The Gospel of the Working Class: An Interview with Erik Gellman and Jarod Roll, Part I

By Heath Carter

Today I'm posting the first of three installments of an interview with Erik Gellman and Jarod Roll regarding their new book, The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor's Southern Prophets in New Deal America. Parts two and three will follow tomorrow and Friday, respectively.

Last week Paul Harvey posted some of his thoughts on the book. If his high praise wasn't enough to convince you to pick up your own copy, then maybe Pete Seeger's endorsement will do the trick: "This is the story of heroic people, black and white, who tried to democratize the southeastern states of the USA in the years before Dr. King and the Warren Court." Here's more acclaim from the book's U. of Illinois press site:

"A must read for today: two activists, one black, one white, organize America's laboring poor through a powerful social gospel to confront racism and economic injustice in the Great Depression and World War II era."--Reverend Calvin S. Morris, Executive Director, Community Renewal Society

"This outstanding and impressively researched study reveals the tremendous significance of Claude Williams and Owen Whitfield, two major figures in the efforts to organize southern black and white workers. Erik S. Gellman and Jarod Roll also show the significance of religion in southern working class history. There have been other studies of various religious figures who worked for social justice in the South during this era, but this is the finest one that I have read."--Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, author of American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta

"A remarkable, nuanced account. Gellman and Roll have accessed the lives and learning of these two activists, combining excellent writing and analysis to bring clarity and inspiration to the story. Rarely do historians write with such insight and passion. This is an exciting text for anyone interested in labor, southern, and civil rights history. It ties things together in a way that no other book has done yet."--Michael K. Honey, author of Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers and Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign

Now, without further delay, on to the interview.

HC: In the acknowledgements you indicate that the book represents “truly a fifty-fifty collaboration.” How did you go about this collaboration? Also, can you shed some light on the nature of your “not infrequent debates over interpretation”?

JR: We began our collaboration as graduate students with a project that resulted in an article on Owen Whitfield in the Journal of Southern History. We had both encountered the work and career of Whitfield in the course of our research on our respective dissertations and thought that we could do something new and important by joining forces. That project proved rewarding, both in terms of our ability to work together and the way the resulting article spoke to a range of historiographical issues. But I think that we both felt that we had to leave so much important research on the cutting-room floor to get the manuscript into the shape of an article that an expanded version of the project seemed like a logical next step. We were very confident in the material, especially since the Whitfield article had received an enthusiastic response just as we were both trying to finish our dissertations, but also felt that the story could do even more in terms of its scholarly and popular impact if we included the career of Claude Williams in the narrative. In the Whitfield article we had worked to craft a story that broke through the scholarly partitions that we felt kept various subfields in modern American history, such as religion, labor, faith, class, rural and urban, distinct and separate in ways that did not reflect the actual history of people like Whitfield. By looking at Whitfield and Williams in tandem we thought we could go further and combine fundamental stories of race and region that are often told separately—white or black, North or South--into a single historical narrative alongside our earlier focus on labor and religion in rural and urban areas. After a couple of years in which we both finished our dissertations and settled into jobs, we decided to try to collaborate on this more ambitious book project, even though neither of us was sure of what a co-authored, joint biography might look like as a historical narrative.

EG: It certainly helped in framing this project that we were both also working at the same time on revising our dissertations into books. Jarod had a vast understanding of the interplay between work and faith in the rural world inhabited by Williams and Whitfield in the early twentieth century, since he was completing what became his award-winning book, Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South. Meanwhile, I was finishing a reappraisal of urban protest politics in the 1930s and 1940s, the topic of my forthcoming book on the National Negro Congress, Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights. We decided early on that we wanted as much of the book as possible to truly combine our accounts of the lives of Whitfield and Williams, rather than alternate chapters. In the first chapter, we treat their early lives from the late nineteenth century to the 1920s as separate narratives to parallel the Jim Crow society that kept them apart, and the chapters thereafter present a unified chronological account that focuses mostly on their collaboration in the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union in the 1930s and in the CIO in the 1940s, particularly their joint effort in the People’s Institute of Applied Religion.

When it came time to write, we divided sections of the chapters according to our research strengths, but by the time we got through passing drafts back and forth, I could no longer discern who wrote what first. Although we did not sit down side-by-side to write it, by the end we had both worked extensively with every line in the book. In practice this meant that we each had the power to cut or rework what the other had written all the way through. Nothing was really off-limits, which required trust to allow for blunt criticism and substantial revision.

As an exception to this process, we did sit down at the very end to finish key parts together. During a final research trip to the Reuther archives at Wayne State University in Detroit, we looked at a few more sources and checked references by day and drafted pieces of the introduction at night in a motel in nearby Dearborn. And on the trip from Detroit back to Chicago, we came up with a few more key points, which Jarod fortunately was able to draft on his laptop while I drove the car.

JR: In terms of our debates over interpretation, I think that’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of this collaboration. When confronted with a vast array of primary sources, the historian often analyzes them not in dialogue with others but in his or her own mind. By making this isolated process into an open, shared one, we forced ourselves to be sharper in the ways we read materials. When I made the case for a particular reading of a historical moment or source, I had to articulate a cogent argument to convince Erik and vice versa. To settle most of our debates we relied in the end on the expertise we each brought to the project, getting back to the importance of trust that Erik mentioned. Making sure that our various interpretations added up to a coherent analysis was harder to do and took several rounds of drafting and revision to get right.

