The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor's Southern Prophets in New Deal America

A couple of years ago on the blog we featured a review of The Gospel of the Working Class, by Erik Gellman and Jarod Roll, along with an interview with the authors. Since then scholarship in religion and labor seems to have caught fire. Below is another review of this work by a guest poster: Beth Bates, a Professor Emeritus of Africana Studies at Wayne State University and author most recently of The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford. Thanks to Professor Bates for sending along this review, which gives us a great reason to highlight this outstanding book again. And congrats as well to one of the co-authors Jarod Roll, who is about to take up a new position as Professor of History at the University of Mississippi, where he will join former blog contributor Darren Grem -- whose forthcoming work Corporate Revivals is going to get a lot of attention at the blog too! 
Beth Bates
This book – a close reconstruction and resurrection of the mission undertaken by 2 ministers, Owen Whitfield and Claude Williams, both born into dirt poor southern families, one black and one white—is not only a page turner, but just plain great history.  Whitfield and Williams used Christianity as an organizing tool to  bring ordinary men and women into the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.  The study is a model for labor historians as well as frustrated progressives, for how to look at both the past as well as the present.  Until recently, labor historians have regarded religion as a pox on the House of Labor, refusing to listen to what our subjects were trying to tell us. Gellman and Roll have a different approach, one that is useful for looking at the past. 

 Several fine historians have paved the way for Gellman and Roll's scholarship.  We have Robin Kelley's Hammer and Hoe describing communist party meetings beginning with prayers and church songs and looking to the black church in defiance of Central Committee directives in the 1930s.  Michael Honey's award-winning works also bring into focus the spiritual context within which union meetings were conducted and document the role of prayer and faith in guiding and leading union members, even at the negotiating table.  Bob Korstad, Ruth Needleman and many others acknowledge the fact that religion played an important role in the lives of black unionists.  What Gellman and Roll have done is peel another layer off the onion, dug deeper, to reveal how Christian faith was a basic, organizing force that galvanized the dispossessed to take action to remedy poverty and racism.  We see how Whitfield and Williams understood scripture and used it to reform society. 

The authors' method is very simple:  They took their sources very seriously when they declared that religious faith was the fulcrum around which their lives moved and informed their lives as union activists. Whitfield and Williams made choices that put them in opposition to the status quo in terms of racial and power relations.  The question Gellman and Roll probe is, what made them choose the path they traveled?  What impulse, what force, accounts for the goals Whitman and Williams and others set for themselves as they challenged Jim Crow and the church establishment and risked their lives as they sought to make the world agreeable to God by building a heaven here on earth?  

With their ears to the ground, Gellman and Roll walk the back roads and city streets Whitfield and Williams traveled, transporting us in the process into the world that shaped the two ministers and their followers.   Structurally, the book presents both a micro and macro view of that world.  The micro view, traced through the lives Whitfield and Williams, their wives, and followers, fleshes out the intricate networks that crisscrossed, connected, and co-operated—and yes, quarreled, fussed and fumed—and then sometimes, but not always, fused their efforts in order to resist the power of the status quo.  Piecing together these networks represents a labor of love by the authors and gives historians and activists alike insights into the numerous complicated efforts usually necessary to carry a movement forward. 

 At another level, The Gospel of the Working Class places Whitfield and Williams's mission in a larger context, suggesting new ways to think about the New Deal era, the long Civil Rights Movement, labor, religion, southern history, and protest politics.  By taking the ministers out the shadows on the periphery of larger events, the authors help us grasp the larger significance their actions had at both a regional and national level.

 We see, for example, the power religious faith had in shaping New Deal policy through Whitfield's Roadside Sit-down.   When Owen Whitfield, in early January 1939, led more than 1500 black and white landless farmers in a roadside demonstration in southeast Missouri, he showed the nation what the poor were up against, got the attention of President Roosevelt, and was invited to the White House to discuss a New Deal for the rural poor a month later.  Whitfield and his wife Zella then used the leverage Owen had gained during his visit with the president to present a petition on the plight of the poor—and what should be done—to Eleanor Roosevelt.   Whitfield's efforts led to loans, grants, and rural public housing, suggesting the power the poor had in shaping New Deal policies.  

 In the process of the telling, Gellman and Roll shred several myths, clearing the way for future historians to build on what they have done and advancing our understanding of the 1930s and 40s.  They challenge the idea that a "white southern strategy" held all the trump cards and the belief that blacks and whites could not work together to challenge Jim Crow.  They show that conservative, reactionary religious thought did not dominate the era.  All those driven by deep religious faith were not disciples of Father Coughlin or the Rev. Gerald L. K. Smith. Some helped blaze the path taken by New Deal liberals and activists during the Popular Front.  Finally, as the book helps us grasp the powerful role religious faith can play in bringing disparate groups together to fight social injustice, we also realize the need to revise how we understand and privilege different ideologies. The irony is how often historians have been the first to dismiss religious ideas and faith for ideological reasons.    

 I am also struck by how timely this book is, offering useful insights for the present and a message for liberals and progressives.  Labor historians are not the only ones who portray Christians, evangelical and otherwise, as ignorant, non-progressive, and conservative to the core.  Labor's Southern Prophets of earlier years remind us that sometimes we must suspend judgment and assumptions about religion and take time to listen to what people are actually saying.

 This book speaks, as the authors remind us, to many of the same divisive aspects of American life that Whitfield and Williams fought against.  While many of the same problems plague us today, there has also been a resurrection of the interpretative spirit that characterized the Gospel according to the Southern Prophets of the New Deal era in the Moral Monday Movement that recently has gained so much traction in North Carolina.  The Moral Monday Movement, led by the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, is composed of North Carolinians who are fed up with the immorality of the politics of the GOP-controlled legislature.  Since spring of 2013, the progressives have met  at the state capitol to boycott legislative actions on Mondays.  The movement believes the legislature is  trying to push the state back to the nineteenth century.  Its members coalesced when, as Rev. Barber put it, they had drunk "all the Tea Party they could drink and sniffed all the Koch they could sniff" (The Nation, July 17, 2013).   Barber often uses the Bible to connect activists across the class, race, gender divide.  He argues, for example, that cutting benefit programs and cutting tax breaks for low-and middle-income families violates the teachings of Jesus to care for those with the least.  It is impossible, he believes, to divorce a call for social justice from the Bible,  written during a time of exploitation when Jesus focused heavily on uplifting the poor (HuffPost Politics, Chris Kardish, June 12, 2013). 

 Finally, Barber believes NC is the crucible for this movement.  "If you are going to change the country, you've got to change the South" (The Nation, July 17, 2013), which is exactly where the story of Whitman and Willams's mission ends.  In the aftermath of World War II, with the rise of the Cold War, they decided that the root of the problem was southern.  After spending years up North, they return to the South, believing they had to drain the wells of "Ku Kluxism" at the source (p. 151).  Sounds like Rev. Barber's been reading THE GOSPEL OF THE WORKING CLASS.