Lost Causes Not Yet Found

Lost Causes Not Yet Found

In Defying Dixie, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore seeks to reclaim the radical origins of the modern civil rights struggle.


In August 1967 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what would be his last presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Despite the assembled activists’ many accomplishments in their struggle for racial justice, the civil rights leader reminded them that there was still much work to be done in the struggle for economic justice. Forty million poor people lived in America, King told them, and it was their responsibility as Christians and citizens not simply to take care of the poor but to confront the economic system that allowed them to be poor. “We’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society,” the minister asserted. “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Hoping to rouse the country to action against this evil–an evil, in his eyes, that was more deeply entrenched than racism–King urged his listeners to reject their own sense of satisfaction and instead to be filled with what he called a “divine dissatisfaction.” “Let us be dissatisfied,” he said, “until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.” This was a bold agenda, one to which King devoted the last years of his life. Soon after the address, he organized the Poor People’s Campaign with plans to bring together an interracial coalition for a massive protest in the nation’s capital. Much of his remaining time he devoted to supporting union causes across the country, including the sanitation workers’ strike that would bring him to Memphis, and his murder, the following spring.

This final address to the civil rights organization King led–a call to arms titled “Where Do We Go From Here?”–should occupy a central place in his legacy. Instead, Americans have chosen to remember the civil rights leader more for the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech he delivered four years earlier, during the March on Washington. In the popular imagination, that address and its occasion have been enshrined as the high-water mark of the integrationist crusade. In truth, both were more complicated. At a fundamental level, the historic proceedings of that day in August 1963 embodied a struggle not simply for racial justice but for economic justice as well. The event’s formal title, after all, was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Its demands included civil rights legislation but also fair hiring practices, an increase in the minimum wage and a federal public-works program to create new jobs. As King reminded the massive crowd gathered on the Mall, even 100 years after emancipation “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

Despite the centrality of economic concerns in the march–and, indeed, in the movement that inspired it–Americans have chosen to remember only its mandate for racial integration. To be sure, the most ritualistically quoted line of the day remains King’s dream of a nation in which his children would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” While that call for a colorblind society was certainly controversial at the time, virtually all Americans lay claim to his vision today. Liberals see themselves as heirs of the civil rights movement as they remain vigilant against the many manifestations of racism. Conservatives, meanwhile, invoke those selfsame words as an argument against race-conscious efforts by public and private institutions to counteract the legacies of slavery and segregation. (Never mind the fact that such an interpretation is wholly at odds with the enthusiastic support that King and other civil rights leaders gave to affirmative action in education and employment.)

Ultimately, this understanding of the civil rights movement as a struggle against racism alone has been so widely accepted because it flatters our sense of ourselves. It assures us in soothing tones that all the movement’s concerns have been addressed, all the problems solved, all the wrongs righted. The American landscape is no longer scarred by the physical markers of racial segregation, such as separate drinking fountains or crudely divided public spaces. The most obvious and egregious examples of racial subjugation have been likewise written out of our public laws and our national consciousness. In the final reckoning, the civil rights movement has been simplified in American memory to little more than a morality tale. The martyrs of the movement died for the nation’s original sin of racism; as a result, our sin has been washed away.

In truth, the civil rights struggle was, from its creation, a much more radical proposition. As historians like Michael Honey, Thomas Jackson and Robert Rodgers Korstad have illuminated in their excellent work, much in the world of civil rights activism posed a direct challenge to the traditional structures and systems of American capitalism. At its core, the movement aimed not simply to remove the trappings of racial segregation and discrimination but also to eliminate the economic injustices that had continued to control the lives of African-Americans in the aftermath of slavery. In the rural South, a sharecropping system held poor blacks in an impoverished state of debt peonage; meanwhile, in urban areas they were trapped in an industrial labor regime that depended on both the degradation of black workers and the devaluing of their wages. From an early date, the visionaries of the nascent civil rights movement recognized that the political repression and economic oppression of African-Americans were intricately intertwined, especially in the Jim Crow South. One evil could not be uprooted without eradicating the other.