Equally important, I think, was the way we reminded each other throughout to not make the book overly academic, which really meant preventing one another from excessively grinding our favorite historiographical axes. We tried to write a book that an undergraduate student can come away from with a more complex understanding of religious faith and protest politics in Great Depression and World War II-era America, and the ways that story fits into a longer historical trajectory from Reconstruction to the modern Civil Rights Movement.

HC: In the introduction you say, “Historians of labor have traditionally seen religion, and especially religious discontent, as a manifestation of some more tangible set of class relationships.” In contrast, you want to highlight “the dynamic power and centrality of religious ideas in social and political movements.” What direction do you see the field moving on this front? To what extent has your work as well as that of other scholars – including, for example, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Ken Fones-Wolf, and Alison Greene – persuaded labor and working-class historians that religion is more than epiphenomenal?

EG: I think we are in a fruitful period of revisionist scholarship when it comes to religious ideology in American history. Over the past two decades, many scholars undertook studies of religion to understand how religious evangelicals have so effectively organized since the 1970s to become one of the most prominent conservative political forces in America. While this work proved essential to understanding late twentieth century American history, it elided the importance of faith in many progressive social movements in the United States, especially during the New Deal and World War II-era where the scholarship privileged class politics, unionism, and political sectarianism as ideologies divorced from religious faith. Even historians of civil rights of the 1960s, who mention this earlier period and the rural church as being important to the black freedom struggle, do so in a sentence or paragraph in a larger study about the black middle-class and urban church as the religious engine of the movement.

JR: There is a vibrant group of scholars working on the relationship between labor and religion, including Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Ken Fones-Wolf, Richard Callahan, John Hayes, Janine Giordano Drake, Joe Creech, Alison Collis Greene, as well as our esteemed interviewer, Heath Carter, that is producing very exciting ground-breaking work, some of it published recently, some of it on the way. This group actually represents two different, independent historiographical movements approaching similar questions from very different perspectives. In the first group are historians of American religion who are interested broadly in questions of poverty and working-class faith, as well as the role of working-class faith in labor organizations. In the most general sense, scholars like Creech, Hayes, Greene, and Carter are critical of American religious historiography for paying too little attention to the religion of poor people, both in and out of denominational churches. Their research is concerned first and foremost with church communities, denominational bodies, and debates about theological ideas among and between clerics and the laity in relation to questions of class, poverty, and the politics thereof.

The work of this group of scholars is essential to the efforts of the second group in this movement, historians of labor trying to emphasize the religious aspects of working-class politics and action. This group is concerned primarily with historiographical questions surrounding the fates of labor unions and movements, popular organizing traditions, and recovering working-class intellectual worlds. I think that those of us, including me and Erik, in this group probably have the harder hill to climb in terms of shifting the field overall because many labor historians are, usually for ideological reasons, deeply suspicious if not outright hostile to religion and faith as concepts. A lot of this has to do with recent politics, particularly the role of evangelical Christians in conservative movements: religion, the dismissal goes, is the terrain of the Right and a distraction from more important material concerns. That interpretation is obviously too simplistic and too neatly tailored to recent political developments to be the last word. But the work of correcting this tendency in the field has only begun.

What we have tried to do in this book is show how Whitfield, Williams, and their peers found in their Christian faith a powerful means to address the most fundamental American problems of their time: poverty and racism. That they sought to put their faith into action through labor unions and other organizations associated with the political Left is an important part of the story, but it is not the only important part. We did not intend this book to challenge the dictum that evangelical Christianity is conservative by arguing the opposite, that it is progressive. I think we both agree that it is neither conservative nor progressive, politically speaking. What we want to show, rather, is that religious faith was central to the lives of ordinary Americans in this period, that religious belief provided a common ground where men and women, African American and white, rural or urban, could identify with one another in something like common cause. Most of all, we hope the book shows how rich religion is as intellectual history, particular as a realm in which working-class people have accessed, created and developed powerful new ideas that changed the way they lived and acted in the world. The story of Whitfield and Williams is fundamentally about the tremendous power of faith above and beyond institutional church homes. Their faith led them to challenge church authorities (Williams was a Cumberland Presbyterian, Whitfield a Baptist), work together in defiance of the Jim Crow color line, and risk their own lives and the welfare of their families to make the world a little more agreeable to God. In short, we take religious ideas seriously and hope that more of our colleagues in the field of labor history do the same. We don’t think you can credibly emphasize working-class agency and at the same time dismiss the beliefs and faiths of the working class as epiphenomena. It can’t be both ways.


Edward J. Blum at: August 10, 2011 at 3:31 PM said...

great piece. I always appreciated Herbert Gutman's essay on Protestantism and the working class from long ago (and E. P. Thompson's fascinating takes on religion) too.

Edward J. Blum at: August 10, 2011 at 3:32 PM said...

Jama Lazerow did some great work too on labor and religion ... just to throw him in there.

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