Between the atrocities of the Jim Crow South and advances of the civil rights era, the 1940s Louisiana of Ernest Gaines's youth forms a crucial bridge. Gaines had used that era before in three other books, and he has written that A Lesson Before Dying didn't begin to crystallize in his mind until he made a relatively late decision to set it then. In his essay "Writing A Lesson Before Dying," Gaines says, "If I put my story in the forties, there was so much material I could use.... I knew the food people ate, knew the kind of clothes they wore, knew the kind of songs they sang in the fields and in the church."
During the Jim Crow era, local officials had instituted curfews for blacks and posted "Whites Only" and "Colored" signs in parks, schools, hotels, water fountains, restrooms, and public transportation. Laws against miscegenation or "race-mixing" deemed all marriages between white and black not only void, but illegal. Compounding the injustice of Jim Crow laws was the inconsistency of their application. Backtalk would rate a laugh in one town, a lynching just over the county line.
It's little wonder that those few African Americans who succeeded on a national level became a source of enormous pride to those still under racism's lash. The scholar-critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has written of hearing the shouts go up all over his West Virginia hometown whenever a black face appeared on television: "Colored on Channel 2!" "Sammy Davis Jr.'s on Channel 5!" For Gaines's slightly older generation, the same thing happened whenever the names of the barrier-breaking ballplayer Jackie Robinson, or heavyweight champ Joe Louis—both mentioned in A Lesson Before Dying—or pioneering civil-rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall came up.
As chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Marshall argued and won the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which struck down school segregation. Thirteen years later, Marshall crossed the courtroom rail to become America's first black justice on the Supreme Court, where several of his influential opinions became, and still are, the law of the land. But he laid the groundwork for that triumph in political and legal struggles—such as the Garner v. Louisiana case, which invalidated convictions for a lunch-counter sit-in—during the pre-civil rights era that Ernest J. Gaines chronicles so well.
"We had the great landowners, the sharecroppers, the small towns, uptown, and back of town, the swamps, the bayous—there's a story behind every tree."
—Ernest J. Gaines in a 1994 interview