When the struggle for civil rights entered popular consciousness in the mid-1950s, however, the fundamental importance of economic issues to the movement was intentionally obscured. The climate of the cold war doomed to a political death any domestic issue associated with Communism, no matter how tenuously, and civil rights stood as just such an issue tainted by its radical relations. In its official pronouncements, the Communist Party had long called for equal rights for racial minorities; so, in a perverse reversal, many anti-Communists asserted that anyone who supported civil rights therefore had to be a Communist. Recognizing that their basic stand against racism was already deemed suspect in the eyes of many officials, civil rights activists tended to downplay other causes that would assuredly be denounced as Communist in inspiration, such as union rights and guarantees of fair employment.

Moreover, leaders of the movement went to great lengths to distance themselves from fellow activists with links to Communist or socialist organizations, however loose or outdated those connections might have been. Walter White and Roy Wilkins, for instance, helped drive suspected Communists from the ranks of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Even King’s SCLC eventually bowed to pressure from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and publicly distanced itself from key allies with suspect pasts, including Stanley Levison, one of the men responsible for its very creation. Disowning both a radical economic agenda and the activists who helped advance it, leaders of the movement made what they considered to be a tactical concession necessitated by the cold war climate. But in so doing, they helped popularize a false impression of the civil rights struggle as one focused solely on issues of race.

In Defying Dixie, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore seeks to reclaim the radical origins of the modern civil rights struggle. By locating its roots in the wake of World War I, Gilmore joins a growing group of scholars in chronicling what historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has called the “long civil rights movement.” In this view, the interwar decades do not stand as a mere prelude to the more prominent struggle for black equality in the 1950s and ’60s but instead represent a crucial aspect of a more complex campaign that had as its goal a fundamental reordering of American society. Previous scholars of the interwar era, such as John Egerton and Patricia Sullivan, have skillfully demonstrated the ways liberal and radical Southerners waged an improbable struggle on behalf of civil liberties, civil rights and labor rights in a region notorious for its unending hostility to all three. Gilmore builds on their fine work, demonstrating the ways struggles for political and economic justice were inextricably intertwined from the earliest days of the civil rights movement. The movement’s later demand for “jobs and freedom” was, in the end, nothing new.

While Gilmore retraces much of the same terrain as earlier scholars, she does so from a strikingly fresh perspective. Instead of taking the traditional path and examining the South in isolation, she situates the region in a national and international framework. Gilmore is adept at drawing character studies and uses this talent to follow the lives of several Southerners, white and black, who were forced to flee their native region. Some took refuge in the North, forming informal “governments in exile,” issuing challenges to their homeland while remaining safely outside its reach. Others moved nimbly through the world of international radicalism, journeying to places seemingly far removed from the American South, such as the Soviet Union and South Africa. Gilmore follows them across time and place, tracking their paths not simply in her narrative but in her research. Many of the international archives she mines for material have been previously overlooked, such as a rich collection in Moscow packed with documents detailing Communist Party operations in the South. In the end, Gilmore produces a kaleidoscopic picture: colorful scenes slide into place for a brief, close inspection, only to be swept aside for a new scene viewed from a new angle. While at times it’s difficult to draw connections between these segments and trace a coherent narrative, the individual vignettes are certainly compelling on their own.

