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Preachers of Protest

ISSUE:  Summer 1982
Against the Grain: Southern Radicals and Prophets, 1929—1959. By Anthony P. D. Dunbar. Virginia. $16.95.

As I read this extremely well-narrated study of mid-20th-century Southern radicalism, by Anthony Dunbar, I kept remembering the words of a white woman my wife and I had met early in 1962, when we lived in Atlanta. She was the mother of one of the poorer white youths we’d come to know—a 16-year-old fellow who was adamantly opposed to integration, as were all his classmates. Two blacks had been admitted to a particular high school, and the result was a fierce and continuing turmoil—though nothing as publicly evident as what we’d seen a year earlier in New Orleans. The mother had also been a strenuous critic of Atlanta’s increasingly “liberal” posture on “race,” and she explained her attitudes to us, Yankee outsiders, in the following manner: “We’re just plain people, and we have no money, and we don’t just shift our opinions because the people who have money have decided it’s time to change. Would you respect yourself if you turned around on everything you’d been saying, just because the newspaper people and the business people said you should? I pick up the paper or I put on the TV, and all these smart people talk about the rest of us as if we’re a bunch of puppets, waiting to be told what to do. Maybe we are! All I know is this, that the plain person, working like a dog to get by, has no real say in anything. When I go to church and hear our minister talk, and tell us what Jesus said, and what He believed, and when I look around me, and see what we’ve got, the system here in this country, I say to myself that something is mighty wrong. God meant for us all to be good, and for us all to have a life free of being hungry, and free of being sick because you can’t pay some doctor his big fat bill. God didn’t mean for a few to have more than they know what to do with, and the rest of us to be in such bad shape, not knowing what might happen next week, not having a job we can be sure of, not having a dime to put away for the future. I can’t say I have any great love for the colored; I just don’t think they’re supposed to be integrated with us. But if you ask me, I think they’re not all that worse off than the rest of us. It’s the whole system, like I say, that needs a big, big overhaul.”

In her own way, she was going “against the grain,” and speaking a native, rough-hewn but powerful and shrewd radicalism. The “overhaul” she mentioned was what Anthony Dunbar’s “radicals and prophets” had in mind when, between 1929 and 1959, the 30-year period he examines, they strove hard and long to change the political and economic contours of an especially conservative region of America. As one gets to know these individuals, one gets to know as well our country—the powerful conservative, property-oriented side of our history. And, too, one is reminded of the racial suspicions and hatreds which, unfortunately, have dogged us from the very first days of the Republic. Mr. Dunbar doesn’t, however, dwell on all that—the injustices which have been bulwarked by custom, by law, and, in the clutch, by brute force. His book is an account, really, of the high personal costs of taking on critically, actively, persistently such entrenched political, economic, social power.

Especially interesting is the religious aspect of such a challenge. The people of the South have been strong in their professed Christianity. The heroes Mr. Dunbar presents— Howard Kester, Miles Horton, Don West, Claude Williams— were thoroughly serious Christians, in their own adamant way. They couldn’t help remembering Jesus Christ’s life—a poor, itinerant preacher who walked Galilee, associating with the poor, the scorned, the lame, the blind, the mad, the utterly vulnerable souls of a particular empire. For these Southerners, Christ’s example was to be followed—lest His deeds be forgotten, and His words become the stuff of phony, syrupy sermons, all too readily agreeable to various principalities and powers. With regard to the character of the radical movement he surveys, Mr. Dunbar observes that “among its distinguishing features” was a “basis in Christianity.” He observes further that many of the movement’s “articulators” were graduates of Protestant seminaries. “Their theology,” we are told, “sprang generally from the Social Gospel”—the effort of Reinhold Niebuhr and others to emphasize the importance of following Christ’s example in our everyday lives as citizens, as members of one or another community.

Such a literal-minded, intense, unyielding Christianity prompted a fierce response, indeed, from Southern sheriffs and deputies—so often mere lackeys of coal mine operators or plantation owners or those who ran textile mills. This book is filled with chilling stories of violence, and flagrantly unconsitutional behavior, all done in the name of “law and order.” We are made to understand, alas, that the law, too, is often someone’s property, and that murder itself has been committed, again and again, in the name of this or that vested interest. Vigilantes, night riders, viciously hateful propagandists, peddlers of racial slurs, all figure in this book, as do their deeds: union-busting, arson, murder. Lynchings, now blessedly a thing of the past, come back to haunt us on page after page—grim evidence, for many decades, of the poisonous hysteria which hovered over the apparently charming Southern landscape. As recently as the late 1930’s, and with an avowedly progressive President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the White House, the Senate of the United States could not find within itself a willingness to make lynching a federal crime.

