Creating Context: Atlanta, the New South and the Civil Rights Movement

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Editor’s Note: The story of “Driving Miss Daisy” takes place from 1948 to 1973—a period of great societal change in America. As part of our production study guide, the Ford’s education team has created a timeline of events that highlights major milestones in the Civil Rights era. Learn more below.

In Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, we watch the relationship between Daisy Werthan and Hoke Coleburn unfold across a 25-year period, key years for the Civil Rights movement in Atlanta. Hoke is an African-American chauffeur, and Daisy is a Jewish widow whose family employs Hoke. Though the social and political climate of the American South at the time of the play is only occasionally referenced, an understanding of the events outside of Daisy’s living room and the cars they share illuminates the ways in which Hoke and Daisy come to understand each other, far beyond the strains of their initial relationship.

Civil Rights Timeline

1600s: The trans-Atlantic slave trade begins.

1837: Engineers working for the Western and Atlantic Railroad stake out a point as the southern end of their intended rail line. At first named Terminus, this point was the beginning of the city of Atlanta, Georgia.

November 6, 1860: Abraham Lincoln is elected President of the United States.

December 20, 1860 – February 1, 1861: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas secede from the Union.

January 31, 1865: Congress passes the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing legal slavery throughout the United States.

April 14, 1865: Deeply disappointed by the Union victory in the Civil War, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth assassinates President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.

1865-1877: During the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, the U.S. enacts policies including military occupation in the South, in an attempt to fully reunite former Confederate states with the Union states. Many Southerners see this time as continuing acts of Northern aggression.

March 30, 1870: The 15th Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, giving African-American men the right to vote.

February 23, 1875: First “Jim Crow” laws are enacted in Tennessee, slowly imposing racial segregation across the country. The city of Atlanta will become deeply segregated, with separate rail cars, public parks, churches and schools for white and black populations.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. "A Jim-Crow car for Negroes only, Fayetteville, N.C." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1929.

1909: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is formed in New York City with the mission of ensuring the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons.

1915: A group of men calling themselves “The Knights of Mary Phagan” gather in Stone Mountain, Georgia, to revive the Ku Klux Klan. They vow to protect the Southern way of life against the threat of Jews, African Americans, Catholics, immigrants and other outsiders.

1919: The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives American women the right to vote.

May 30, 1922: President Warren G. Harding dedicates the Lincoln Memorial. The ceremonies are racially segregated.

1948: President Harry S Truman issues an executive order desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces.

1954: In Brown v. The Board of Education, the Supreme Court rules that “separate is inherently unequal,” leading the way to the legal desegregation of American schools.

1955: Children at the integrated Barnard School, Washington, D.C. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-03119.

1955: Rosa Parks is arrested, beginning the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first high-profile, non-violent action of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

1958: The Hebrew Benevolent Congregation’s temple in Atlanta, Georgia, is bombed. Rabbi Jacob Rothschild was a vocal opponent of segregation. Five arrests were made; though no one was ever convicted, the man who called the bomb into the press claimed to be working on behalf of “The Confederate Underground.”

1963: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

1964: U.S. Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, forbidding racial discrimination in all public accommodations and employment, resulting in the end of Jim Crow laws.

1968: Dr. Martin Luther King is assassinated in Memphis, sparking riots throughout the country.

1875: First “Jim Crow” laws are enacted in Tennessee, slowly imposing racial segregation across the country. The city of Atlanta will become deeply segregated, with separate rail cars, public parks, churches and schools for white and black populations. Courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

Discussion Prompts

When Ford’s works with teachers and students, particularly those coming from social studies classes, I like to send them away with some discussion prompts for the bus ride back to school. But I like to have the same conversations with my friends on the train ride home after a night at the theatre. Looking for an ice-breaker for your ride home? Try either of these, and see if the conversation adds to your experience of the evening at the theatre:

The action of Driving Miss Daisy takes place from 1948 to 1973, but the play premiered in New York in 1987. Do you think that any of the civil rights issues would be addressed differently if the play had been written this year? How do you think the play would be different if it had premiered in 1973?

Kate Langsdorf is former Education Programs Manager at Ford’s Theatre Society. The seven other jobs she held in her time at Ford’s include History on Foot Tour Manager, A Christmas Carol Child Wrangler, Visitor Services Associate, Teaching Artist, Distance Learning Coordinator, Assistant House Manager and Education Programs Coordinator. She holds a B.A. in Theater Arts from California State University, Long Beach.