Friday, February 15, 2013

Book Review: Defying Dixie

Glenda Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008).

The popular understanding of twentieth century African American history goes something like this: a placid black population endured decades of discrimination until, suddenly, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, Martin Luther King led a boycott, and thousands of respectable middle class black folks began marching out of Baptist churches in a Christian-inspired non-violent campaign. The great achievement of Defying Dixie is to forever discredit this simplistic narrative. Gilmore argues that the civil rights movement was rooted not in the Christianity of a fledgling black middle class, but in the radical activism and global awareness of communists and other leftists in the decades after World War One. She contends that by situating the civil rights movement in this more expansive time frame and larger geographic context we can gain a better understanding of its origin and influences.

Gilmore introduces a cast of underappreciated southerners, black and white, who fought Jim Crow throughout the interwar years. She recovers the stories of southern communists who went to Moscow for training and returned to the United States to organize workers across racial lines. There were activists such as Pauli Murray, who articulated a strategy of non-violent direct action and mass civil disobedience a full two decades before these tools were brought to bear at the apex of the civil rights movement. The importance of this small group of radicals and misfits, Gilmore argues, lies not in its tiny numbers but in the fact that it existed at all.

The determination to strike at the heart of segregation with aggressive tactics in pursuit of full social equality emanated from the radical left years before most white Americans became aware of a civil rights movement. Gilmore shows that these radical roots were obscured in the 1950s as anything associated with communism was discredited in the polarized environment of the Cold War. Thus, with the radical left in disarray under withering persecution, it became convenient to believe that the civil rights movement drew its inspiration simply from the middle class black church – even as these respectable Christians utilized the methods pioneered by the radical left. Ironically, a twisted sort of truth about the radical roots of civil rights lived on in white segregationist propaganda that insisted local activism was caused by communists and outside agitators.

Defying Dixie is a tale well told. It recovers forgotten chapters of the civil rights story and reframes the era in surprising ways. Yet, like most works that seek to redress an unbalanced historical narrative, it introduces excesses of its own. For example, Gilmore refers to the activism that finally burst on the national consciousness in the 1950s as “the vestige of the movement” rather than the movement itself. In reality, scholars have focused on the 1950s and 1960s precisely because during these years the movement became so much larger and more broad-based than it had ever been. To call this a vestige is a dramatic overreach. Gilmore would have done well to hew more closely to the thesis her title indicates, remembering that roots are, by their nature, smaller than that to which they give birth, but no less important. Yet these concerns should not obscure Gilmore’s successful redefinition of the origins of the movement that changed America.

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