One of the first figures Gilmore explores in depth is Lovett Fort-Whiteman. A native Texan and a Tuskegee graduate, he moved easily across the terrain of radical politics. After witnessing the Mexican Revolution firsthand in the Yucatán and then agitating for socialist causes in Harlem, Fort-Whiteman became the first African-American member of the Communist Party. In short order, party officials summoned him to Moscow to teach him about the true nature of the struggle in the American South. There, before an audience that included Joseph Stalin and Ho Chi Minh, he tried to convince them that an interracial coalition of Southern workers would be impossible to achieve. He was overruled by the party orthodoxy and, for a time, he accepted their vision over what he had seen in the South with his own eyes. Indeed, during his stay, Fort-Whiteman came to embrace the Soviet Union as a paradise, an exciting young nation where the only “Negro problem” was the almost embarrassing tendency of Russians to bend over backward in testament to their racial egalitarianism. The transplanted Texan warmly embraced his new country’s culture with a convert’s zeal. When he returned to the United States, he wore his new allegiances quite literally on his sleeve, modeling a Russian peasant blouse and knee-high felt boots, his head completely shaved save for a small mustache. But he would not linger long in America and soon returned, in his words, “home to Moscow.” Tragically, as Gilmore relates, his new home would prove to be as cruel as the old. In the end, the true believer was swept up in the Stalinist purges and sent to a Siberian labor camp. Badly beaten and starved by his guards, he died a broken man in the winter of 1939.

Gilmore charts the currents of international radicalism in the opposite direction as well. In so doing, she shows that the misplaced faith Fort-Whiteman had in the Soviet Union was mirrored by the blind optimism of Communist organizers who saw his native South as fertile ground for interracial unionism. In a careful study of the 1929 textile mill workers’ strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, Gilmore illuminates the ways Communists seized upon any shred of evidence to support their assumptions about the prospects for bringing together workers of all races in revolution. Otto Hall, an African-American Communist who had followed Fort-Whiteman to Moscow, returned to America to carry out the improbable task of recruiting workers in the mills into an integrated union. When he was saved from certain death by the intervention of white strikers, party propagandists trumpeted the tale as “a parable of Communist possibility.”

In fact, the region remained fiercely resistant to interracial organizing, as seen in the trials that came in the strike’s wake. Ella May Wiggins, a young white mother of five who was active in the cause, had been shot point-blank in the chest. The gunmen had doggedly pursued Wiggins and other strikers in a high-speed chase, causing their pickup to crash and then firing a volley of shots to finish them off. At the trial, defense attorneys argued that their clients should be set free “because the slain woman believed in communism.” After half an hour of deliberations, the jury did precisely that. Meanwhile, when strikers were brought to court for a separate shooting, the prosecutor made it clear that they were really on trial for their political beliefs. Union organizers, he said, were “fiends incarnate, stripped of their hoofs and horns, bearing guns instead of pitchforks…sweeping like a cyclone and tornado to sink damnable fangs into the heart and lifeblood of my community.” In this instance, the jury took less than an hour to convict. Even though the prosecution had only levied charges of murder in the second degree, the jurors stunned the judge by handing down even harsher verdicts of murder in the first degree.

As the disillusionment over such incidents spread, Communists in the South and the Soviet Union abandoned idealistic rhetoric and confronted the harsh truths of each region. With the allure of foreign allies fading, Southern radicals looked to find new friends closer to home. Communists and liberal New Dealers, despite their disagreements about capitalism, soon discovered they had common cause in the Depression. In time, they formed what Gilmore characterizes as a “southern Popular Front” to fight their shared enemies–reactionary Southern conservatives at home and fascists abroad. New Deal liberals, the radicals discovered, were interested in many of the same problems as Communists, although they came to rather different conclusions. Communists had seen the South as the least industrialized and least unionized region of the country, and thus the most fertile ground for proletarian revolution; New Dealers agreed that the region represented “the Nation’s No. 1 economic problem” but held that their economic reforms could strengthen capitalism rather than bring about its end. In both analyses, Southern blacks represented the core of the problem and the best chance for a solution. If they could be made into Communists, the Soviet Union believed, Southern blacks could bring about the revolution, first across their region and then throughout the United States; if they were not converted, then black sharecroppers and wage laborers would essentially remain a reserve proletariat, one whose low wages would preserve the entrenched power of industrialists and planters. New Dealers, meanwhile, worried that the substandard wages of black workers depressed the wages of all Southerners and thus reduced consumer spending. If their economic lot could be improved, wages would rise across the board and the backward economy of the South could be made more efficient and effective. Depending on one’s perspective and politics, black Southerners could either destroy capitalism or save it.

