The Gospel of the Working Class: Gellman/Roll Interview, Part III

By Heath Carter

The final installment of my interview with Erik Gellman and Jarod Roll: _________________________

HC: What factors best explain why some were attracted to this radical gospel and others were not? Are there underlying unities within the diverse spectrum of persons that populate your narrative?

EG: Embracing this radical gospel was not the easy path. It meant risking your livelihood and defying the dominant cultural norms of Jim Crow, not to mention class and gender assumptions about who had the right to lead and wield power in America. Many people who embraced this gospel did so during the 1930s when deprivation had become so widespread that people had the ability, as a result of dire circumstances, to radically reorient their cultural identity. Thus, working people and poor people, who often were cast out or dismissed by liberals and middle-class professionals, often listened to this radical gospel. But many people in the working class also listened to Charles Coughlin, Gerald L. K. Smith, and hundreds of other right-wing religious preachers of their day, because their explanations of the injustice in the world had simple solutions. Embracing fascist ideas, including the hatred of other races, was easier than the alternative of interracial and militant organizing against the American mainstream. Meanwhile, others embraced what Whitfield denounced as “sky pilot” and “pie-in-the-sky” type preachers who did not orient them for action but provided them with personal and emotional styles of worship.

JR: One aspect of the research that really stood out was the power both Whitfield and Williams possessed as speakers, the way that the Spirit seemed to move through the words they spoke, at least in the sense that they moved hearts and minds in their direction. They each had a remarkable ability to convince those who heard them preach, whether the hearer was a coal miner, a sharecropper, a factory worker, or a sympathetic liberal. They also did well with those who opposed them, if they could get in earshot. Williams converted a number of Ku Klux Klan members to work alongside blacks, while Whitfield commonly moved secular or nationalist African Americans to his side. The power of their speech, when delivered in person, also impressed a range of more well known people, including Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Ralph Ellison, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. Some were leery of this ability and likened it to demagoguery, perhaps not without cause. Williams used his oratorical skills to propel the STFU membership to vote to join the CIO against the wishes of some union leaders. Whitfield, on the other hand, could inspire rank-and-file union members to take wildcat action during the war despite the no-strike directives handed down by his bosses in the CIO.

Williams even had this effect on historians who met him in the 1960s. Donald Grubbs, for example, interviewed him in the course of the research that would become his book on the STFU and the New Deal. He was not sure there was any point, since he considered Williams to be an unreliable self-server (a view he got from talking to H. L. Mitchell, the STFU leader, who fell out with Williams in the late 1930s). But during the course of the interview Williams worked his magic on Grubbs, who left with no doubt about the preacher’s religious conviction. Moreover, he came away certain that Williams was far more important than he had ever given him credit for and that historians had to take his view of the southern labor movement seriously if they were to understand it properly.

Sadly no recordings exist of Whitfield and Williams preaching in their prime, so we can’t really know what they sounded like in full flood. There is a recording of Williams talking to civil rights activists in the 1960s, and one can get a sense of the power that the then aged preacher must have had in his heyday.

Both were such impressive writers and speakers that we wanted the book to provide space for each to speak, or at least for the reader to get a good sense of their voices in the pulpit. We decided to do this with two interchapters that each delivers a sermon, one by Williams and one by Whitfield, with as little interjection from us as possible. I think they work really well in the course of the narrative, because they break our biographical story and give the reader direct contact with extended texts as delivered by each preacher, hopefully with some feeling for the historical scene, of what it might have been like to be there. We wanted the reader to have the opportunity to hear the working class gospel straight from its two greatest evangelists.

HC: Your story is centered geographically in the South but also ventures out to Detroit, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere. To what extent is this a southern story versus a national one? Are there elements of it that you take to be more broadly representative?

JR: We’ve framed the story as one of “southern prophets” taking their message into New Deal America. Whitfield and Williams both argued that the nation’s problems originated in the South and had to be addressed there before the US itself could be saved. So, it is both a southern story and a national one. The two preachers came to this political view in part because of their religious training. Williams and his wife Joyce began their careers as Presbyterians who felt called to take the gospel into hostile terrain, to serve as missionaries in their native South. In fact Joyce had studied to be a missionary at Bethel College in Tennessee, where she first met Claude. Whitfield, on the other hand, entered the ministry because of his experience as a student at Okolona Industrial School in Mississippi. Wallace Battle, the leader of the school, trained his students in a spirit of civic service, which bid them to use their privileges as educated southern blacks to lead their families and neighbors to better lives. Whitfield came away from this with a strong sense that God intended for him to serve as a Moses for his people. Whitfield followed this charge when he moved with his family to Arkansas and then to the new lands opening up in Missouri in the early 1920s. There he melded his spirit of service with religious leadership in the Garvey movement. When both Whitfield and Williams joined together to take their gospel to the nation at large, they were both acting in a way consistent with the sense of calling that had brought each of them into the ministry in the first place.

