, the shock and immediacy of those events increasingly faded as many Americans and the media came to imagine the civil rights era within the often platitudinous moral universe of the courtroom melodrama. In the end, the space of the courtroom became culturally mapped on to the town squares and streets of the demonstrations, disciplining the radical political and philosophical potential of the non-violent protest. In courtrooms, reconciliation was much more assured, and the racial drama was mitigated by the tighter controls of an explicitly regulated, if artificial environment.

Keywords: civil rights movement; courtroom drama; demonstration; lynching; melodrama; protest; ritual; spectacle; television

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2009-02-01

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