This is an intelligent, carefully researched, thoughtful social history. The author clearly shares many of the ideals of the people whose struggles he describes. And many of those ideals have now become realized. Once again we come to understand that one generation’s radicalism becomes the next’s quite acceptable political reality. By no means have the South’s racial problems, or its problems of rural poverty, been solved. Still, the region is not what it was during the years to which this book attends, 1929 to 1959, a period of severe economic recession, then war, then cold war, with all its concomitant redbaiting, a tactic easily used to stifle reformist political efforts. An Atlanta with Andrew Young as Mayor would have been, no doubt, the most extravagant futurist fantasy for the maverick churchmen, the populist organizers whose hopes and battles Anthony Dunbar describes.

The South, of course, has always had its radical cohorts. Populism was a predominantly Southern phenomenon—a strong bid by a terribly hurt yet proud people for a larger share of national power. This book belongs next to Lawrence Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise on a shelf devoted to the continuing paradox of a region able, sometimes simultaneously, to generate the best and the worst in the American tradition. Populists were, really, Southern localist communitarians, anxious to take power away from distant oligarchic bureaucracies, commercial or federal—and thus return to the ordinary people a significant measure of political and economic control over their lives. At times, unfortunately, as Richard Hofstadter kept insisting, populism became more than tinged with “paranoia”—the bitterness and hate that poor, hard-pressed people often can’t stop themselves from feeling. I remember, for example, listening to speakers at Klan meetings in Louisiana, and amid the awful outbursts of obscene racism, one could hear, without too much trouble, another theme—the sense of confusion and despair of individuals who had very little, indeed, to fall back upon as their own. The issue, so often, has been a politics of class, concealed by a politics of race—and similarly with the public rhetoric: slurs against blacks which are meant to hide a feeling, on the part of working-class white people (the well-known “rednecks”) that their so-called “betters” have an equivalent contempt for them. (I am, of course, breaking no new ground here.)

This book serves to remind its readers that irony and paradox are the stuff not only of good novels, but regional politics. Fundamentalist religion, in the name of Jesus Christ, lends itself to the relentless subjugation of a many by a few; to the derogation of an entire people by another people; to a narrow-minded xenophobia in the name of a Lord who beseeched all of us with the strenuous egalitarianism of the Beatitudes. Each of Mr. Dunbar’s prophetic activists had to come to terms with such contradictions, and often there was a price to pay, as the author doesn’t shirk letting us know. “Personal recollection often provides invaluable insight,” he tells us, “into the meaning of events, but it must be carefully sifted in this case because angry and emotional differences arose among several of the important figures.” Mr. Dunbar has, needless to say, done his share of scholarly investigation. But he has also left the files of various newspapers, left one or another library, left various archival collections, for the risks and opportunities of “oral history”— and the result is edifying. Even his warning tells us so very much—that those who wage lonely struggles against high odds can often end up becoming victims in unexpected ways. They become not only tired, sad, frustrated. They become embittered, scornful, even hateful. The mind then scours the countryside for targets to suit its needs, and frequently the longstanding enemies (segregationists, the “bosses” of factory and field) are not enough. Friends turn on one another; colleagues split and even stop speaking; comrades get seen as outright enemies. Suspicion becomes a chronic presence, poisoning an entire “cause.” I saw some of all that take place in the 1960’s, after the decade’s dramatic early skirmishes had ended. It is discouraging but necessary to be informed that such fratricidal deterioration is not a rare occupational hazard of sorts for those who take strong and exceptional dissent with respect to the status quo.

But instructive regret is not the only emotion this book generates. Here is a splendid writer, a sturdy political activist, a highly idealistic young Southerner (a field secretary for Amnesty International), telling us yet again, as he did in Our Land, Too, what it means to be a truly loyal American—loyal to the revolutionary spirit of Tom Paine, for example, not to mention those 19th-century Southern Populists who fought so bravely for a more honorable and decent life. In a stale and even retrograde time, Anthony Dunbar’s personal example as well as his literary efforts are welcome evidence, indeed, that we have a continuing heritage of good will and thoughtfulness and courage in this nation.


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