APRIL 29, 1945

The memoir by Richard Wright about his upbringing in Roxie, Mississippi, “Black Boy”, became the top selling book in the U.S. He described Roxie as “swarming with rats, cats, dogs, fortune tellers, cripples, blind men, whores, salesmen, rent collectors, and children.” 

In his home, he looked to his mother: “My mother’s suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness; the painful, baffling, hunger-ridden days and hours; the restless moving, the futile seeking, the uncertainty, the fear, the dread; the meaningless pain and the endless suffering. Her life set the emotional tone of my life.” 

When he was alone, he wrote, “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all.” 

Reading became his refuge. “Whenever my environment had failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books,” he wrote. “Reading was like a drug, a dope. The novels created moods in which I lived for days.” 

In the end, he discovered that “if you possess enough courage to speak out what you are, you will find you are not alone.” 

He was the first Black author to see his work sold through the Book-of-a-Month Club. His novel, “Native Son”, told the story of Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old Black man whose bleak life leads him to kill. Through the book, he sought to expose the racism he saw: 

“I was guided by but one criterion: to tell the truth as I saw it and felt it. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” 

The novel, which sold more than 250,000 copies in its first three weeks, was turned into a play on Broadway, directed by Orson Welles. He became friends with other writers, including Ralph Ellison in Harlem and Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in Paris. His works played a role in changing white Americans’ views on race.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.