Published in 1976, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a product not only of the Civil Rights Era but also of the Black Power Era. In 1966, James Meredith, the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi, was shot by a sniper during a civil rights march. Meredith later returned to continue his efforts. This incident, of which Taylor was well aware, led Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to begin a campaign for Black Power. They sought to put increased political and economic control in black hands who were independent of whites altogether. Upon returning to the United States from Africa, Taylor joined the Black Student Alliance at the University of Colorado and worked toward these aims.
As an outgrowth of the Black Power Movement, black students began to seek increased academic attention to the historical, scholarly, and cultural contributions of black Americans, many of whom had been left out of traditional histories and curricula. Taylor was a member of the Black Education Program at the University of Colorado, which, along with similar organizations at other colleges, began to push for universities to form African-American Studies departments for the interdisciplinary study of black history, culture, and scholarship. This discipline has since become a staple of many liberal arts colleges.
Based on stories about her own family members and set in a realistic historical context, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is Taylor's own alternative history, a rewriting that undoes the exclusion of blacks from the national consciousness. In her novel, the effects of the Depression are not limited to white Southern farmers as they are in many history books, but are keenly felt by blacks both economically and in the form of increased racial tensions. The fact that Taylor wrote her painful and sometimes violent story for children rather than adults demonstrates the significance of these stories as part of American history, and her intention that they be taught in the elementary and middle school classroom. The widespread popularity and acceptance of Taylor's book, which continues to hold a place on many school reading lists, shows how attitudes toward inclusionary history had begun to change by the mid-seventies.