Mean Things Happening: Gospel of the Working Class
I'm pleased today and in a couple of posts soon to be up here to devote attention to an extraordinarily readable and compelling book about religion and the economic struggles of ordinary people in difficult times, as well as about the forces arrayed against them. Today I'll post a few thoughts and reflections on Jarod Roll and Erik Gellman's new book Gospel of the Working Class: Labor's Southern Prophets in New Deal America, which I've mentioned and blogged about before (and we've blogged also about some of Jarod's previous work). Very shortly, we will post a two-part interview that Heath Carter has done with the authors.
Sometimes historians are timely in spite of themselves, and in spite sometimes of their own wishes not to be. Earlier, just as I was going over reports of my Congressman Doug Lamborn (R, Colorado Springs), saying that he didn't "want to be associated with him [Obama]. It's like touching a tar baby and you get it, you're stuck," I opened the front door to see a box containing the first copies, hot off the press, of my new book Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity. The coincidence of an old term from the junkpile of racist popular culture garbage (even if the Congressman was unaware of its meaning and was using it in a more generic sense, as he claimed while apologizing for the misunderstanding) and a book exploring the long struggles of African Americans from the 16th century to the present through the lens of religion proved a painful contrast.
One of the results of that long struggle was to produce cadres of black leaders and ministers who transformed America through the great civil rights struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – what historians call the “long civil rights movement.” There is controversy in the historiography about the use of that term, and I don’t propose to get into all that here, but simply to make a more general point about the long relationship of black religious institutions to the struggle for equality and justice in American society.For the twentieth century, the interwar years, and especially the 1930s, has proved to be fertile ground for historians seeking to excavate the deeper roots of the better-known struggles of the post WWII era. Recently, for example, Tom Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North dwells at considerable length on the urban North, and on the remarkable figure of Anna Arnold Hedgeman. Glenda Gilmore’s Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights questions the entire vein of interpreting the civil rights struggle through a religious or spiritual vein, focusing instead on secular radicals and feminist pioneers such as Pauli Murray.
Jarod Roll and Erik Gellman’s The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor’s Southern Prophets in New Deal America, fresh off the press from the University of Illinois, calls our attention back to the religious roots of the struggle, or at least of some part of that struggle. And its appearance just now is all too timely, too, coincident with a national debate over the distribution of resources that ended up, at least in this round, with a decided victory for those who want to preserve the maximum possible inequality of wealth. It’s a conclusion that the main subjects of Roll and Gellman’s terrific book would well have understood, and would have condemned with the righteous voice of prophets. More than condemning, or mourning, they would have been organizing. As the authors suggest of the main subjects of this book, Claude Williams and Owen Whitfield, “they fought a culture of working-class exploitation and racial degradation that was so habitual to their fellow Americans that it seemed as normal and unchangeable as waking up each morning.”
Roll and Gellman’s book is in part a dual biography of Claude Williams, a white Presbyterian self-described redneck from Tennessee, and Owen Whitfield, a black Baptist native of Mississippi and a Garveyite with deep-rooted (and well-founded) distrust of whites for much of his early life. The fact that these two came to work together during a time when mean things were happening throughout the Southland during the Depression is remarkable; the fact that it was these particular two individuals, whose backgrounds could not have been more dissimilar in some ways, is even more interesting.
Owen Whitfield liked to tell a story of a conversation with God about his daughter, whom he was unable to feed and clothe adequately, his ceaseless hard work unavailing of enough resources even for a minimally acceptable life.
“ ‘I done worked, behaved myself, kept Your precepts,’ he cried out to the Lord, ‘and those that haven’t is getting along much better.’ And Whitfield heard God reply: ‘I bless you with enough product to fill many barns. Somebody’s getting’ it. If you ain’t, that your fault. Not mine.’”
Roll and Gellman conclude of Whitfield’s philosophy from this vision: “religion was not about waiting for blessings to occur; it was about crying out against injustice, and challenging people to make their world anew.”
The bulk of this work juxtaposes the stories of Whitfield and Williams. Whitfield came up within a tradition of Garveyism in the rural South; Claude Williams arose from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, a small branch of Presbyterianism centered in in East Tennessee which rejected the more strict Calvinism of historic mainstream Presbyterianism. Interestingly, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s Modern use of the Bible, which Williams read around the same time he enrolled in correspondence courses at the Moody Bible Institute’s offerings on “Practical Christian Work” (by which the Moody Institute surely did not mean organizing sharecroppers in Arkansas to better their own lives), led Williams away from the white supremacist milieu that had been a part of his upbringing. (I never knew that anybody south of the Mason Dixon line except fundamentalists anxious to condemn Fosdick read that book). Around the same time, Owen Whitfield was broadening his view to understand the common problems facing ordinary poorer black and white farmers in the same region. When first introduced to Williams, a meeting initiated by the black Baptist preacher and tenant farming organizer E. B. McKinney, Whitfield originally had thought “What can that white pecker wood say to me?” The two soon learned they had much to say to each other, for both held a “growing conviction that the gospel of Christ should overturn southern orthodoxies of gender, race, and class.”
