Review: Spirit of Rebellion
Jarod Roll. Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. 266 pp. ISBN 978-0-252-07703-6.
In 1939, over 200 black and white farmers gathered along the Missouri roadside to protest government policies that favored corporate farmers at the expense of tenant farmers. Because of their protest, along with pressure from the growing rural labor movement, the federal government created New Deal programs that provided housing, subsistence plots of land, and better diets to landless farmers. In the long run, however, these small farmers were unable to reclaim the independent agricultural success they longed for in the New Cotton South.
Only one generation before, the promise of a successful farming career drew over 125,000 white and black migrants to the Missouri Bootheel. These migrants viewed the area as a potential “Canaan” that would include a series of small, independently-owned farms. In contrast, the capitalists who transformed Missouri’s landscape into fertile farmland had different ambitions; they sought rapid, mechanized, commercial development—their own “Jerusalem.” As a result of these competing visions, life was hard for Missouri’s migrants, both black and white. Their shared difficulties, however, did not initially draw white and black farmers together in common cause, but rather deepened the racial divide.
How then did white and black farmers unite in protest by 1939? Jarod Roll argues that they were united by a common agrarian worldview and mobilized by a prophetic religion. More specifically, he claims that blacks and whites drew upon a long tradition of Christian thought to forge a shared belief in “producerism,” the notion that a person is entitled to the fruits of his or her own labor. In turn, Roll reveals how a Pentecostal-Holiness belief in the power of the Holy Spirit allowed both blacks and whites to proffer an effective defense of their agrarian worldview.
Too often, scholars characterize prophetic religion as merely “otherworldly.” Yet, in a similar vein to David Chappell’s A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow(2004),Roll demonstrates how prophetic religion served as a catalyst to political action. He explains, “Whether agrarian rebels pursued the socialist cooperative commonwealth, a black nation, or New Deal policies that would assure ‘the things that God prepared for us from the foundation of the world,’ they did so inspired at least in part by a prophetic religion that was democratic, oppositional, and explosive” (7). In contrast to Chappell, however, Roll demonstrates the ways in which prophetic religion encouraged political engagement for both blacks and whites.
Roll successfully interweaves the history of both blacks and whites in the Missouri Bootheel. In doing so, he makes an important contribution to religious studies, and in particular, the study of southern religion, where scholarly topics are too often divided along racial lines.
Yet, what makes Roll’s book about Missouri of particular interest to scholars of the South? Roll uses the Missouri Bootheel to tell the larger story of the New Cotton South. He argues that the Missouri Bootheel provides an early example of modernization in the cotton industry, which revolutionized areas from Arkansas’ lowlands to Mississippi’s Delta to Louisiana’s bayous and set the stage for conflicts between capitalists and farmers that would spread through places like Texas and Arizona all the way to west coast in California.
As a historian, Roll primarily engages the literature of his field. Essentially, he provides the rural, southern counterpart to Lizabeth Cohen’s classic work Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (1990). At the same time, Spirit of Rebellion takes its place among recent, noteworthy books such as Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise(2010) that explore the ways in which people link their religious faith to their economic interests.
The importance of Roll’s narrative is almost self-evident. He aptly demonstrates that prophetic religion “empowered believers to fashion a new ‘moral community.’ It enabled the children of white supremacists and black nationalists to come together on the roadsides in 1939 and make demands on the New Deal state” (10). He then suggests that the eventual decline of hard-won New Deal reforms led many tenant and small farmers to migrate to cities such as Chicago and Memphis where they used their experiences in rural areas to inform their engagement in urban labor and civil rights movements. Clearly, Roll has uncovered a story worth telling.