Faulkner's attitude on race relations at the outset of the civil rights movement in the south is best expressed in one of his lesser works, Intruder in the Dust. The main theme in this book is a simple one: an old black man, Lucas Beauchamp, known for his temper is accused of murdering a white man by the name of Vinson Gowrie in the South, and his friends must prove his innocence against the backdrop of a society who sees his race as proof of his guilt. Moreover, it is the story of a white teenager, Chick Mallison, who must come to terms with the absurdity of racism in the context of a racist society that has taught him to embrace it. Chick is saved from drowning by Lucas, who pulls him out of an icy stream and refuses to take money from Chick as repayment for his heroic deed. When Lucas is later accused of murder, Chick is able to prove him innocent and it is the town that must come to reconcile its own reaction of having immediately put the blame for the murder on Lucas'es head.
Faulkner wrote his agent, Harold Ober, on Feb. 1, 1948 that the story was about "a relationship between Negro and white, specifically or rather the premise being that the white people in the south... owe and must pay a responsibility to the Negro." (UVA News, 1999) Faulkner had conceived the story several years before, and originally meant for it to be "a mystery story, original in that [the] solver is a Negro, himself in jail and about to be lynched." (A William Faulkner Encyclopedia, 1999) Beauchamp's life as a younger man was depicted in 'Go Down Moses,' where it tells his story in the context of life on a traditional plantation. The original 'mystery story' evolved into a completely different model, in which Beaucham relies upon a set of misfits to exonerate him: a white teenager, Chick Mallison; his black companion, Aleck Sander; and an elderly white woman, Miss Eunice Habersham. The relationship between Chick and Lucas has been likened to that between Huckleberry Finn and Jim in "Huckleberry Finn" and parallels can be drawn to Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' which can be seen as the seminal work addressing the subject matter of wrongfully accused black men in the old south.
Faulkner's image of the black man is one of religious metaphor; nowhere is this more apparent than in the biblical allusion to captivity invoked by the title of Go Down, Moses, which invokes the kinship of Hebrew and Negro. The first section of that book could be considered a sequel to Intruder in the Dust. Molly Beauchamp, Lucas'es wife that is dead by the time in which Intruder in the Dust is set, is an old black grandmother who worries constantly about her criminal grandson who has left his southern homeland. She is unaware that he has become a criminal in Chicago, and is being put to death there for having killed a police officer. Instead she thinks of him as Benjamin, a captive in a foreign land: "Sold him in Egypt. I don't know whar he is. I just knows Pharoh got him. And you the Law. I wants to find my boy." (Malin, 1972) Gavin Stevens, the lawyer and uncle of Chick Mallison, attempts to help the Beauchamp family in both instances; in Intruder in the Dust he has his nephew go to the grave to get the evidence that the crime had not been committed by Lucas, whereas in the former book he had the body of Lucas'es grandson returned to the south. According to Irving Malin's William Faulkner, an Interpretation, His action is symbolic of the acknowledgment of the white man's debt to the Negro. (Malin, 1972)
Miss Habersham plays the role of one of the detectives in Intruder in the Dust. As a 'kinless spinster,' she is a fitting misfit-hero, who goes against societies traditions and prejudices as an outsider in order to see justice prevail. This helps Faulkner establish the notion that where society is wrong, it is society's outliers that will present the image of what is right. Miss Habersham is motivated by a desire to see justice prevail and a conviction that her friends the Beauchamps are good people. Habersham was born within the same week as Lucas'es dead wife, Molly and feels a sense of kinship with the family, especially as old Lucas, reputed to be one of the oldest people in the county, is left without muc of a family. She is unlike Gavin Stevens in that she is not content to simply espouse Lucas'es innocence; instead she goes out into the graveyard and helps the boys dig for the evidence. Here she provides a contrast to Gavin; whereas Gavin would be thought of as a man of action because he is well-read and has a high standing in the community, it falls to an old spinster to do the legwork involved in winning Lucas'es case. Here we have another image of traditional society being turned around. Faulkner puts the words of this unconventional wisdom in the mouth of Ephraim, an old slave, who says to Chick Mallisson:
If you got something outside the common run that's got to be done and can't wait, don't waste your time on the menfolks; they works on... The rules and cases. Get the womens and children at it; they works on the circumstances. (Malin, 1972. pg. 44)
Miss Habersham not only helps the children find the proof of Lucas'es innocence, she also guards the prison so as to prevent his lynching. According to Irving Malin, "In this description, Faulkner suggests that she can be an inspirational force to those citizens who refuse to do anything about the current situation and merely retreat into personal problems." (Malin, 1972. Pg. 45) Faulkner enhances the audience's perception of her 'humanness' by having her lose her way in traffic. Malin contends that she is " a symbol of what he praises in Man: the potentialities to respect and save himself without the artificiality of ritual. And she is reflected in Faulkner's image of the mother." (Malin, 1972. Pg. 45)
Much of this work reflects themes found in Mark Twain. Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer manage to solve a crime and are handed a substantial reward, and go on to attempt to free Jim, an old black man, so that he may be re-united with his daughter. In Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, we see "Scout," a young girl, as the protagonist. She too has a close relationship with the legal defender of the black man that is on trial; he is her father, Atticus Finch. We see the 'voyage of discovery' theme recreated in this novel; as a child she is put on a course that familiarizes her with society's view of the black race and the author's conclusions about the nature of southern society. To Kill a Mockingbird is set 15 years earlier but was written several decades later than Intruder in the Dust. It is clear, however, that they both seek to portray the same type of experience in the same type of environment.
However, whereas Harper Lee portrayed a historical event, Faulkner portrayed one that was contemporary, for which he earned harsh criticism from the Southern establishment; Faulkner wrote his book at the beginning of the struggle for Civil Rights and Harper Lee wrote about it after it had been recognized and treated as a social problem by the federal government. At the time of Intruder in the Dust's publication, the 'Dixiecrat' party of Strom Thurmond sought to preserve traditional southern racism from the egalitarian policies of the Democratic Party under the helm of President Truman. What had been the 'Solid…