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chapter 5 The Bible Speaks to Labor In 1945, a young Congregationalist minister, David S. Burgess, took over as head of the labor commission of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen. The son of missionaries to China, Burgess had already completed a number of home missionary assignments by the time he went to work for the fellowship. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1939, served as an assistant to California’s U.S. Congressman H. Jerry Voorhis for a year, and then alternated time at the Union Theological Seminary with service as a minister to migrant farm workers. After being ordained into the Congregational Church in 1944, the denomination’s Home Missions Board appointed Burgess as minister to the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) in Missouri and Arkansas. While there, the young minister worked with black and white sharecroppers in an unsuccessful effort to revive the STFU and on a more successful campaign to save the Farm Security Administration’s Delmo Homes Project from being sold to private interests who would likely evict the more than five hundred tenant families from their homes.1 When Burgess accepted leadership of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen’s labor commission, he hoped to revitalize Christian support for labor unions. He worked with Alva W. Taylor to host the fellowship’s first labor–church conference in Nashville and prepared a special issue of the fellowship’s journal, Prophetic Religion , on “what churches and unions have in common, and the theological basis for stronger cooperation.”2 But from the beginning Burgess ran into roadblocks. His work with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union exposed him to the political disputes and red-baiting that afflicted the efforts to build unions in the agricultural South. He chafed at the charges and countercharges hurled by Communists, Socialists, and liberals that limited the actions of such groups as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and the American Youth Congress. Burgess found that even compiling a list of whom to invite to the fellowship’s conference was far more politically sensitive and controversial than he had imagined. Moreover, his insistence that the conference, held at Fisk University, be interracial opened him to criticism from some of the clergy he hoped to attract. Still, Burgess left the 114 chapter 5 conference feeling optimistic about the potential of labor, claiming, “The CIO is doing far more for racial understanding and economic equality than the church or any other institution. More power to your efforts!”3 Burgess and the fellowship are reminders that the attempts of businessmen to project the virtues of Christian free enterprise did not go unchallenged. The churches growing most rapidly in the South may have been unlikely to support unions, but denominational sources hide a level of support that existed among individual clergy and among some local congregations. While the war years had damaged the prospects of labor’s winning widespread support from Protestant ministers, there were also signs that all was not hopeless. The Fellowship of Southern Churchmen began its most active period, building a membership of socialjustice -oriented clergy throughout the South. In 1946, a small group of Southern Baptist clergy began a new journal, Christian Frontiers, which declared in a banner headline, “Welcome Labor Unions!” That summer, the citizens of Danville, Virginia , rallied behind a local minister and the local of the Textile Workers Union of America to create a Citizens’ Committee to fight for economic justice and defy charges that they were led by outsiders “with Communistic leanings.”4 There were also allies in the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, at Highlander Folk School, and in the industrial department of the YWCA who sought to fuse Protestantism’s social message to the organization of southern workers. These pointed to a reservoir of prophetic Christianity upon which the CIO could draw when it mobilized for its crusade to organize Dixie. Perhaps most important, the CIO had a cadre of men and women with ties to Protestant churches whom it could send to build favorable community relations. This chapter will explore the religious resources that the CIO utilized to offer an alternative to Christian free enterprise and bring collective bargaining to the South. Bonds of Fellowship In 1934 a group of young church people met at Monteagle, Tennessee, to examine what they might do to put “the resources of their faith to work for God and man” at a time when “the entire fabric of our national life lay prostrate before the onslaught of the Great Depression.” They formed...


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