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The Gospel of the Working Class

Labor's Southern Prophets in New Deal America

Erik S. Gellman

Publication Year: 2011

In this exceptional dual biography and cultural history, Erik S. Gellman and Jarod Roll trace the influence of two southern activist preachers, one black and one white, who used their ministry to organize the working class in the 1930s and 1940s across lines of gender, race, and geography. Owen Whitfield and Claude Williams, along with their wives, Zella Whitfield and Joyce Williams, drew on their bedrock religious beliefs to stir ordinary men and women to demand social and economic justice in the eras of the Great Depression, New Deal, and Second World War._x000B__x000B_In chronicling the shifting contexts of the actions of Whitfield and Williams, The Gospel of the Working Class situates Christian theology within the struggles of some of America's most downtrodden workers, transforming the dominant narratives of the era and offering a fresh view of the promise and instability of religion and civil rights unionism.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: The Working Class in American History

Title Page, Copyright, Map

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

This book has been a collaborative effort. During graduate school at Northwestern University, our research interests and conversations with our shared advisor and mentor, Nancy MacLean, encouraged us as scholars to challenge the political, geographic, and racial boundaries that so often rule the writing of modern American history. ...


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pp. xiii-xiv

Principal Characters

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pp. xv-xvi

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Introduction: Brothers in the Fight for Freedom

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pp. 1-6

In late 1934 Claude Williams, a white preacher in Paris, Arkansas, was asked by his neighbors to preside over the funeral of a ten-month-old baby. Williams, who was struggling to raise three small children with his wife, Joyce, agreed to perform the hardest task required of any preacher or of any father. ...

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1. Southern Strivings

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pp. 7-40

This story begins in Egypt, a tiny trading town in northeast Mississippi. There, in the heart of Dixie, Owen Whitfield often spent his summer nights in 1910. Sitting at a makeshift poker table in the back room of a pool hall, Whitfield, although not yet twenty years old, possessed a sharp mind, quick wit, and cockiness beyond his racial station. ...

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2. Seeking the Kingdom of God

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pp. 41-70

In June 1930 Claude and Joyce Williams and their two daughters moved to Paris, Arkansas. The family drove west from Nashville across the Arkansas–Tennessee border and the plantation lowlands bordering the Mississippi River, through Little Rock, and then up into the Ozark hills to their new mountain home. ...

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November 5, 1936: Claude Williams preaches at Owen Whitfield's church, Crosno, Missouri

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pp. 70-72

“Arrested by the tension” of speaking from Whitfield’s pulpit, Claude Williams delivered his “message using the Bible with both barrels.”1 That message was now, more than ever before, a revolutionary gospel that challenged ordinary people to attack southern injustice in all forms. ...

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3. Prophets in the Storm

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pp. 73-110

In the weeks that followed his Missouri meeting with Williams, Whitfield worked as a part-time organizer alongside John Handcox, the STFU representative already in Mississippi County. Inspired by Williams, Whitfield brought the working-class gospel into his churches, where most people had heard of the STFU and some were already members. ...

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April 27, 1040: Owen Whitfield Addresses the Third National Negro Congress, Washington, D.C.

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pp. 110-112

When Owen Whitfield took the floor at the third National Negro Congress in the Labor Department’s massive new auditorium at the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue in Washington, he faced an audience as influential as any he had ever addressed. ...

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4. Religion Applied

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pp. 113-150

Williams relished the chance to apply the ancient definition of religion, “to bind you to something,” to Memphis workers. Through the revolutionary gospel, he hoped to stitch factory workers into CIO unions and achieve power through unity, the promise of Pentecost. ...

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Conclusion: Clods of Southern Earth

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pp. 151-170

PIAR leaders believed democracy could flourish in postwar America now that working people had defeated fascism abroad. At the board meeting in New York in late 1945, they discussed how to make this vision a reality. After discussing Whitfield’s report, Williams ceded the floor to Don West, the Georgian poet. ...


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pp. 171-200


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pp. 201-210


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pp. 211-222

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About the Author, Further Reading, Publication Information

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Erik S. Gellman is an assistant professor of history at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He is the author of Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and Militant Civil Rights. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780252093333
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252036309

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: The Working Class in American History