Review: Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South
Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf. Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. xiv +264 pp. ISBN 978-0-252-08066-1.
“Might things have turned out differently?” ask Elizabeth and Ken Fones-Wolf about Operation Dixie, the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (CIO) failed Southern Organizing Campaign (7). Although it is not the authors’ central research question, it is perhaps the most pressing in the year of the book’s release, when white violence against black bodies makes daily headlines, when Americans debate the treasonous symbol of white supremacy that no longer flies beside the South Carolina capitol but still stands over every courthouse in Mississippi, when corporations exercise full freedom to influence political campaigns while individual citizens lose the protections of the Voting Rights Act. Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South examines a moment when it seemed white southerners might choose a different path, one that united workers of a common faith by their common interests, rather than dividing them by race and reactionary politics.
The Fones-Wolfs argue that the varied, often flexible nature of white southern Protestantism from the 1930s to 1950 opened a door to the Operation Dixie organizers who began their southern campaign in 1946. Those organizers had numerous potential allies in the southern left and among black Protestants, as well as among white working class believers whose theology gave them a language to question the region’s entrenched power structure. Yet it was their well-funded corporate opposition that triumphed, exploiting southern evangelicalism’s individualist leanings as well as divisions within the southern religious left. Here, the Fones-Wolfs build on arguments by Bryant Simon, Robert Korstad, Pete Daniel and others who have blamed the death of Operation Dixie on southern racism, postwar anticommunism, and the savvy opposition of corporate elites. But white southern Protestantism, they argue, “was a critical factor in the equation, one that intersected with all of the others and one that distinguished the southern white working class from the northern industrial workers who built the CIO” (209).
The book begins with three chapters on the South’s response to the Great Depression, World War II, and the war’s immediate aftermath. The first chapter provides a tour of the Depression South and its religious life through the work of Alva Taylor, a midwestern Disciple of Christ social reformer who taught social ethics at Vanderbilt School of Religion. Taylor makes a cameo in nearly every work on the southern religious left, but until now historians have paid little sustained attention to him. A pro-labor social gospel advocate, Taylor trained more well-known activists like Claude Williams and Howard Kester, whose radical stances on capitalism he both fostered and questioned. Taylor provides an able guide to the Depression South and the cast of characters who shaped the southern religious landscape, particularly on the left.
The opening chapter sets the tone for what follows: careful character studies that demonstrate the complexity of white southern Protestantism in the mid-twentieth century and anchor larger questions about the relationship between religious faith and union membership. Through Taylor, Southern Baptist minister George Heaton, and a remarkable range of working people whose stories come alive through oral histories gathered from across the South, the Fones-Wolfs show that white southern Protestantism’s storied individualism, conservatism, and homogeneity was neither universal nor a guarantee of its alignment with corporate interests. Although the authors join many others, like Wayne Flynt, Paul Harvey, and Jarod Roll, in stressing the diversity within mid-twentieth-century white southern Protestantism, their scope is exceptionally broad, covering the entire South and the full political and theological range in the region, from fundamentalists to liberals and from Klansmen to Communists. The cast of characters also includes union organizers and chaplains, CEOs and managers, ordinary union members and everyday union opponents.
The book’s fourth and fifth chapters describe the contradictory ways that employers and labor activists interpreted Christianity, and the last two chapters show how the CIO’s understanding of southern religion shaped its work—and its fate—in the Southern Organizing Campaign. Like Bethany Moreton, the Fones-Wolfs found that employers’ emphasis on a locally controlled, informal workplace that operated like an extended family might have been increasingly disingenuous, but it resonated with workers who accepted some version of George Heaton’s belief that “Christianity’s role at the workplace . . . was to model good human relationships” (103).
Meanwhile, the CIO’s hierarchical structure, its rigid workplace protocols, and its emphasis on collective action proved less compatible with individualist southern evangelicals. Union leaders like Oklahoma native John Ramsay, head of the CIO’s Community Relations Department, relied too heavily on connections to the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) and appeals to ecumenism—strategies that proved disastrous among southerners for whom the FCC represented a modernist, liberal threat. Nonetheless, southerners of all denominations joined the CIO, especially in the coalfields and even in the textile belt. The Fones-Wolfs show that if the union’s failure in the South was not surprising, neither was it inevitable.
The CIO’s biggest problem was one that scholars of Operation Dixie have long acknowledged: organizers minimized their efforts among black workers and jettisoned valuable allies on the left in an attempt to appeal to ordinary whites. Thus, “the rising volume of anticommunist and prosegregationist racket at the end of the war walled off some of the most prophetic, prolabor Christians from others who followed their religious beliefs in to the labor movement” (128). The CIO’s Southern Organizing Campaign was just one of many victims of the southern left’s dissolution. The Fones-Wolfs enrich this existing narrative with serious attention to the Christian language that suffused the southern left and made its critique viable in the region, alongside the very real racial antagonism that lent anticommunism and anti-unionism its power in many white southern churches. Here, the CIO’s failure seems less inevitable than in earlier assessments, even as the odds against it seem longer. Might white southern workers have chosen a different path? Perhaps. But not without first reckoning with the religious undergirding of the region’s racial antagonism and its political divisions. Civil rights activists forced that reckoning a decade later, and it continues still.