Race and the American Idea: 155 Years of Writings from The Atlantic

Since 1857, when a group of radical abolitionists founded The Atlantic, the magazine’s editors and writers have tried to aim their work at the most important, and the most vexing, conundrums confronting America and the world. From the end of slavery to the modern age of mass incarceration, their work has continually engaged with issues of race and civil rights. The pieces collected here represent a broad range of authors and topics and historical moments that encapsulates the arc of America’s racial history of the past century and a half.

Some of the highlights in this collection include:

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson arguing for abolition in the midst of the Civil War
  • Frederick Douglass, a former slave, making the case for voting rights to the 39th Congress
  • Essays by Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, arguing about the best route to black advancement
  • Woodrow Wilson analyzing Reconstruction in the South in 1901, 12 years before he would become president
  • An excerpt from one of the classic documents of the civil-rights movement, what become known as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote in April 1963 in the Alabama jail cell where he was being held for taking part in protests against segregation, and then mailed to The Atlantic’s offices
  • Jonathan Kozol’s reporting on segregation in Boston's public schools in the late 1960s
  • The psychiatrist Robert Coles’s 1967 report on the warping effects of ghetto life on young minds
  • James Alan McPherson in conversation with his literary idol, Ralph Ellison
  • Nicholas Lemann’s reporting on the Great Migration of the 1940s, and on the founding of the War on Poverty
  • Juan Williams’s surprising 1987 account of the future Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas’s tenure as the head of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission
  • Thomas and Mary D. Edsall’s sweeping 1991 analysis of how race effectively underlies everything in modern American politics
  • Nikole Hannah-Jones’s reporting in 2014 on the history of school segregation, integration, and resegregation in the years since Brown v. Board of Education
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates making “The Case for Reparations” for slavery and discrimination.
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