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The Liberals’ Southern Strategy

ISSUE:  Summer 1997
Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era. By Patricia Sullivan. University of North Carolina Press.$39.95 cloth, $17.95 paperback.

When, in a pop paean to “Little Sister” (1961), Elvis Presley snarls that “she’s mean and she’s evil/Like a little o1’boll weevil,” the analogy is region-specific; the lyric would make no sense if sung by, say, Simon & Garfunkel. No region makes generalizations about the United States more subject to qualification than the South, which has diverged so strikingly in its income levels, its race relations, and its political culture that the attention of historians is still enlisted.Days of Hope (a dull title, by the way) shows how regional anomalies complicated the attempts of civil rights workers and of labor organizers in the 1930’s and 1940’s to promote economic justice as well as a more expansive democracy. The ex-Confederacy, which Franklin D.Roosevelt designated in 1938 “the nation’s number one economic problem,” posed challenges to the NAACP and the CIO that proved more formidable than elsewhere; such divergences mattered. According to current practitioners of social history, race and class and gender form the iron triangle that frame the national experience. According to Patricia Sullivan, region is a category of analysis that can displace gender; and her splendid book traces how militant idealists realized that “racial discrimination and exclusion thwarted any effort to secure fundamental economic and political reform.” Inspired by the New Deal, such activists thus softened up Southern society before the final assault on Jim Crow in the 1960’s.

Though historians have hardly ignored the origins of the civil rights struggle in earlier eras, Sullivan thus reinforces the professional tendency to find continuities in the past. It is now widely recognized that the Southern movement was not created ex nihilo when Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat, but Days of Hope is invaluable in unearthing a legacy of mostly white Southerners who broke with their families and friends more than half a century ago to promote greater equality among races and classes. Sullivan has excavated a heroic past that is inevitably threatened with oblivion in our amnesiac culture (which has managed to produce a biography of Brad Pitt but until recently lacked a book about Bayard Rustin). In resurrecting forgotten but admirable figures, she has scoured a staggering number of primary source (in archives, in newspapers, and in oral history collections), and has interviewed just about everyone from Strom Thurmond to Alger Hiss. Gracefully written and handsomely produced, Days of Hope has gestated slowly; the dissertation from which it springs was completed 13 years earlier (longer than the duration of the New Deal itself). The effort has paid off as “the study of a generation,” the record—in Sullivan’s words—of “more than a hundred women and men who helped create the political possibilities of the 1930s and 1940s,” and gallantly overcame the burden of Southern history.

The figures she portrays are far more obscure than Rustin. Among the whites are the patrician Clark Foreman, who directed the Georgia Commission of Interracial Cooperation when Atlanta had not yet become “the city too busy to hate”; the intellectual Palmer Weber, a Virginian who spearheaded the fight of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare against the poll tax; James Dombrowski, the Floridian who served as executive secretary of the SCHW; Lucy Randolph Mason, whose great-great-grandfather had signed the Declaration of Independence and who became the chief publicist for the CIO in the South; Virginia Foster Durr, a former member of the Junior League in Birmingham and an energetic champion of racial equality; and C.B.(Beanie) Baldwin, a close associate of the most maverick and visionary of the New Dealers, Henry A.Wallace. Among the blacks are Charles Hamilton Houston, the legal strategist at Howard University who tutored a generation of civil rights attorneys in the battle against discrimination in education that came to fruition with Brown v.Board of Education; Osceola McKaine, a South Carolinian who could find fairness of treatment only in Belgium, where he operated a supper club until the German invasion in 1940, and returned to Sumter to remedy the wrongs of states’ rights; Ella Baker, the Southern field secretary of the NAACP; and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who was perhaps the most prominent of Negro New Dealers and was the First Lady’s friend. Many of those profiled were involved in the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which trained CIO organizers (112 initially) to work where both the Mason-Dixon Line and the color line imperilled the primacy of class interests. Most of Sullivan’s subjects also served in the Wallace campaign in 1948, when the former vice president introduced audiences even in the Deep South to the thrills of non-segregated seating at political rallies.

It should be noted that Days of Hope is descriptive rather than critical; and though it rightly celebrates the dedication of such crusaders for full equality, the author is hardly detached from her subject. Knowledge of any human faults to which they might have succumbed is carefully shielded from readers of Sullivan’s book. But it does show what emancipation from the limitations of Jim Crow entailed—and how frightfully backward the region was. The social rules that reinforced the indignities to which Southern blacks submitted were consequential at the time, petty in retrospect. Foreman, whose grandfather published the Atlanta Constitution,violated etiquette when he joined other students at Harvard’s Liberal Club in dining with W.E.B.DuBois. Virginia Foster never looked back after surviving the experience of being forced to sit at a dining table with another Wellesley undergraduate, who was black. In 1933 her future husband, Clifford J.Durr, would quit his Birmingham law firm when the senior partners declined his suggestion to take pay cuts so that younger members of the firm would not have to be fired. Repudiating folkways may have come easier to her because her father found himself unable to interpret the Bible literally, preferring to treat as a parable the account of Jonah and the whale, for instance. The Southern Presbyterian Church then expelled him from his pulpit for heresy. Blacks hardly needed conversion experiences to liberate themselves from the shackles of the mind of the South. But the egalitarianism that Houston enjoyed in Madrid was akin to what McKaine felt in Ghent; sometimes the artificiality as well as the injustice of Jim Crow could best be fathomed elsewhere. Life abroad could encourage doubts about the eternity and immutability of “the Southern way of life,” and sanction a break if necessary with those whom Clark Foreman’s mother deemed his “natural companions.”

