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The Unemployed People's Movement

Leftists, Liberals, and Labor in Georgia, 1929-1941

James J. Lorence

Publication Year: 2009

In Georgia during the Great Depression, jobless workers united with the urban poor, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers. In a collective effort that cut across race and class boundaries, they confronted an unresponsive political and social system and helped shape government policies. James J. Lorence adds significantly to our understanding of this movement, which took place far from the northeastern and midwestern sites we commonly associate with Depression-era labor struggles.

Drawing on extensive archival research, including newly accessible records of the Communist Party of the United States, Lorence details interactions between various institutional and grassroots players, including organized labor, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, liberal activists, and officials at every level of government. He shows, for example, how the Communist Party played a more central role than previously understood in the organization of the unemployed and the advancement of labor and working-class interests in Georgia. Communists gained respect among the jobless, especially African Americans, for their willingness to challenge officials, help negotiate the welfare bureaucracy, and gain access to New Deal social programs.

Lorence enhances our understanding of the struggles of the poor and unemployed in a Depression-era southern state. At the same time, we are reminded of their movement's lasting legacy: the shift in popular consciousness that took place as Georgians, "influenced by a new sense of entitlement fostered by the unemployed organizations," began to conceive of new, more-equal relations with the state.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Series: Politics and Culture in the Twentieth-Century South


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xi

When I first arrived in Georgia to assume a position as Eminent Scholar of History at Gainesville State College, my initial perception of the state’s history led me to believe that the prospects for an exploration of a traditional labor studies topic would be decidedly limited. A brief discussion with one long-established scholar of southern history seemed to confirm ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xiii-xiv

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Introduction: Depression and Response

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pp. 1-15

Among the most persistent myths concerning the southern working class of the early twentieth century is the timeworn argument that the region’s workers were somehow impervious to the drive toward organization that affected urban, industrial America. To be sure, in many areas, including the bellwether state of Georgia, there was resistance to collective action that contributed to the development of a labor movement that grew strong primarily...

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1. Economic Crisis as Opportunity: The Great Depression as Seedbed for Radical Activism in Georgia, 1928–1930

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pp. 16-28

Following the onset of the Great Depression, the fortunes of American working families sank as the ravages of a battered economy hit home. While the national unemployment statistics record the misery visited upon the highly urbanized Northeast and Midwest in stark numbers, the South suffered from poverty levels found in relatively few of the more densely ...

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2. The Employment Crisis as Catalyst: Communist Activism and the Insurrection Law, 1930–1933

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pp. 29-59

As the still struggling Communist Party worked to organize the jobless for the March protest, the radical activists could not have anticipated the scope of the official repression that awaited them. The events soon to unfold in Atlanta would be marked by an unprecedented exercise of state power that over the ensuing four years shaped the history of the unem...

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3. Beyond Atlanta: The Struggle of Georgia’s Rural Jobless

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pp. 60-78

Any analysis of the Depression’s casualties in Georgia cannot overlook the plight of the state’s rural citizens, who represented a significant majority of the population. While Atlanta’s jobless workers had moved steadily toward a collective response to the economic crisis, the inhabitants of rural, small-town areas were slower to coalesce for a variety of ...

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4. The Great Upheaval: A New Labor Activism, Jobless Workers, and Families in Crisis, 1933–1934

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pp. 79-99

While the Communist Party had made inroads among the inhabitants of Georgia’s underclass, the program of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal soon altered the context in which community organizing and unemployed activism took place. Raising a sharp challenge to southern traditions of racial preferences, the administration’s program of federal...

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5. Militant Labor: The Great Textile Strike of 1934 and the Problem of Unemployment

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pp. 100-126

While the advent of New Deal social provision had stimulated a glimmer of interest in the organization of jobless workers, it was the labor innovations sparked by NRA and the new textile code that led to the most dramatic worker activism ever witnessed in the American South. The guarantees in Section 7A emboldened laborers long suppressed and ...

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6. Serving Jobless Georgians: The New Deal and the Rise of the Unemployed Movement

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pp. 127-164

By early 1935, the great uprising had been suppressed, and it was clear that the outcome for organized workers had been disastrous, whether measured in terms of workplace conditions, lost jobs, evictions, or discrimination in the application of relief policy. Given the brutal and decisive employer response to the UTW organizing drive and the strike that ...

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7. The Workers Alliance and a United Front: Jobless Workers Organize, 1937–1938

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pp. 165-188

Against the background of previous worker efforts to connect through organization with the burgeoning New Deal bureaucracy, unemployed Georgians prepared for action as a new year opened. In response to new challenges as the Roosevelt administration adjusted the boundaries of its work relief program, a revitalized Popular Front emerged to make ...

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8. Winding Down: A Revived Economy and the Decline of the Unemployed Movement, 1939–1940

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pp. 189-212

Reeling from the liberal electoral disaster of 1938, which had been worsened by Roosevelt’s attempted purge of congressional conservatives, and suffering from the caprices of the state WPA bureaucracy, the remnants of the Georgia unemployed movement struggled to find a place in a slowly recovering economy. Having expanded its original role as a radical agent ...

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9. The Crucible of War: Unfinished Business

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pp. 213-223

From 1939 on, the onset of war in Europe and Asia provided a badly needed boost to a Georgia economy that, like the economies of many southern states, had not always shared equally in national prosperity. Even before the entry of the United States into World War II, the impact of defense spending had added to the stimulus provided by federal invest...

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Epilogue: The Implications of Mass Organization

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pp. 224-232

The moment of mass mobilization was brief, but the unemployed movement’s accomplishments within the context of a racially divided and tension-ridden society were remarkable. Against long odds, jobless workers struggled to influence federal policies and improve their lives, which had been shaken by the dramatic failure of the economy in the 1930s ...


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pp. 233-274


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pp. 275-290


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pp. 291-307

E-ISBN-13: 9780820336428
E-ISBN-10: 0820336424
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820330457
Print-ISBN-10: 0820330450

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 1 table
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Politics and Culture in the Twentieth-Century South