Prophetic Front: New Era School of Social Action and Prophetic Religion and the Fight Against Jim Crow in the 1930s

Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:50 AM
Room 311 (Hynes Convention Center)
Jarod Roll , University of Sussex, Brighton, United Kingdom
Claude Williams convened the first session of his New Era School of Social Action and Prophetic Religion in Little Rock, Arkansas in the summer of 1935. Only blocks from the state capitol building where Jim Crow laws were made and defended, Williams's New Era School brought poor Arkansans--black and white, men and women--together to learn how to fight southern injustices whether racial, gendered, or class-based. At the heart of this teaching was a revolutionary version of the Gospel that aimed to use Christian belief to mobilize ordinary southerners for progressive social action. The week-long courses covered a range of topics, including history, politics, prophetic religion, labor dramatics, and the "human relations" of class, race, sex, and self-determination. Although small, the New Era School trained a committed vanguard of activists who would go on to influential careers in an array of 1930s Popular Front organizations, including the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, the Workers' Alliance, the United Mine Workers, the Socialist Party, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. What united and emboldened these activists as they worked in groups across the spectrum of the American Left was a faith in the power of prophetic religion to create the Kingdom of God on earth, that is, to destroy Jim Crow root and branch using "Christlike principles."

This paper will explore the creation of the New Era School from the ideas of its founder Williams, himself a radical white preacher from Tennessee, through the careers of its graduates, with particular attention to the central notion of "prophetic religion." It will argue that New Era produced a "prophetic front" of activists who served as a religiously-inspired grassroots vanguard within the larger Popular Front battles against Jim Crow injustice.