That is why the Southerners portrayed in Days of Hope are not exactly local people. They worked for the Roosevelt administration, for national organizations like the NAACP and the CIO-Political Action Committee (founded in 1943 to rock the vote toward a resurgent liberalism), and finally for the Progressive Party in 1948. Had they been merely local people, they could have been crushed. But they were not outside agitators either. Whites speaking in familiar accents and blacks finely attuned to regional mores could operate more effectively than others in weakening the love-it-or-leave-it smugness and defensiveness of a region that seemed threatened by the velocity of modern change. The activists and their allies could be ‘buked and scorned, beaten, jailed and murdered; but they achieved some gains. Union membership increased; so did blacks’ voting registration, even if they could be collared for “disturbing the peace” while standing at the polls. A sign of success came as early as 1940, when the state legislature of Mississippi passed a law, in Sullivan’s summation, “requiring that textbooks used in black schools exclude all references to voting, elections, civic responsibility, and democracy.”

Though most white Southerners feared that militant liberalism was designed to achieve “social equality,” the real goal was the advancement of political and economic democracy. Of the Four Freedoms, two in particular did not cover Southern blacks, who did not enjoy freedom from want or from fear during the Great Depression and the Good War. Such liberties required full citizenship, which is why the abrogation of the poll tax was so urgent when the South was not only solid but oligarchic. A tiny electorate even of whites granted wildly disproportionate power to the few. In 1938, for example, Eugene Cox (who chaired the Rules Committee of the House of Representatives) had been re-elected with 5,137 votes, though 263,606 people lived in his Georgia district. In the 1936 election, the flash-point of “the politics of upheaval,” less than a quarter of the voting age population of the South cast ballots, compared to nearly three-quarters in other parts of the nation. During the Second World War, an Ohio Congressman sponsored a bill exempting soldiers frond paying the poll tax when he learned that more citizens voted in his district than in all of Mississippi, from which Representative John Rankin intoned that such an exemption was “part of a long-range communistic program to. . . take the control of our elections out of the hands of white Americans.” The poll tax ensured that the dispossessed of both races were disenfranchised as well.

How the forces of democratization opened up the South is not an assessment that Sullivan explicitly makes, just as she fails to situate Days of Hope within the context of previous scholarship on the 1930’s and 1940’s or even on the historiography of civil rights. Yet readers can infer that the New Deal manifestly inspired change, whether through the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration, or through the recognition of the claims and grievances of organized labor, or eventually through the Supreme Court. When the all-white primary was declared unconstitutional in 1944, the eight justices who rendered the decision of Smith v.Allwrightwere all Roosevelt appointees. Though the president himself never supported something so fundamental as a Federal anti-lynching bill (and therefore is barely present in Days of Hope}, his wife served to mobilize, to advise, and to protect the champions of a less primitive South. At the founding convention of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in 1938, Eleanor Roosevelt did her best to obey both a Birmingham law and her own conscience, when she put her chair on a line that separated whites and blacks, the author writes.(Such straddling never occurred, however, according to journalist John Egerton, whose 1994 volume, Speak Now Against the Day, Sullivan fails to cite.) But it might be added that one index of the continuities that mark the movement which Sullivan chronicles is that the police commissioner in 1938 was Eugene “Bull” Connor. The elections that year bestowed the power to obstruct the SCHW upon an alliance of very conservative Southern Democrats and very conservative Republicans, and the Second World War and the incipient Cold War further distracted liberals in Washington from butting heads with the anti-labor and anti-integrationist politicians of the South. Though goodness is shown triumphing over corruption and cynicism in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in 1939 the real Mr. Smiths on Capitol Hill were Senator “Cotton” Ed Smith of South Carolina and Congressman Howard W.Smith of Virginia, both ugly reactionaries who wielded tremendous clout; and Virginia was not for lovers but for the segregationists and scabs affiliated with the machine rule of Senator Harry Byrd.

Against the hegemony of such figures, moderates who objected to the excesses of Jim Crow were inept at best; and Sullivan herself has little sympathy for such journalists as Ralph McGill and Jonathan Daniels, who wanted the pace of reform to be very measured and who then tended to blame blacks for begging to differ on the viability of segregation. Nor do the Americans for Democratic Action come off well in Days of Hope; the fiercely anti-Communist organization sent no organizers South to combat the structure of white supremacy. Instead she makes a persuasive case that, whatever the ideological fissures elsewhere that split the left over the issue of communism at home and abroad, the Wallace campaign exercised a beneficent impact on the South. The sight of a former vice president—a tribune of liberalism—refusing to submit to segregation uplifted the spirits of blacks and their handful of sympathizers across the color line. The Cold War from which Wallace and his Southern cadres dissented is therefore depicted in Days of Hope as a defeat.

But this part of the story, just over the horizon of Sullivan’s chronology, should be presented more ambiguously. It is true that labor organizers and civil rights workers could easily be Red-baited and stigmatized as a prelude to getting run out of town. Their egalitarian efforts could be de-legitimated, since opposition to white supremacy and wage differentials was disorderly and disruptive, and did call attention to the blatant hypocrisies that permeated the region. Communist propaganda could profit from the tumultuous exposure of the Southern way of life. But the Cold War also heightened sensitivity to such barbarities; in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Third World, the South weakened the cause of the United States in a way that was difficult to explain or justify or perpetuate. The Cold War forced the Federal government to do something about such revelations of racial inequity, and thus indirectly fortified the legacy of resistance to injustice that Patricia Sullivan’s book honors.


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