Response to Reviews of Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South
Let us begin by noting how honored we are to have our book reviewed by three such terrific young historians. Thanks to Carolyn Dupont and the editors of the Journal of Southern Religion for this opportunity. When we began this project we thought of it more as a labor history than a history of southern religion, but it certainly evolved during the research process. The varieties of southern evangelicalism, to borrow from David Edwin Harrell, Jr., necessitated that we dig much deeper into denominational creeds, religious fellowships, and the popular religiosity of working people than we anticipated. The large number of oral histories available enabled us to explore how workers, not just ministers or leaders, interpreted the Bible through their life experiences. We hope that we have accurately captured the complexities, nuances, and at times unpredictable connections that linked the sacred with day-to-day choices during this important turning point for organized labor. Moreover, we feel that the story of the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ Operation Dixie, told through the efforts of competing visions of Protestantism to lay claim to the moral high ground, has important lessons for social movements in our own time.
Allison Collis Greene is quite correct in raising the question of race, which occupied union strategists and industrial workers at the time and continues to plague our country. No part of the nation is free of this problem but nowhere did it place such a heavy burden on the movements for political and economic equality as in the South. She notes the ongoing debate over the Confederate flag and violence against blacks; she could also have mentioned high rates of incarceration for black men as the new Jim Crow. As the AFL-CIO prepares a new southern organizing campaign, activist Bob Wing writes that new battlelines between “rightwing neosecession” and “a third reconstruction” may determine the outcome.1 Why, then, did we focus on southern white Protestants? Rightly or wrongly, much of the labor history scholarship suggests that African-American workers, whether religious or not, were more than willing to join unions—even radical ones—if given the opportunity (something we hope to test in the future). The failure of Operation Dixie, historians have asserted, resulted from the flawed decision to target white workers and the inability to organize them in the face of race-baiting and red-baiting. We wondered, to what extent did faith strengthen or weaken these factors? In addition, we operated from the assumption that if the CIO were to achieve its primary goals of building union density and political influence in the South it would have to win the loyalties of southern whites. That did not mean that CIO organizers ignored the concerns of black workers, although some did. Still, Operation Dixie’s organizers who had strong religious backgrounds or connections worked hard to include African Americans. We can only imagine how much more the Civil Rights Movement might have achieved if the CIO had been successful.
Anticommunism played an important role in restraining the possibilities of an interracial labor crusade, as all three reviewers noted. However, if the CIO erred in distancing Operation Dixie from Communists and Left-led unions, it was not the only party guilty of opportunism. Both Communist and anticommunist union activists at times put their projects above the interests of the working class. It seems unlikely to us that the CIO would have been more successful with white workers if it had embraced Communism. Indeed, it might be useful to look hard at the assumption that it would have been more successful with black workers, particularly those with deeply held religious beliefs. Clarence Darden, a black ore miner who helped build a local of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers in Birmingham, recalled that while he was in the army during World War II, “the Communist Party began to take over the union.” When he returned, the local was no longer interested in filing grievances: “All they wanted to talk to you about [was] political things.”2
Janine Giordano Drake wonders just how “southern” our story is. She is right to note that northern evangelicals despised the modernist Federal Council of Churches just as much as southerners did; in fact, the National Association of Evangelicals had strong roots in the North. Still, we would suggest that the perceptions of persecution at the hands of modernists had different implications in the South where explicitly southern denominations—Southern Baptists and Presbyterians—could circle the wagons more effectively, even moving to ban participation in the FCC. More important for the distinctiveness of the South, we would argue, was the makeup of the working class. While a majority of northern workers were decidedly nonevangelical, the confessional attachments of an overwhelming portion of southern workers were evangelical. It was not our intent to argue that northern and southern evangelicals were distinctive, but rather that their interaction with the labor movement was.
Drake also prods us to explain how southern evangelical workers who embraced the New Deal state and even some radical prophets in the 1930s recoiled at the CIO’s attachment to modernism and liberalism in the postwar era. In response, let us offer a list of changes wrought by World War II: 1) The horrors of the war replaced the postmillennial optimism of many Protestants with an apocalyptic eschatology fed by dispensationalism. World events seemed to take the starch out of some of the most noted social gospelers. 2) Meanwhile, jobs in regulated industries left many southern workers better off materially than ever, but also left them vulnerable to claims from employers that the CIO’s campaign was principally about stemming the flow of jobs to the South. 3) The intervention of unions and the federal government that produced workplace standards and relief during the Depression turned into war-time intrusions that pressured for production and regimentation, undermining the flexibility and individualism that appealed to many southerners. 4) Southern evangelicals worried about the subsuming of their distinctive regional denominations through mergers or ecumenical associations, in part because such actually had occurred among Methodists. 5) Finally, there were the two major pronouncements of the federal government lambasting the South as the nation’s top economic problem (1938) and the major barrier to fair employment practices (1946). It did not take a vivid imagination to see the CIO, the federal government, and the Federal Council of Churches as agents of northern cultural domination.
Polity (in its various definitions) mattered, as Heath Carter notes. Both the intertwining of evangelical faith with political organizations and the preference for specific forms of church governance in the postwar years coaxed southern workers away from the CIO. But these represented choices at a particular time under particular historical circumstances. Unfortunately, too many people on the left side of the political spectrum see these correlations as somehow set in concrete. We would argue, as we think Carter implies, against that. Instead, we believe that there is potential for unions and their allies to recapture the power that lies in the faith of working people to fight against the social, cultural, and environmental degradations that seem to be capitalist imperatives. If we build upon the insights of the “new” historians of capitalism (and we certainly do), we also take aim at their overreliance on ministers and wealthy laypeople who established the bond between evangelicalism and free enterprise. However, for labor to offer viable alternatives, union activists need to do a better job of respecting the beliefs of evangelical workers and thinking hard about what sorts of organizations and strategies can unlock their potential to create a more humane world.
Bob Wing, “The Battlelines Are Drawn: Rightwing Neosecession or Third Reconstruction,” Social Policy, July 19, 2015, posted on Portside (portside.org/2015-07-20/battleines-are-drawn-rightwing-neosecession-or-third-reconstruction, accessed July 21, 2015). ↩
Clarence Darden, interview with Steve McCallum, May 24, 1983, in Working Lives Oral History Project, University of Alabama. ↩