Much of the rest of the book traces the dramatic story of their work with the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union in the 1930s (where they – especially Williams – clashed heatedly with the more agnostic or atheist organizers). They were, as one chapter title goes, “prophets in the storm.” And through the storm, their families suffered. One typical sentence expresses this: “Williams found his family suffering from cold, hunger, and sickness when he returned from the Fort Smith convention.” Organizing sharecroppers was not, to say the least, very well-paid work, especially when one had a lot of children to feed (as Whitfield did). I spent a lot of this book just wondering how these two kept home and hearth together. The answer may be found in the stories of their wives, Joyce Williams and Zella Whitfield, also told effectively in this book.
Another theme that runs through the middle of the book is the incredible violence that met any attempts at organizing poor people in the rural South. In early 1935, to cite one of many stories related through the book, police attacked a STFU rally, apparently angered that one of the activists there had informed the crowd that the state of Arkansas spent more money to feed the mules on its country farms ($9 a month) than it provided in relief to workers on the farms. As Williams and others sang the national anthem and bowed their heads, police rushed in and hauled him away. Joyce Williams rushed to his side but was shoved aside; the police later “told Williams that he ought to be lynched for using Christianity to incite a riot.” The police later came (one of many such occasions where they did so) to the Williams’ house, confiscated all the printed material they could find, and told Joyce Williams “You won’t live in this house long.” That level of intimidation, moreover, paled in comparison to more violent instances of repression which are detailed throughout the book.
The example of Williams inspired Whitfield, who decided to stop “ ‘whoopin’ and hollerin’ at God’ and start preaching the gospel of the STFU—economic and spiritual renewal through collective action.” Whitefield became best known for leading the nationally known roadside demonstration in the Bootheel of Missouri in 1939, part of his efforts to dramatize the effects of the displacement of rural working people off the land. Around this time Williams and Whitefield began communicating their ideas through what they called the People’s Institute of Applied Religion; the authors provide wonderful illustrations from some of that material in the book. Whitefield’s efforts, they make clear, “were not just about poverty or racism but also about making right the broken promise of Reconstruction that had overshadowed the lives of his parents’ generation." There's the long civil rights movement for you, right there.
It won’t be any great “spoiler” to indicate that, in the end, their efforts had but modest success in the face of the powerful forces facing them (as well as their own foibles and eccentricities, typical of "prophets" who are inspirational but sometimes less than practical). Indeed, one of the most striking parts of their story is how little of it is generally known – and I don’t mean to the general public, but to scholars, present company most notably included, who’ve spent time researching this era but had only a limited understanding of (in my case) Williams, and nothing at all of Whitfield (I first heard of Whitfield through the article Jarod and Erik did for the Journal of Southern History a few years back, and then through Jarod’s book Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South). Historical forgetting is something that historians do like everyone else, and it happens even when we fight against it. It was humbling indeed to learn so much new in this book about an era/region/topic that I had spent so much time researching previously. I spent an entire chapter of Freedom's Coming focused on southern religious progressives and radicals from the end of Reconstruction to World War II, and somehow missed Owen Whitfield entirely, while spending a lot more time on individuals that I now perceive as less significant. My bad.
The book concludes by following Whitfield and Williams later in their lives. The Cold War affected both deeply, forcing Whitfield effectively to withdraw from the field, and destroying much of the work that Williams had been trying to do with the People’s Institute of Applied Religion. I find in teaching courses that students give quick and simple responses to questions about the Cold War and the civil rights movement. Of course the Cold War was great, they nearly always say, because it forced the government to make needed changes so they wouldn’t be embarrassed by Communist propaganda about segregation. That’s not untrue, but it’s not entirely, or even all that much, true either, and this book provides poignant examples of the devastating effect of the early Cold War on civil rights organizing at precisely the moment – just after World War II – when it might have seemed most promising. And never mind how the Cold War more or less forced the movement to move away from issues of economic inequality to issues of more narrowly defined "civil" rights.
Whitfield survived until 1965; Williams made it until 1979, and was still active enough in the late 1950s/early 1960s to involve himself in a civil rights movement that he and many others fought for in the 1930s, including speaking to Freedom Summer Volunteers in 1964. He advised them that they needed “to learn the rural cadence. Listen to a man’s problems, [and] don’t anticipate him with the answers.” Word.
Update: I meant above to include references to a couple of article-length essays that anticipated some of the material in this book, including the Journal of Southern History piece mentioned above. Here are those references: