The tradition of southern radicalism is small but surprisingly strong considering the circumstances in which it has survived. From the Populists of the late 19th century to the civil rights activists of the 1960s, "radicals" of various stripes have been the point men for change in the region and have had a quite remarkable effect on it and the nation. They have met with fierce and ingenious resistance, yet they have persevered.
The literature on the Populists and the civil rights movement is vast and ever-growing. Considerably less well known is a strange phenomenon that is described by Anthony Dunbar in the preface to "Against the Grain":
"Between these two popular movements came a period of widespread dissent and confrontation over much the same issues, fueled by the miseries of the Great Depression . . . It was a radical 'movement' with many leaders but no messiah, related closely in time to the civil rights uprising but more nearly akin to Populism in the breadth of its economic and social critique."
Though a few of its heirs still labor on -- most notably the extraordinary folk preacher, Will Campbell of Mississippi -- by and large the movement has vanished into history. None of its leaders was ever nationally famous, and all are virtually forgotten now: Howard and Alice Kester, Claude Williams, Don West, H.L. Mitchell, E.B. McKinney, James Dombrowski. Their legacy is relatively small, certainly by comparison with that of the great movements that preceded and followed them.
Yet they were fascinating and in some cases exceptionally appealing people. They were predominantly (but by no means exclusively) white. They were men and women who had been raised in the church and had developed a passionate commitment to social justice. By and large they were native southerners, and they were not limo liberals; most came from poor or lower-middle-class families, and many had battled against their own early acceptance of the region's prejudices before finally shaping their own convictions. By the mid-'30s, the movement had a clear character:
"What could be called a 'radical gospel' movement, which conceived that the world might be redeemed not through man's good works but through the rising up of the poor, had now found a place for itself in the forefront of southern progressivism. Its participants may only occasionally have thought of themselves as part of a single movement, but the latter-day observer cannot help but be impressed by the many things they had in common -- their background, their age, their resistance to racial and economic injustices, their religious calling, and the style of life it imposed upon them. There was no written agenda for this movement, but it was primarily active in three fields. It sought to help the South's neediest -- sharecroppers, textile workers and the unemployed -- through community and union organizing and through education. Second, it hammered away at Jim Crowism and tried to make liberals stand and fight on this issue. And third, it sought to express a biblical message of human liberation and to draw the body of the church in the South into struggles for social justice."
At almost every turn it failed. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which sought to organize sharecroppers, ran up against ferocious resistance from planters and their powerful spokesmen in the United States Senate. Textile organization was beaten back (at times violently) by a well-organized industry in the Carolinas and elsewhere. And for the most part southern churches not merely refused to participate in the movement, but expelled its more outspoken leaders and actively resisted many of the social and racial changes it advocated.
Part of the problem was that the movement was hopelessly balkanized, but the largest part was that it was simply too radical. The socialism embraced by Kester and others was perhaps marginally tolerable to the larger society, but the communism of Claude Williams and his allies most emphatically was not. Any hope the movement might have entertained of gaining genuine popular support was swept away as congressional and legislative committees pounced on these homespun Reds. Big labor, which had plenty of problems of its own, adopted a posture of rigid indifference. By the time McCarthyism was dead, so too was the "radical gospel."
Yet it cannot be lightly dismissed as one of the regional eccentricities to which the South is -- or was -- peculiarly prone. Its emphasis on an alliance between the black and white poor was a direct and valid inheritance from the Populists, and its support of nonviolent protest provided a model for the civil rights movement -- many leaders of which received training and inspiration at its Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. It provided a bridge, and perhaps a vital one, between the 1890s and the 1960s.
Anthony Dunbar, who is southern field secretary for Amnesty International, seems to have written "Against the Grain" as a labor of love -- though he also seems a good deal less naive than most of his subjects. He conveys his affection for them most winningly. In particular, his portrait of Howard Kester is moving and convincing; based on Kester's voluminous papers, it reveals a man of rare compassion and conviction who certainly does not deserve to disappear from the national memory. Telling the story of his genuinely valuable life may well be Dunbar's finest achievement.