The status of black Southerners held serious consequences not just for the future of capitalism but for the future of democracy as well. In a brief but powerful passage, Gilmore reminds her readers how the disenfranchisement of Southern blacks had distorted national politics. With peculiar institutions like the poll tax denying the vote to poor blacks (and poor whites as well), Southern Congressmen were routinely elected by incredibly small constituencies. In the early 1940s, in four poll tax states, a total of 264,429 votes managed to put thirty-two Congressmen into office; in Rhode Island, meanwhile, an even larger total of 314,023 votes would elect just two Congressmen. White Southern conservatives were thus represented in Congress in wildly disproportionate measures. Due to the severely restricted electorates in their districts and the one-party rule of the region, these Southern Democrats had high rates of incumbency. And given the seniority rules of Washington, their long tenures let them dominate the Congressional leadership. Representative Howard Smith of Virginia, a notorious white supremacist and avowed enemy of organized labor, wielded extraordinary power in the Capitol, and yet he had won the votes of just 5 percent of all adults in his district. Taking stock of political realities, liberals and radicals came to recognize the importance of restoring the franchise to Southern blacks. It would provide a broader base of electoral support for the politics of the left and, at the same time, strip the political cover away from their fiercest Congressional enemies on the right. Once again, black Southerners emerged as a crucial, mutual focus of their energies.

Despite the common ground that liberals and radicals discovered during the brief life of the Southern Popular Front, fault lines still ran between them. Gilmore uses portraits of two prominent North Carolinians, Frank Porter Graham and Pauli Murray, to help illustrate the divide. President of the University of North Carolina, Graham emerged in the Depression as a formidable force for liberal causes, both on and off campus. His efforts stood in sharp relief to the segregationist politics of the state and, moreover, to the equivocation of white moderates, especially prominent figures on his faculty like the noted sociologist Howard Odum. In much of the writing on the era’s race relations, both at the time and since, moderates like Odum have been singled out for recognition as the essential actors, without whom nothing could be done. “Since they saw themselves as more tolerant than other white Southerners, they acted as hydraulic engineers at Jim Crow’s watershed,” Gilmore relates. “Let a little pressure off the Negro, they would shout to southern whites. Be patient, they would whisper to southern blacks; remember, we are all that stands between you and an ocean of hate.” In truth, such white moderates did little more than file down the sharper edges of white supremacy. They sought to make race relations “work” within the status quo, never challenging its norms or its essential assumptions.

Graham, in contrast, confronted the Jim Crow system directly. Present at the creation of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), one of the most progressive regional organizations in the late 1930s, he challenged his fellow Southerners to address the political and economic injustices facing African-Americans in the South. “In this day when democracy and freedom are in retreat everywhere in the face of totalitarian powers and their regimentation of youth and persecution of minorities, let us raise the flag of freedom and democracy where it counts most,” Graham urged his audience. Echoing the rhetoric of radicals and liberals alike, he pointedly argued that “the black man is the primary test of American democracy and Christianity.” The university president initially declined the SCHW chairmanship when it was offered to him, but once Southern segregationists howled over his remarks, he changed course. His rationale for the reversal implied he had dug in his heels simply out of spite: “I propose not to run because some groups shout Communist or Negrophile.”

However, if Graham represented the courage found in a handful of white Southern liberals, he also demonstrated the limits of their liberalism. In his case, the boundaries became clear shortly after the SCHW controversy, when UNC was confronted with an application for graduate studies from Pauli Murray. A fascinating figure, Murray was a black cross-dressing lesbian feminist from nearby Durham, one whose life would run the gamut of radical and liberal politics before leading to her improbable ordination as an Episcopal priest. For a Southern white liberal like Frank Graham, Murray was first and foremost a reminder of the limits of his own politics. He was personally inclined to support her cause, but as a university official he was bound by the segregation statutes of the state and had no choice but to deny her application. Stubbornly persistent, Murray peppered him with appeals, both public and private. Graham would have doubtlessly been stung by how closely her complaints mirrored his own. “How much longer,” she asked, “is the South going to withhold elementary human rights from its black citizens? How can Negroes, the economic backbone of the South for centuries, defend our institutions against the threats of Fascism and barbarism if we too are treated the same as the Jews of Germany?”

