Remembering the Dream: Alice Walker, Meridian and the Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

"If the Civil Rights Movement is `dead,'(1) and if it gave us nothing else, it gave us each other forever," wrote Alice Walker in her first published essay, in 1967 (Gardens 128). Her statement is true for Walker as an African American woman and as a writer. The Movement reaffirmed African Americans' connection to each other as a people and to their history of struggle against oppression. The Movement also allowed Walker to claim her self--she has described herself as "called to life" by the Movement--and to claim the lives of African American women of the rural South as the subject of her fiction (Gardens 122). Walker grew up in rural Georgia, and, as a student at Spelman College from 1961 to 1962., she became involved in the Atlanta Movement, working at voter registration and participating in marches and demonstrations (J. Hams 33). Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., who urged civil rights workers to "`Go back to Mississippi ... go back to Georgia,'" in his speech during the March on Washington in 1963, she returned to the South for two summers and went to live in Mississippi during the late 1960s and early 1970s, working at voter registration, teaching Headstart teachers and writing stories about rural southern black women. (Gardens 163, 27).

Participation in the Civil Rights Movement was central to Walker's life not only as a young woman but also as a young writer. She has written about the Movement in some of her early poems, in short stories, in essays, and briefly in her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), but Meridian (1976) is her novel of the Civil Rights Movement. Meridian is more than a novel about the Civil Rights Movement, and critics have focused on many aspects of this complex work.(2) But I would like to focus on Meridian as a novel of the Civil Rights Movement and try to show how Walker used her experience in the Movement and the experience of others of her generation to deal with the social, political and philosophical issues raised by the Movement, issues that continue to engage us today. Other critics have focused on the Civil Rights Movement in discussing Meridian,(3) but they do not discuss the connection between Walker's experience in the Movement and the novel. Alice Walker is the only major African American woman writer who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and participated in it and the only one to write a novel about the Civil Rights Movement.(4)

By 1970, when Walker began to write Meridian (J. Harris 33), the Civil Rights Movement, which offered the hope of "Freedom Now!" and the ideal and practice of nonviolence and "Black and White Together," had been declared dead. Many young blacks had given up on white Americans and on nonviolence, because of their experience of white racist violence and intransigence in the Civil Rights Movement. As early as 1963, Anne Moody, a young black woman active in the Movement in Mississippi, began to "question everything I had ever believed in" and to think "Nonviolence is through," after a black church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed by racist whites and four young girls attending Sunday school were killed (Moody 320, 319). Despite the Movement, in 1970 the United States continued to be racially divided and violent against black people.

By 1970, some people, who called themselves black nationalists or black militants, and whose slogan had become "Black Power," urged black women, who had struggled for their freedom along with black men in the Civil Rights Movement, to subordinate themselves to black men, to make themselves less, for the good of their people. In an essay published in 1973, while she was writing Meridian, Alice Walker quotes Barbara Sizemore, writing in The Black Scholar, on the new "`nationalist woman'": "`Her main goal is to inspire and encourage man and his children. Sisters in this movement must beg for permission to speak and function as servants to men.'" (qtd. in Gardens 169). Both Walker and Sizemore viewed this development in the freedom struggle with dismay. …