Black History Month: Rethinking the Book “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett

First, A Brief Recap of the Book

The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a marvelous and moving story, is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Three women narrators speak in alternate chapters: Skeeter, a white girl in her twenties; Aibileen, a 53-year-old black maid who has spent her life raising white children; and Minny, a 36-year-old black maid who speaks out too much for her own good. Skeeter decides she wants to write a documentary book about black maids. She convinces Aibileen and Minny to help with the secret and even dangerous project. As more people get involved, the risk spreads and the tension and suspense are heightened.

Rethinking the Premise

The risk these women were taking is not immediately clear to those who were not alive in the Sixties. In The Help, although fear was expressed, there were no harmful consequences for the women involved in the project. In real life, however, racism was so virulent that whites helping blacks had their lives imperiled. This post recounts the fate of two whites from the north who came south in 1964 to help blacks register for the vote. Perhaps it can convey a flavor of what the atmosphere was like back then, not so very long ago.

In 1964, two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, came to Meridian, Mississippi as part of “Freedom Summer,” a volunteer program bringing young people from around the country to the South to help register black voters. On June 21st, these two young men along with black Mississippian James Chaney, 21, drove to Neshoba County to look into the burning of a Black church that had been a meeting place for civil rights groups.

The three were tipped off that their station wagon’s license number had been given to members of the white supremacist Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan, so before leaving Meridian they informed other workers of their plans and set up check-in times in accordance with standard security procedures. But they were never heard from again.

200px-AndrewGoodman-JamesChaney-MichaelSchwerner

Late that afternoon, Neshoba County deputy Cecil Price —a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — stopped their car and arrested Chaney for speeding. He booked all three into the jail. During the hours they were held incommunicado in jail, Price notified his Klan associates (according to later testimony) who assembled and planned how to kill the three civil rights workers.

After the three were fined and released, Price followed them to the edge of town, where he pulled them over with his police siren. He held them until the Klan murder squad arrived. They were taken to an isolated spot where James Chaney was severely beaten and possibly mutilated, and all three were shot to death. Schwerner and Goodman were each shot once in the heart; Chaney, the lone African-American, was shot three times. Their car was driven into a swamp and set on fire, and their bodies buried in an earthen dam with a bulldozer.

After a 44-day search, FBI agents dug the bodies from under 15 feet of dirt. (While they were looking, they found the bodies of at least seven other blacks allegedly thrown there by the Klan.) The state never charged anyone with murder, and federal statutes against murder did not exist at the time.

Instead, the federal government tried 18 men on charges of conspiring to violate the civil rights of the victims. Seven were convicted and served prison sentences of less than six years. Eight were acquitted. A local preacher who had been strongly implicated in the murders, ironically named Edgar Ray Killen, went free. [In 2005, the trial was reopened and Killen was finally convicted (but only of manslaughter) at the age of 80.]

The case was dramatized in the movie ”Mississippi Burning,” which was the FBI code name for the case.

The outrage over what happened to the three young men sharply increased public support for the Civil Rights Movement, paving the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Marker in New York City

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22 Responses to Black History Month: Rethinking the Book “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett

  1. Sandy says:

    Makes your blood go cold, doesn’t it? I was born in the mid-sixties in the Midwest, so I didn’t really live through this era, but I’ve read enough to realize the risks these women were taking. I was a nervous wreck for a good deal of this book, worrying that something bad would happen to these wonderful characters!

    I can tell you that the KKK was alive and well in our county though throughout my childhood and even through college. Our small community was (is?) not very tolerant of anyone black, gay, or really any trait that isn’t their version of normal. No wonder my sister movied to St. Paul and stayed! It makes me feel sick sometimes.

  2. Julie P. says:

    It’s still unbelievable to me that this happened less than 50 years ago in our country. I have such a hard time understanding how this could have gone on for so long. Thanks for the informative post!

    • Julie,

      As late as 2002, the last year for which sociologist James Loewen has data in his book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” many towns, even in the Midwest, still will not allow blacks to move into them. Although “overt” laws preventing blacks are no longer on the books, a combination of realtor discouragement and threats and harassment manage to drive away any blacks who think of breaching the unwritten codes. (Loewen provides census data backed up with interviews, anecdotal evidence, and newspaper reports.) This book is an amazing eye-opener for anyone who thinks or hopes we are now in a “post-racial” society. Especially if one happens to live near a city, one doesn’t see much of the segregation and racial hatred that can still be found in small-town America.

  3. Anna says:

    I didn’t live during this era, but I took a course on the civil rights movement in college. It’s hard to believe these events occurred and I can’t believe such hatred still persists today.

    I remember the KKK coming to my small town in New England when I was in junior high. We weren’t a very diverse town, and I was pleasantly surprised and thrilled when I heard they were run out of town.

  4. JoAnn says:

    Excellent post, Jill! It really gives The Help more historical context…I’m off to read the interview.

  5. What a wonderful post, Jill. I remember that story so well from the movie. It is so outrageous to me that this crime went nearly unpunished. What a beautiful tribute to those three men.

  6. Darlene says:

    Great post Jill! I didn’t live through this era either but I have a hard time understanding people who can hate so much. I just don’t understand it at all. I too watched the movie and was horrified. There’s just too much hate in the world and that’s really sad.

  7. bermudaonion says:

    I actually lived in Meridian at the time, but I was so young, my memories of the event are vague. What I do remember is everyone going to search for the men and how upset my parents were when their bodies were found.

  8. Margot says:

    I’m so glad you ran this post and tied it in with the story in The Help. The message is very powerful. Even though it doesn’t seem dramatic enough to be on the TV news, racism and other forms of prejudice are still very much alive in our country today.