While she would never gain admission to UNC’s graduate program, Murray emerged as a pioneer in civil rights activism. In 1942, for instance, while a law student at Howard University, she took part in a planning conference to create a permanent activist organization out of the original March on Washington Movement. A creation of black socialist and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the MOWM had secured a federal ban on racial discrimination in defense industries the previous year. Seeking to build on that momentum, Murray produced an incredibly forward-looking blueprint for action. In it, she outlined a civil rights agenda that was, in its broad strategy and specific tactics, almost identical to the one that would later be employed by activists in the 1950s and ’60s. The movement would need “disciplined and trained leaders, students and young people” who “should use a carefully planned non-violent technique of refusal to accept such discriminations.” Civil rights workers, she said, needed to be prepared to accept arrests and to go to jail in order to challenge segregation statutes in the courts of law, as well as the court of public opinion. Local boycotts and picketing campaigns would provide economic pressure against their opponents and add a sense of urgency to their demonstrations. “Negroes will consciously dramatize the problem before the whole nation,” MOWM organizers concluded, “by a mass demonstration of disobedience to jim crow laws and patterns.” Impressive though she was as a strategist, Murray was not content to sit idly on the sidelines. In 1940 she boldly challenged the customs of bus segregation deep inside Virginia; three years later, she began leading Howard students in a sit-in movement that demanded desegregation of lunch counters and cafeterias in Washington, DC.

Even though Murray’s wartime activism failed to spark a broad-based movement for civil rights at the time, she ultimately felt that her call for action had been answered. “In not a single one of these little campaigns was I victorious,” she recalled later. “In each case, I personally failed, but I have lived to see the thesis upon which I was operating vindicated…. I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.” While such reflection provides an uplifting ending to Gilmore’s book, it is essentially unproven by her own evidence. Gilmore sees the collected activism of these assorted Communists, socialists, union organizers and New Deal liberals as the “radical roots” of the postwar civil rights movement, yet she does little to demonstrate the concrete links between the two generations of activists. To be sure, their causes were often the same; even their strategies and tactics, as seen in Pauli Murray’s case, could be strikingly similar. But the causal relationship between the two eras is never proved. The postwar generation of activists certainly knew about their predecessors, in some fashion or another, but the vital question of precisely how, and to what degree, those later activists drew on the earlier example for general inspiration or specific plans remains unanswered. Ultimately, Gilmore’s close focus on the prophetic vision of the heroes she chronicles leaves little room for such an examination of the practical mechanisms of political and social change.

While such connections to the later civil rights movement are not pursued, the lives at the center of Gilmore’s story are followed dutifully to their often tragic ends. For some, like Lovett Fort-Whiteman, dead of starvation in a Siberian labor camp, or the Gastonia strikers, gunned down in the streets and then abandoned in the courts, the end came in literal death. For others, death was merely political. Frank Porter Graham made his way to the Senate, selected to serve the remaining term of a legislator who died in office; however, he found his 1950 quest for a full term shattered by an ugly redbaiting campaign, orchestrated by a young Jesse Helms, that tarred him as “Frank the Front.” Pauli Murray, for her part, saw a potential appointment as general counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission–a dream job, in her eyes–cruelly derailed when it was revealed that she had briefly been a member of a Communist splinter group three decades earlier.

Radical pasts, for these men and women, proved to be unshakable burdens. Yet, in a bitter irony, the most radical causes they championed in their quest for economic justice have been almost effortlessly cast away. Four decades after Martin Luther King bemoaned the existence of 40 million Americans living in poverty, the number of poor Americans has barely diminished. As Gilmore’s study of the radical past of the civil rights movement reminds us, the struggle is not yet over, the lost causes not yet found. In the end, there is still much about which we should be dissatisfied.

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