Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a product of three different eras of black history. The injustices portrayed in the book have their roots in the era of slavery which lasted until the Civil War and which, shamefully, continues to influence racial conduct in America in the 1930s and today. The book itself takes place in 1933, during the Great Depression. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry represents a South in which racist sentiments had tangible effects in the form of segregation, lynch mobs, and unfair distribution of resources. Mildred Taylor wrote Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in the 1970s, at the height of the Black Power movement and at the beginning of an increasing presence of African-American history in education.
Mildred Taylor's own ancestors were slaves in the state of Mississippi, as were the ancestors of the novel's protagonist, ten-year-old Cassie Logan. Her grandmother, Big Ma, tells stories about Cassie's grandfather, Paul Edward, who was born a slave two years before the Civil War. Taylor herself heard stories from parents and relatives about the former-slaves in her family and used those stories as inspiration for her novel.
Slavery began in the United States in the 1600s and quickly became widespread, especially in the South. It developed into an economic necessity for an economy based on plantation crops. The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney fueled the economy of Southern cotton plantations and increased the need for slave labor. Mrs. Logan's lesson to her seventh grade class about the economic impacts of slavery stresses that this arrangement benefited the national economy as a whole, since Northern factories depended on Southern raw goods, at the expense of unpaid, forced labor. Slaves also cleared the wilderness of the expanding country and built canals, railroads, and roads.
Mr. Morrison's mention of his parents being "breed stock" illustrates the result of such an economy on its least powerful members. As Mama explains to Cassie, selected slaves were often forced to "breed" to create a stronger new generation of workers. By 1860, there were four million slaves in the United States. Slaves had no right to marry, to own property, to testify in court, or earn their freedom.
Though slave emancipation came along with the Northern victory in the Civil War, the realities of Reconstruction created an environment in which racist hatreds and discriminatory laws continued. Laws requiring literacy, land ownership, or a grandfather who had voted as a prerequisite for voting kept many blacks disenfranchised until as late as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Jim Crow laws, which developed primarily in the 1890s, created a segregated society in which blacks and whites attended different schools, rode in different train cars, and drank at different drinking fountains. This state of affairs remained the norm until the pivotal court case, Brown v. Board of Education, when "separate but equal" was deemed fundamentally unequal. Black schools, like Great Faith Elementary and Secondary, were generally far inferior and more poorly funded than their white counterparts.
Discrimination and segregation continued throughout the 1930s, during which Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry takes place. The Great Depression began in 1929, when the stock market crashed. A forty-percent drop in the price of farm products and resulting foreclosures on many farms in the early 1920s contributed to the crash. Between 1929 and 1933, the years in which the novel is set, the price of farm goods fell a further fifty percent. In 1933, the unemployment rate was twenty-five percent (thirteen million people). Mr.Morrison, having lost his job on the railroad, faced the far from uncommon troubles of the unemploted. Because of the lack of jobs, those who had jobs were often forced to accept undesirable working conditions in order to remain employed. In the novel, Papa works a less than ideal job, laboring months of the year away from his family on the railroad in Lousiana.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the resulting Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, ended de jure segregation in America. Still, de facto segregation and discrimination remained. Race riots in Harlem in 1964 and the Watts district of Los Angeles in 1965 resulted from the continued, often systematic discrimination by whites against blacks and the resulting inequality in living conditions. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader of the Civil Rights movement, by James Earl Ray in 1968 demonstrated to many blacks the continued danger that they faced based on the color of their skin.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is Taylor's second book about the Logan family. Her first book, The Story of the Trees, was published by Dial in 1975 and earned her first prize (African-American category) from the Council on Interracial Books for children, an outstanding book of the year citation from the New York Times, and a Jane Addams Honor citation. Therefore, when Taylor published Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in 1976, she was doing so in a safe literary environment which had embraced her previous depiction of the Logans' encounters with racism in 1930s Mississippi. The Story of the Trees had been praised by the New York Times Book Review for "dramatic tension and virtuoso characterization" and by the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books as "fairly brisk, verging on poetic."
Even more than its predecessor, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry met with critical praise. It was awarded the prestigious Newbery Medal for children's literature, cementing Taylor's reputation as an author. Other awards included a notable book citation from the American Library Association, a National Book Award (finalist), an honor book citation from the Boston Globe-Horn Book, and a Jane Addams Honor citation.
Taylor has spoken explicitly about her intentions in writing Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, saying that she hopes that it "will one day be instrumental in teaching children of all colors the tremendous influence Cassie's generation had in bringing about the Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties." She credits the inspiration for the book to her father, a member of that very generation. She says, "Without his teachings, without his words, my words would not have been."