Zoe Colley

+44 (0) 1382 388226
Lecturer in History


Before joining the University of Dundee as a lecturer in 2004 I taught at the University of St. Andrews. My teaching interests lie in twentieth-century US history with a focus on southern and civil rights history.

My research interests lie in two interrelated areas of twentieth-century US history: the civil rights movement in the South, and race and the criminal justice system.

My 2012 book, Ain't Scared of Your Jail: Arrest, Imprisonment, and the Civil Rights Movement, has been nominated for seven awards, including awards from the Organisation of American History, the American Historical Association and the prestigious Lillian Smith Book Award by the Southern Regional Council, which commemorates Smith's work against racial discrimination in the South during the 1950s and 1960s.

I am presently researching the imprisonment of civil rights workers in the American South during the 1960s, and would be eager to supervise postgraduates in the areas of African-American, southern or civil rights history of the post-World War II era.

Central to my teaching is to encourage students to see how history is not so much about "facts," but about interpretation. In essence, I focus less on teaching students what to think and more upon helping them to learn how to think. By showing the ways in which historians arrive at opposing conclusions on a subject, I hope to encourage students to approach their own studies with a high degree of critical analysis.

Both my research and teaching interests reflect my enthusiasm for an interdisciplinary approach to the study of history. In the past, I have incorporated a variety of sources - including film, literature and sociology - into my teaching. For example, I have challenged my students to think about what the music of Elvis Presley can tell us about American society in the 1950s, or what does a Vietnam war film tell us about the changing nature of American memories of the conflict?

View Zoe Colley's PURE profile



Undergraduate Modules:

Race and Region: The American South, 1865-1945
The African American Freedom Struggle, 1890-1955
The American Civil Rights Movement, 1890-1975



I am currently working on a study of the treatment and experiences of civil rights prisoners in the South during the 1960s. For my next project I plan to research the Prison Rights Movement of the 1970s, with a particular focus upon the way in which the movement centred on the wider question of race relations in the US.

Suggested areas of postgraduate supervision

  • The civil rights struggle from the 1940s through to the 1980s
  • The Black Panther Party and other aspects of black nationalism
  • Race and the southern criminal justice system

AHRC funded studentships are available in my research area - more details

Research Problems

Martin Luther King remains, for many people, the ultimate symbol of the civil rights movement. Yet this popular view belies the fact that King was just one of many thousands of black Americans who fought for decades for their full rights as American citizens.

Over the last two decades, civil rights historians have been discovering the role that these forgotten people played in the movement, yet there remain so many areas for historians to research. For example, there have been a number of local and state studies of the movement conducted over recent years, but many southern communities with a rich civil rights history are yet to be explored.

I am also interested in such questions as:

  • Was the black power movement more about the politics of style than substance? Or have groups such as the Black Panther Party been overlooked in their contribution to the black freedom struggle?
  • How and why has the 'mythical' figure of Martin Luther King been constructed?
  • Writing the history of the black prison experience from the perspective of the prisoner, not the prison authorities. How can we rediscover this hidden history?



  • 'Ain't Scared of Your Jail: Arrest, Imprisonment, and the Civil Rights Movement', published by Florida University Press (2012).
  • 'Race and Rights: New Perspectives on the African American Experience', Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 40, no. 1 (2005), pp. 179-88.
  • 'Jail-no-Bail Comes of Age: The Freedom Rides and the Use of Prison as a Platform for Racial Protest', US Studies Online, No. 2 (Autumn 2001).