Sanctifying Social Struggles across the Mid-Twentieth-Century South

AHA Session 49
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Room 311 (Hynes Convention Center)
Lisa McGirr, Harvard University
James R. Green, University of Massachusetts Boston

Session Abstract

Sanctifying Social Struggles Across the Mid-Twentieth-Century South            The New Deal era provided a strong impetus for the economic and social transformation of the South.  Identified as the nation's most pressing economic problem, the region became a target for federal policies and social movements that threatened its dependence on agriculture and cheap labor.  But to succeed, social movements needed to address problems and offer solutions within the context of southern culture.  One of the pillars of southern culture was religion.  Even social movements seeking to transform the economy and politics of the region had to take seriously the religious beliefs of southerners and construct their projects accordingly.  Scholarship on the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century has routinely emphasized that point, describing how important prophetic Christianity was to African American leaders of the crusade for racial equality.  However, the positive role of religion for the generation of white social justice activists in the generation before the Civil Rights Movement has only recently begun to receive attention.  The participants proposed for this session include a graduate student currently writing a dissertation, a junior scholar who is completing two projects that have grown out of this new scholarship, and a joint paper from two senior scholars who are revisiting the subject of evangelical Protestantism in a new setting.             This session will examine various religious traditions that informed the thinking and guided the actions of three southern social movements in several settings from 1935 to 1955.  In the Arkansas Delta, two very different Christian groups sought to assist rural workers.  Alison Greene's paper focuses on an alliance of progressive and liberal Christians who provided mostly moral support for the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and the Sharecroppers' Union campaigns to gain fair treatment.  Including such important religious personalities as Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement and Reinhold Niebuhr, this Christian Left contributed by drawing national attention to the plight of those trying to cling to the soil and the more Christian character of rural life.  Meanwhile, as Jarod Roll demonstrates in his paper, Claude Williams was training a cadre of activists to build a grass-roots movement of sharecroppers, tenants, miners and other rural workers who would fight against all types of injustice.  Roll's contribution will highlight the careers of this religiously-inspired grassroots vanguard and the impact of this radical version of prophetic Protestantism.  The last paper (by Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf) jumps to southern Appalachia in the 1950s and examines the capital-labor contest over the religious beliefs of white workers.  Having defeated the CIO's Operation Dixie, electrical manufacturers moved south expecting that evangelical Protestantism would be a reliable ally.  Instead, they discovered that they misinterpreted the complexity and variations of southern Protestantism.  Combined, this session will explore various ways in which religion was an important resource for social justice struggles in the generation before the Civil Rights Movement.

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