Reviewed by Raymond Arsenault
Sunday, January 13, 2008
The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950
By Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore
Norton. 642 pp. $39.95
Willful amnesia has been a chronic problem in American historical thought. Many of us, it seems, have preferred a simplified and sanitized version of national history, one that smooths out the rough edges that might complicate comforting visions of harmony and progress. This mythic approach to the past was especially popular during the two decades following World War II, when patterns of violence, extremism and political discord were either ignored or discounted. Politics, in the two-party context of American exceptionalism, had been reduced to a mere quibbling over details. In this fulsome view of the great American success story, there was no room for radical dissent, no place for systemic failure.
Recent decades, of course, have witnessed a withering assault on this attitude by an increasingly diverse cadre of professional historians, many of whom have shown a special interest in the evolution of social and political movements and the history of marginalized groups such as African Americans, women and the poor. Shining a light on the darkest recesses of U.S. history, revisionist scholars have challenged the presumptions of American exceptionalism. In the process, they have fostered a greater appreciation for the power of dissent and disorder, uncovering the radical roots of everything from the American Revolution and abolitionism to populism and organized labor. In the burgeoning field of civil rights studies, such an appreciation has been an important undercurrent for at least a decade. But with the publication of Glenda Gilmore's remarkable new book, Defying Dixie, the left-wing origins of the civil rights movement have risen to the surface of historical debate.
Gilmore, a North Carolina native and Yale history professor, transformed our understanding of the Southern progressive movement with her first book, Gender and Jim Crow, published in 1996. Defying Dixie promises to do the same for the emerging freedom struggle of the post-World War I era. The early stages of what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has aptly labeled "the long Civil Rights Movement" have attracted considerable scholarly attention in recent years, so much so that most historians no longer feel comfortable with accounts of the movement that begin in the mid-1950s with the Brown decision or the Montgomery bus boycott. But even the most enlightened civil rights historians will find new material and much to ponder in Gilmore's richly textured study of the Southern communists, socialists and expatriates who challenged Jim Crow during the three decades following the Bolshevik Revolution.
Gilmore makes a strong case that Cold War insecurities have promoted the false impression "that middle-class black men in ties radicalized the nation." Those mid-century men in ties, religious leaders with strong connections to the established black community, fostered increasingly militant local and national movements that insisted on "freedom now" and "liberty and justice for all." But they were hardly Soviet-style communists, no matter what Red-baiting white supremacists thought or said at the time. By ignoring the movement's radical origins in the ideologically charged political and economic struggles of the early 20th century, she insists, "we discount the forces that generated and sustained human rights during the 1930s and 1940s and privilege its religious, middle class, and male roots." Misled by conservative politicians and the mainstream media, we have accepted a truncated and distorted version of civil rights history. "In the simplified stories that the media told of the movement," Gilmore writes, "civil rights came to mean school integration, access to public accommodations, and voting rights. This view erased the complexity of a drive to eliminate the economic injustices wrought by slavery, debt peonage, and a wage labor system based on degraded black labor. It took residential desegregation off the agenda, apparently once and for all. It swept away connections among civil liberties, labor rights, and civil rights that liberals and radicals had carefully forged from the mid-1930s onward."
As Gilmore demonstrates, the real and infinitely more complicated history of the modern civil rights struggle "begins at the radical edges of a human rights movement after World War I, with communists who promoted and practiced racial equality and considered the South crucial to their success in elevating labor and overthrowing the capitalist system. They were joined in the late 1930s by a radical left to form a southern Popular Front that sought to overturn Jim Crow, elevate the working class, and promote civil rights and civil liberties. During and after World War II a growing number of grassroots activists protested directly against white supremacy and imagined it poised to fall of its own weight. They gave it a shove."
In telling this story, Gilmore broadens the scope of Southern and civil rights history to include individuals and organizations operating well beyond the Mason-Dixon line. Nationalizing and internationalizing the saga, she reminds us that "the South could remain the South only by chasing out some of its brightest minds and most bountiful spirits, generation after generation. Many of those who left did so, directly or indirectly, because they opposed white supremacy. Counting them back into southern history reveals an insurgent South and shows some Southerners to be a revolutionary lot that fought longer and harder than anyone else to defeat Dixie."
No brief review can do justice to the full range of historical characters and events that dominate the pages of Defying Dixie. But one example may give some sense of the exotic radicalism that prevailed prior to the classic civil rights struggle of the 1950s and '60s. Gilmore begins the book with the story of Lovett Fort-Whiteman, the first African American to join the Communist Party. Born in Dallas, Fort-Whiteman migrated to Tuskegee, Mexico and Canada before settling in Harlem as an editor of the socialist magazine the Messenger in 1917. By 1919 his anarcho-syndicalism had morphed into an association with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Communist Labor Party. After he gave a speech in St. Louis on "The Negro and the Social Revolution," he was convicted of sedition. Following a brief prison term, he moved to Chicago, where he became a Communist Party organizer specializing in recent black migrants from the South.
In 1924, Fort-Whiteman traveled to Moscow for the Fifth World Congress of the Third International, where he informed his fellow Communists that "negroes are destined to be the most revolutionary class in America." Enrolling in the KUTV Communist training school (a.k.a. Communist University of Toilers of the East), he remained in the Soviet Union for eight months before returning to Chicago to recruit black Americans for the KUTV and to found the American Negro Labor Congress. Time magazine labeled him the "Reddest of the Blacks." But later in the decade, after a futile campaign to organize black workers in the South, he found himself on the losing side of a factional and ideological struggle for control of the American Communist Party. In 1930, after arguing unsuccessfully for a policy of separatism and self-determination in the Black Belt, he essentially gave up on America, fleeing to the Soviet Union, where he married and worked as a science teacher. Three years later, he changed his mind and tried to return to the United States, but Soviet authorities refused his request. His controversial statements about race and class eventually led to charges of counter-revolutionary heresy and banishment to a Siberian gulag, where he died of starvation in 1939.
Fort-Whiteman's unlikely odyssey from Texas to Siberia is just one of the many extraordinary stories that punctuate the revisionist narrative of Defying Dixie. Some scholars may question Gilmore's decision, acknowledged in the book's introduction, to focus on expatriate activists to the virtual exclusion of "the local people who lived in the South and who started the civil rights movement in the 1950s." And others will be disappointed by the author's failure to offer an epilogue that connects the early history of the movement to the transitional events of the pre- and post- Brown era. But no one who reads this eye-opening book will come away with anything less than a renewed appreciation for the complex origins and evolution of a freedom struggle that changed the South, the nation and the world. *
Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of History at the University of South Florida and the author of "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice," is currently writing a book on Marian Anderson, civil rights and the 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert.