The society was formed in response to the perceived practice at the Modern Language Association's annual conference American Literature section of discussing only works by white men. The society was founded at the following year's conference and within a few months had almost 100 members. At the conference the following year (1974), society members formally proclaimed their demand, "We must expand the canon of American literature!" At this time, the society's goals included the recovery of lost works by minority authors, the compilation of bibliographies of minority literature, and the enlisting of the aid of ethnic studies scholars in all fields, as well as publishing book reviews, connecting scholars, and printing abstracts on ethnic studies dissertations.
The Society organizes sessions at the conventions of such scholarly organizations as the Modern Language Association and its Regionals, College English Association, National Women's Studies Association, American Studies Association, American Literature Association, and Popular Culture Association". The current president is Wenying Xu (Florida Atlantic University).
MELUS is a quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal, covering multicultural literary studies. Most issues are thematically organized. The founding editor-in-chief was Katherine D. Newman, who was succeeded by Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., then by Veronica Makowsky, and, most recently, by Martha J. Cutter. The journal is supported by dues of Society members, library subscriptions, funds from patrons, and by the University of Connecticut.
The journal is abstracted and indexed in:
Since 1987, the society has sponsored themed conferences in various locations around the United States. These conferences feature "panels, workshops and round tables on all aspects of the multi-ethnic literatures of the United States".