EG: Great question. This story fits with the historiography of many scholars of the twentieth century who make cogent arguments that the South has a huge influence on the rest of America. Also, our book confirms that this era was one of migration from rural enclaves to urban ones. But I would hope our narrative complicates both of those ideas. The workers in this story seem to migrate in circles rather than from North to South, from rural to urban. And while rural cultural traits brought by workers into urban areas help explain why the radical gospel of Williams and Whitfield, based on rural experiences, often succeeded in binding workers together, urban influences – especially CIO locals, radical political parties, and black-led protest groups like the National Negro Congress – fostered new ideas about protest politics. So the literal and ideological movement of urban/rural and North/South cross-pollinated in the 1930s and 1940s more than I had expected.

HC: In your conclusion you say that “the pathogenic, divisive aspects of American life that Williams and Whitefield fought against, at great odds and with terrible risks, are still around us: inequality, poverty, and the reactionary interpretation of evangelical Christianity.” In your assessment, what are the legacies of the radical religious organizing tradition you describe? To what extent is it still alive today?

EG: One reason we wrote the book is to highlight the historic, progressive nature of Americans who had a strong religious faith. This provides a usable past to build upon for our present era when so many Americans, especially in liberal circles, ignore or condemn religious people, especially evangelical Christians, as an inherently conservative and ignorant group whose faith distracts from issues like growing economic inequality. Moreover, middle-class Americans have mocked them for holding irrational beliefs drawn from the Bible. But, drawing on this book’s protagonists as historical examples, we sometimes need pure faith to break through the hegemony of the present, of what appears as the rational status quo. Williams and Whitfield would have made the devoutly religious, whatever their political persuasion, their first priority by attempting to reorient their religious commitment to the radical gospel as their historical inheritance. This gospel, they believed, had the ideological power to break down divisions among the poor and organize them into an aggressive force in American life to expand American democracy and diminish racism, sexism, and especially economic exploitation.

JR: In the sense of explicit legacies, there isn’t much left of what Whitfield and Williams worked on in their lives. A common reaction among historians and other people we talk to about this story is surprise, perhaps mild shock, because most people have never heard about them before. That erasure was the result of several factors, including the Red Scare, but most importantly the surging power of conservative Christians in the last forty years or so. From the perspective of events in the early 1940s, however, it probably would have seemed a surprise that things have come down has they have. Take for example J. Frank Norris, one of the PIAR’s great foes in wartime Detroit. After the riot in the city in 1943, Williams effectively tarred Norris as a supporter of racial division, even violence, as the enemy of working Americans, and more generally as preacher disloyal to the nation in the fight against fascism. At the time it seemed like Williams and the PIAR might win that battle. But if you look for Norris online now, you will find that he’s treated as a respectable, even canonical, theologian in some circles. You will find books and websites devoted to this writings and his ideas. Aside from this book, you will not find similar appraisals of Williams’s work even though his vision of a working-class, Christian majority preempted the conservative Moral Majority by forty years.

If Williams and Whitfield haven’t left an explicit mark on today’s political culture, their influence can certainly be found if you know where to look, or listen. The music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, for example, were shaped directly by Williams and the PIAR. Williams is in part responsible for the song, “We Shall Overcome,” for instance. Has that been more powerful than Norris’s legacy through Jerry Falwell?

EG: Whitfield’s efforts foreshadowed the tactics of the civil rights movement when he led the 1939 roadside demonstration in Missouri and then trained the younger generation of civil rights activists in St. Louis after the war. Both preachers, and their key allies like Harry Koger, Myles Horton, Winifred Chappell, and William DeBerry authored new methods of organizing workers that historians have come to call civil rights unionism. This form of organizing tapped a working-class culture that reached well beyond the field or factory. And the Williamses remained active into the 1960s and 1970s. He and Joyce made it their mission to open their house in Alabama to young activists for conversations about protest politics and movement organizing, past and present.

While the specific historical record of this cast of characters may have been elided, religious-based progressive activism has not disappeared. I have had the opportunity to know community organizers, unionists, and other activists through specific campaigns in Chicago over the past decade, and have learned that many of them came to these positions based on religious backgrounds, or indeed, an embrace of a gospel of the working class. These religious beliefs are not necessarily conspicuous but often sustain these activists. More explicitly, Kim Bobo and others at Interfaith Worker Justice serve as a prime example of this radical gospel’s legacy, even if their voices might get muted on the national stage in favor of mega-church ministers and televangelists.

JR: The story of Whitfield and Williams, as well as the thousands who rallied to their call, point to the more general conclusion that powerful religious denominations are most vulnerable when they no longer meet the needs of their members, and this tends to happen at a moment when those denominations are basking in worldly power and prestige, when they seem all-conquering. It happened to the Episcopalians, it happened to the Methodists, and it can happen to the Pentecostal and Baptist mega-churches. I came away from this project convinced more than ever before that religious faith is fundamentally radical in its implications for human behavior and action and that it always carries explosive potential—for good and bad, of course. Who knows what rebellions are out there simmering among believers discontented with their religious leaders? Who knows what they might be saying right now, and who knows what they might do? This book project has shown us that we need listen closely to these believers and better understand them as a potential force in American culture.


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