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Why did the Congress of Industrial Organization’s (CIO) attempt to unionize the South in 1946 fail? Historians typically cite the region’s Jim Crow legal codes and culture (which forestalled interracial activism), Cold War anticommunism (which empowered antiunion voices), and southern evangelicalism’s probusiness sympathies as reasons why the CIO’s Operation Dixie suffered defeat. In their splendidly detailed social history, Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf reaffirm this threefold explanation, yet with an attention to multiple intentions, missed opportunities, and paths not taken that force us to reconsider this critical midcentury turn. Grounded in a wealth of archival sources, ranging from oral and local histories to the records of churches and unions, the Fones-Wolfs’ multifaceted text is a brilliant and timely intervention in the scholarship, and a pleasure to read.
The authors’ first key submission is methodological: religion matters! “For too long,” they lament, “historians [of] the working class, made religion a prop, ignoring belief in the supernatural that is at the core of American popular religiosity” (p. 2). Most failed to “grapple systematically with the messiness of spiritual convictions and how those convictions interacted with lived experiences to shape the consciousness and actions of average working people” (p. 2). By confronting this messiness, the Fones-Wolfs prove just how diffuse but central “the sacred” was in the “CIO’s crusade for unionism and economic justice” (p. 5). Such rigor leads them to a second scholarly contribution. As their subtitle states, theirs is a focus on white southern evangelical Protestants, but one that is nonetheless striking for its breadth. Rather than paint the faith of their subjects as uniformly and rigidly anti-union, the Fones-Wolfs sketch out many hues of belief, intensity, and action. “We have attempted to explore [End Page 112] the variety of creeds and Protestant faiths in the South,” they explain, in order “to complicate what all too often gets simplified under the phrase ‘southern religion’” (p. 5).
This is where the Fones-Wolfs are at their best. Through inspection of on-the-ground realities they unearth myriad people and institutions, theological emphases and factory-floor commitments, whose encounters with Operation Dixie produced a dizzying array of responses. While on one page readers learn of John Ramsay marshaling local ministers into a “Labor and Religion Fellowship,” on another they meet the extraordinary Lucy Mason, who lobbied for the CIO and “developed allies with a number of strong Christian women committed to social justice” (pp. 142, 131). On yet another page, readers confront the stridently anti-union newspaperman “Parson Jack” Johnston, whose vitriol came tainted with anti-Semitism (p. 95). Protestants all, these people nevertheless approached the labor struggle with very different biblical blueprints for change in hand.
The Fones-Wolfs’ awareness of these complexities allows them to make a final point regarding the contingencies of postwar religious and labor politics. On the one hand, they concede that despite its ideological diversity, southern evangelicalism ultimately contributed to Operation Dixie’s collapse. Yet their core claim holds: that enough pro-union sentiment existed within the pews to make the CIO’s defeat no sure thing. On the other hand, they show that union organizers’ own missteps contributed to the movement’s failure (p. 209). The bottom line is that had they been handled differently, postwar conditions were ripe for the South to become more labor friendly and progressive. Concomitantly, the Fones-Wolfs insist that the rise of the southern Republican Right after Operation Dixie’s demise was hardly inevitable. The type of faith and politics embodied in Ramsay and Mason did not die in the 1940s, they conclude, for there were many subsequent struggles—for civil rights, environmental legislation, labor protections—“when these same evangelical values promised a new day” (p. 211). Their subtext is that promises of a new day continue to shine today. [End Page 113]