Scholars of labor rarely consult with colleagues who study religion when writing their books. Occasionally, one will nod at the importance of revivalism or evangelical-styled rhetoric in motivating union members, but for the most part sacred life is not closely investigated. Not so in the case of Jared Roll, who, as the title of his book suggests, places the role of faith at the center of his story of American workers.
In Spirit of Rebellion, Roll chronicles the struggles and successes of black and white agricultural workers who poured into the Bootheel region of southern Missouri during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Drawn by lusty promises of rich soil, cheap land, and favorable rental terms, landless families from across the South flocked to the area seeking to build a new life. Poor whites sought the chance to own their own land; poor blacks did too, but also to escape the choking hold of Jim Crow laws and customs. Their numbers would eventually top 125,000, making Bootheel an important experiment in biracial worker cooperation.
Members of both races found common cause in a powerful labor movement that secured significant gains from local planters and the federal government. Organizing under the umbrella of, most notably, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, they successfully "rejected the rising tenancy, expensive credit, and political dispossession that dogged rural southerners following the collapse of Populism in the late 1890s" (p. 4). During the Great Depression, they turned to petitions, political pressure, and strikes and protests to wring a series of important concessions from the Farm Security Administration, including loans, small grants, and funds for small cooperative associations and group homes on government land leased to poor families. This is no story of unchecked worker success, however. By the end of World War II, most Bootheelers were rapidly descending into the ranks of wage laborers, victims of the steady increase in agricultural mechanization and shifting federal policy favoring the elimination of tenant farming and sharecropping. [End Page 151]
What allowed black and whites to join together in Bootheel? They shared an "agrarian cosmology" that "drew upon an abiding sense of moral justice inspired by democratic religious fellowship and fired by rebellious revival" (p. 177). This cosmology promoted the "sacred right" of small producers to enjoy "independent livelihoods on the land that they worked" (p. 4). When racial strains threatened to split laborers, the Pentecostal-Holiness movement smoothed over tensions. Its birth in the 1890s swept through white and black communities, promising that God empowered the dispossessed through the gifts of the Holy Spirit to tackle any challenge on earth. It offered Bootheelers a common belief in God's redemptive power and abiding confidence in their battle to win access to land and basic civil liberties.
Roll successfully knits together labor and religious history to create a compelling account of labor organizing. His is a story little heard: black and whites joining forces and overcoming their differences by dint of shared struggle and faith. Most significantly, he offers a rural perspective on workers' ability to shape New Deal policies to fit their needs. Left lingering at the book's end, however, is the large question of the role of religion in promoting lasting social change. While the spiritual lives of laborers helped secure advances early in the movement, it was apparently of little use in halting the rise of wage labor. By 1950, "agrarian cosmology" was insufficient to win the day.
Still, Roll offers a new look at the intersection of race, religion, and labor that all historians should consider carefully.
John M. Giggie is an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama. He is author of Faith in the Market (2002) and After Redemption: The Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta during Jim Crow (2008).