Natchez Burning and the Legacy of the Long Civil Rights Movement
In recent years, UNC-Chapel Hill professor emerita Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and other scholars have turned their attention to the so-called “long civil rights movement”, the period of more than a century when African-Americans, freed from the bonds of slavery—fought (and continue to fight) to gain the full rights of American citizenship.
Novelist Greg Iles explores this endless fight for civil rights for African-Americans in his gripping novel Natchez Burning. He reminds readers of the old Faulkneresque proverb: “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” At least not in the South.
If you love a good thriller with historical dimensions, this book is for you. For the better part of two weeks, this nearly 800-page behemoth gripped my imagination and monopolized my spare time.
The main character is Penn Cage, a former prosecutor and widowed dad turned Natchez, Mississippi mayor. Cage and his fiance’, the tenacious newspaper reporter/publisher Caitlin Masters, find themselves competing to unravel several civil rights murders while both hope to exonerate Penn’s father, a respected Natchez family physician, from charges that he murdered his long-ago African-American nurse, Viola, a woman who may have borne his child. Meanwhile, the specter of post-Katrina New Orleans haunts all the main players.
Penn and Caitlin work to peel back the layers of a complex case, one that at first glance seems inextricable from Penn’s own battle with corrupt Natchez prosecutor Shad Johnston As Penn investigates, he learns that Viola’s death is inextricably linked to a string of racially motivated murders in 1960s Louisiana and Mississippi.
The brutality of the murders may shock you, but the truth is that the novel features versions of 1960s racially-motivated murders in Mississippi and Louisiana that are but thinly-veiled. If you want to understand the time and place in which the Jim Crow system was dismantled, Iles’s novel goes a long way toward illuminating a time when (black) lives were cheap and brutality came easily. The author does not claim to represent historical fact, but he does represent historical truth. If you want some insight into why race still matters in twenty-first century America, particularly in the Deep South states, you should tackle this book. Just plan on relinquishing attachment to all other parts of your life while you are in the grips of Iles’s compelling story.