C. Vann Woodward, Dissenter
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C. Vann Woodward, Dissenter

One of the most striking things about the young C. Vann Woodward was his affinity with dissent. It was not just his authorship of Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel, the book that launched his academic career in 1938, nor the fact that he approached W. E. B. DuBois earlier with hopes of writing about him, nor his toying with the notion of following his biography of Watson with one of Eugene Debs. Those are important indicators, but it is even more interesting that in every situation he found himself in during his early years, he gravitated toward the most progressive people and places–exploring Harlem when he was a Masters student at Columbia in 1931-32, getting involved in the Angelo Herndon Defense Committee when he was back in Atlanta teaching at Georgia Tech, hanging out at that den of left-wing conspirators, Ab's Book Store in Chapel Hill, when he was working on his Ph.D. and the Watson biography. He was sympathetic to the union organizing movement among cotton mill workers in North Carolina and met Glenn McLeod, who became his wife, because of those pro-union activities. As a young man, he made two trips to Europe, visiting the Soviet Union on both of them, revealing at least a curiosity about communism. When he was teaching at Scripps College, 1940-43, he helped defend a faculty colleague who was under attack for suspected fascist sympathies, an early indication of his devotion to free speech on campus. He was always where the political action was.1

There are at least two fascinating questions about Woodward's connection to dissent. How could someone who became the insider's insider be so constantly engaged in socially unsettling politics and public disputes? He was a power broker in the academic job market and in the academic world of publishing. In any picture of the "establishment" historians in the second half of the 20th century, his image would loom large. He dressed conservatively and spoke with the quiet courtesy of genteel folk in his native Arkansas. Nevertheless, dissent seemed to be second nature to him. How can that be?

Second, how can one explain Woodward's apparent shift of political orientation in the late 1960s and afterward? Is his just another case of a grumpy old man? We are all familiar with the aphorism: if you are not a socialist when you are twenty, you have no compassion; if you are still a socialist when you are forty, you have no intelligence. Is Woodward's just a case of a rightward shift as the years go by?

Yet Woodward did not change; the times did. Agreeing with this understanding of Woodward, his close friend John Hope Franklin observed that being a radical in the late 1940s was different from being a radical in the late 1960s.2 Therefore his staunch defense of the same principles required him to oppose different enemies in the late 1960s and after.

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C. Vann Woodward

As chairman of the program committee of the Southern Historical Association in 1949, he enlisted John Hope Franklin in a successful plot to integrate the program of the Southern Historical Association meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. Then, in 1952, when Woodward was the president of the SHA, he went to great lengths to integrate the meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee. Franklin reports that Woodward did not seem worried or nervous about these radical departures from past practices; he handled all questions and challenges with humor. He seemed to enjoy it.3

Shortly after those signal events, Woodward and Franklin were enlisted to provide historical advice and tutoring for Thurgood Marshall and his team of lawyers who were bringing the school desegregation cases to the Supreme Court. The revolutionary result, the Brown decision, was announced May 17, 1954. That fall, Woodward gave the Richards Lectures at the University of Virginia, which in 1955 became the book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. With Professor Woodward standing prominently in the audience at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., from the steps of the Alabama...