Remembering the past brings power to the present

Minrose Gwin spent years researching deep into the life of civil rights activist Medgar Evers for an academic project.

To her surprise, she came away with more than one way to tell this tale of the segregated South: not only the scholarly work that had long been on her mind, but also a debut novel of note.

Meet Minrose Gwin: an interview with WUNC

“Many people have forgotten Medgar Evers,” says the Kenan Eminent Professor of English. “If you go into any classroom and ask students if they know who Medgar Evers was, maybe four will raise their hands. There are many students, of different backgrounds, who don’t know who he is.”

Medgar Evers was a native of Mississippi, an African American veteran of World War II and field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His life, 1963 assassination, and two unsuccessful murder trials were national symbols of the civil rights movement. (Byron De La Beckwith was eventually convicted of Evers’s murder in 1994.)

Collective memory – why we remember some things and forget others – is central to Gwin’s areas of academic interest: issues of race, gender, and sense of place. Gwin also grew up in Mississippi, living on the white side of segregation as a backdrop to her youth. She knew Evers could not be forgotten.

“If we don’t remember the past, someone else is going to form that past differently and use it or misuse it,” she says. “Remembering the past brings power to the present.”

She was in the midst of research, scouring old newspapers on microfilm and studying everything she could on Evers’s family, life and death, when a voice crept in she couldn’t ignore: that of a child. Gwin followed.

“Good writing is writing toward what you don’t know,” she says. “There’s always been a process of uncovering things in my work, excavating. Writing is a lot like archaeology that way.”

Florence Forest is the 10-year-old narrator of the resulting novel, The Queen of Palmyra. A child in the midst of the racial world of the early 1960’s, Florence grows up in Mississippi with a Klansman for a father and a progressive “cake lady” for a mother. Florence’s “willed, necessary blindness”—what she sees and doesn’t see of her father’s violence–paints the larger picture of racial violence of the south.

“The novel was really instigated by this idea of belated witness, people who know things and don’t speak at the time, and who later come forward,” she says. “There are these big, large-scale horrific things happening because people turn away and refuse, either consciously or unconsciously, to see them.”

The novel was a Barnes & Nobel Discover Great New Writers selection and a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. (Read review from UNC’s Endeavors magazine.) Gwin’s book, Remembering Medgar Evers/Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement, is due from University of Georgia Press in 2013, the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s assassination.