Last week, I finished reading a wonderful and enlightening book entitled "Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights 1919-1950"
(Norton 2008) by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, a noted history professor from Yale University.
I had discussed this book once before in the context
of a largely positive book review that appeared in the Washington Post. Later, a not so positive review appeared in the New York Times
. However, now having read the book, I find the NY Times' review is misleading and unfair. The reviewer, Maurice Isserman, posited that the interest in this period of the Civil Rights Movement is academic, and that Gilmore had not made a case for any significant connection between the pre-World War II movement and the movement that hit its stride after the US Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education
Isserman knows better than to say this as the book is quite clear as to how the pre-World War II movement created the foundation for the movement that developed after the 1954 Supreme Court decision, which gave the movement the legal backing on top of the moral backbone it developed during the decades between 1919 and 1950. It is also why I have decided to write my own review of the book in this post.
In "Defying Dixie," Professor Gilmore expertly provides insight into the people who set the foundations for the post-World War II Civil Rights Movement. She explains how A. Philip Randolph, the Socialist leader of the Pullman train porter's union, and other radicals, which included Communists, successfully pushed the concept that Hitler's Nazi racist policies were analogous to the racism pervading American culture, and the racist laws that pervaded the American South. Randolph's agitation for a March on Washington was only held back due to the onset of American involvement in World War II, but even then, the creation of the first federal anti-discrimination commission under FDR, which proved to be a key turning point in federal policy on behalf of African-Americans, was directly due to Randolph's efforts. And of course it was Randolph who was prominently standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech.
Communists such as the African-American Lovett Fort-Whiteman, white Communists such as Max Yergan and Junius Scales, were instrumental in agitating against white racism in the 1920s and 1930s in the American South, and radical (but hardly Communist) agitators such as Pauli Murray (a courageous young woman at the time who was also likely a lesbian) forced Southern liberals such as University of North Carolina President Frank Porter Graham to move from a position of accommodating segregation to demanding integration. It was noteworthy to me that when, in the mid-1960s, President Lyndon Johnson was looking for a General Counsel for the then new anti-discrimination federal agency known as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), the Johnson administration was initially going to choose Murray--who had become a lawyer in the 1950s. She was, however, ultimately rejected due to her having briefly been a Communist Party member in the 1930s, despite her being part of the group opposing Stalin during her brief membership.
Yet, this is what Isserman writes in his last paragraph of his too short review:"Unfortunately [Gilmore's] belief that radical activists of the 1930s and 1940s 'hastened' the end of Jim Crow in the postwar era is more asserted than demonstrated. And without such demonstration, Pauli Murray notwithstanding, 'Defying Dixie' becomes an exercise in radical antiquarianism, a series of disparate essays built around interesting personalities, the whole rather less than the sum of its parts."
Isserman, again, is wrong to believe Gilmore does not make that substantive case. Plus, his last criticism, that Professor Gilmore's book reads like a series of essays on individuals, rather than a coherent narrative, is equally meritless. The book clearly follows a chronological retelling of this history--and a simple review of the book's chapter headings immediately negates Isserman's criticism. This book is both a wonderful read and an important book, especially for non-historian readers. For Gilmore provides a brilliant understanding of the history of the 1920s and 1930s, from the debates inside the US Communist Party, and the larger US policy fights that led us into World War II against Hitler (as opposed to siding with Hitler against Stalin), and yet maintains a laser focus on the impact of these events on the developing Civil Rights Movement of that time.
Contrary to Isserman, Professor Gilmore has written about these historical threads in a wise shorthand that allows non-historian readers to grasp that perhaps only radicals and Communists had the courage and fortitude to organize and agitate for racial integration, and the end of legal discrimination, during a time when lynchings were still considered a "right" in the eyes of too many Southerners.
Again, the NY Times reviewer, Maurice Isserman, who has written about the Communist Party
over the past two decades, knows better. His criticism of Professor Gilmore's book strikes me as personal and petty for reasons I frankly do not understand.*
Gilmore, who holds a position at Yale in honor of C. Vann Woodward, the justly famed historian of the American South, recognizes Woodward's own contributions as a young radical in the 1930s. The connection between the 1930s and 1950s is obvious even with Woodward, who went on to write the book that adorned the shelves of nearly all active Northern liberals who supported the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s period: "The Strange Career of Jim Crow"
(Oxford Press, 1957). It really makes me wonder how closely Isserman even read this book...
My advice, then, is that those readers interested in wanting to know more about the courageous Americans who made a difference in pushing America to live up to its promise of freedom, should pick up this book or, if you find it too expensive at $39.95, order it from your local library. It is a worthy volume to read--and also to own for your private library.
* I often wish I could be a history professor instead of a lawyer, as my knowledge of history is of course quite strong. Yet, in my face to face discussions with too many college professors, both my wife and I have noticed they often see my knowledge as something of a threat to their position. I was once recommended to seek a law professor position at a new law school in Orange County some years ago, and the sense that I represented a threat to the professors I dealt with at the fledgling school was palpable. Sad, really. It is doubly sad because, even though an old friend tracked me down to say he read my book on RFK, and that I should be definitely teaching history or literature (he said the book was a lively PhD dissertation for history, political science and literature combined), no college or university would likely see fit to put me on a "fast track" to a professor's position. Oh well, perhaps one day a benefactor may come along and say, "Let's establish a chair and give you a chance to teach..." Yes, and the lottery system is just waiting for me to purchase the winning ticket, said this blogger with an arched sarcasm in his voice.