    I know of small towns where there is absolutely no one living there whose skin color is anything but white. And it’s not because other races don’t want to live there. They know their lives and their children’s lives would be in danger. Can anything be proven? Probably not, but the message of fear is still there and somehow that message gets spread around. I worked in many of those small towns. It was nearly impossible to recruit employees of other races to work there. In one particular town I felt successful when I got up to 5 employees out of 500+ who weren’t white. None would live in the town, only work and leave. I’ve only been retired for four years so this isn’t ancient history. The same hatred and fear exists today. I’d like to think that the same thing that happened in Mississippi couldn’t possibly happen today but I’m not that naive.

  9. Mrs.B says:

    Excellent post! I remember seeing the film Mississippi Burning years ago but I’d actually forgotten about it.

    It is an outrage that these things happened not too long ago. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I do sort of wish Stockett had mentioned more stuff like this to convey the true atmosphere of the era and the risk the women took. Instead of those cultural references, this would have been more powerful. She vaguely mentions the KKK of course but this is certainly chilling.

  10. This is very chilling indeed. This happened more often than anyone wants to admit to. Your post is a great back story to the ACTUAL realities of a white person trying to help out a black person. Thanks for such an insightful, educational, and thought provoking post today.

  11. juliebrichta says:

    Wow, thanks so much for this informative post. I think it’s important that we pay attention to things like this that happened so that they can never happen again. Our country has come a lot way, but I think there is still a long way to go. I am a white teacher at a 99% african american school. It’s still hard to teach my students about things like desegregation because besides the teachers, their community is still all african american. I am now interested in watching the movie based on these events.

  12. Aarti says:

    You are so right. I really enjoyed The Help, but it did really seem to blur over the really dangerous aspects of being part of the Civil Rights movement. Great post to bring that to our attention.

  13. Ari says:

    This is so sad and I agree with Aarti and you in that the Help (as far as I can tell, I haven’t finished it yet) doe seem to skim over the more horrific details as to why Skeeter’s idea could get Abileen and Minny in trouble, aside from losing their jobs (which is a big deal but they also faced y’know VIOLENCE).

    These men were so brave, have the men who did it finally been convicted for murder yet? I know you said one has, but surely the others will have to serve longer jail terms too (unless they’ve passed away)

    • Ari,

      This is what happened legally to the murderers (quoting from the interview with Roscoe Jones):

      “Mississippi officials refused to bring murder charges against any individuals. In January 1965, the federal government charged eighteen individuals with violating the U.S. Force Act of 1870 by conspiring to deprive the three men of their civil rights by murdering them. Seven men were found guilty, but none served sentences longer than six years.

      Edgar Ray Killen, a local self-described minister, was strongly implicated in the murders by witnesses at trial; however, the jury was deadlocked on the conspiracy charges against him and the federal prosecutor decided not to retry him.

      No legal action was taken in the case for nearly forty years. Films, articles, and documentaries were produced in response to the events that took place and the inaction of Mississippi officials. Amidst mounting pressure from Congress, media attention, and a call for justice from the citizens of Philadelphia, the case was reopened and Killen was subsequently r e-arrested and charged with murder.

      On June 21, 2005, exactly 41 years after the murders, Killen was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three consecutive twenty-year terms. Killen’s conviction was upheld by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2007.”

  14. softdrink says:

    My dad was born in Meridian in the 1940s, but the family was long gone from Mississippi by the 1960s. For which I will be forever grateful. While they weren’t members of the KKK, my dad’s parents wouldn’t have been helping blacks register to vote, either. It’s hard to place them in that culture, and to know that they grew up in a segregated world without knowing anything about how they lived…too bad we’re not smart enough as kids to grill our grandparents on what life was really like (beyond the washing clothes by hand info).

  15. Lisa says:

    My only complaint with The Help was that I didn’t feel like it quite built as much tension has the characters would have felt. What a scary time; what incredibly brave people to fight racism and segregation.

  16. Nymeth says:

    Oh wow, that is horrifying 😦 Thank you so much for this post. It’s a pity that The Help left all out that out.

  17. susan says:

    Jill,

    I love how you bring more than sweeping, “I loved it” or “I didn’t like it” to your reviews. I really appreciate the researcher in you.

    After reading your initial review I thought about reading this. But after some discussion about how white authors can write about blacks are often widely read by whites, lauded and published but the same doesn’t happen when black authors give voice to black characters, I remembered my reservations about reading this.

    I am not ciritcizing the author nor the readers who love it, but the success of this book does sting for the reasons I mentioned.

    I’d really like white readers to ask themselves if it it’s easier or their preference to hear other voices when the storyteller looks like them. And yes, I know readers don’t choose books by race of author but I’d like readers to consider the reality of whose telling the story and who’s getting published.

    See Zetta’s article at Justine’s

    http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2010/02/18/guest-post-zetta-elliott-on-race-reviews/

  18. Marjorie says:

    it’s a sickening story and so scary. I need to go and find out about what happened in the challenge to “Section 5” now – though I’m optimistic that it din’t come to anything since surely we would have heard about it in the UK otherwise. But it is still horrific to think that these rights are still being challenged today…

  19. sagustocox says:

    Mississippi Burning is one of those movies that rocks me to the core. Thank you for sharing a different perspective on The Help. I love what you’ve done this month for black history month.

  20. Jenners says:

    I’m too young to really understand the scary realities of the civil rights movement but I do remember learning about these three boys and being so chilled by it. I’ll be reading “The Help” this year so I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this post when I finish.

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