- The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor’s Southern Prophets in New Deal America
In this fast-paced, highly readable book, Erik Gellman and Jarod Roll tell the fascinating, interwoven stories of two southern preachers/labor activists, Claude Williams and Owen Whitfield. Through skillful reconstruction of the struggles of Williams and Whitfield, Gellman and Roll display the power and nuances of a grassroots southern radical vision, one that brought working-class whites and blacks together around the ideals of a prophetic Christianity. Their crisply written, carefully researched volume raises intriguing questions for the fields of labor history, southern religion, and the twentieth-century South.
Whitfield and Williams have appeared on the periphery of a number of historical works, particularly those on the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (SFTU), but this book puts them front and center and shows the regional and national influence and visibility they rose to in the thirties and forties—so much so that the FBI closely followed their activities for a decade. Whitfield was black and Williams was white, but both were from impoverished farming families, acquired college educations, and became preachers with a driving concern for the poor.
In November 1936, they met in an organizational drive for the STFU. It was the beginning of an enduring friendship and activist collaboration. They became invaluable field organizers and prominent leaders in the STFU, Whitfield most notably and visibly when he organized a massive roadside demonstration of evicted sharecroppers in the winter of 1939. By 1940, though, both were disassociated with the STFU, and were collaborating on a new group, the People’s Institute of Applied Religion. This “mobile training course” targeted working-class preachers and grassroots activists, [End Page 95] and sought to galvanize them with a clear vision of “applied religion”—a Christianity that preached the possibility of the Kingdom of God on Earth, when the radical teachings of Jesus were prophetically proclaimed and embodied (107). Through the travelling work of the PIAR, they shared ideas and pulpits, in public display of their vision of an interracial, prophetic Christianity. The PIAR carried its message to industrial and agricultural workers in the North and South, winning labor victories, but, in 1949, amidst a rising anti-communism, it disbanded. In the Cold War climate, as the toil of years took a toll on their health, Whitfield and Williams lived much quieter lives—even as they served as inspirations and mentors to a rising generation of activists in the fifties and sixties.
Gellman and Roll’s book is in many ways a microhistory—a close analysis of two men, as their lives came together in a shared struggle. Yet this close analysis reveals far-ranging networks of ideas, of organizations, and of personal acquaintance. Although they were both from impoverished backgrounds and based in the South for the majority of their lives, Whitfield and Williams were neither peripheral nor parochial. They became prominent figures on the national public stage in the thirties and forties: meeting with President Roosevelt, helping to originate the anthem “We Shall Overcome,” appearing in widely read periodicals, and inspiring thousands of southern or southern-born workers with an activist Christian vision. This microhistory, then, contributes to a growing body of scholarship that shows just how permeable the supposedly “solid South” really was. It was fertile ground for radical, innovative ideas of wide circulation and scope. Furthermore, the well-known regional obsession with race—so visibly displayed in the fifties and sixties—looks very different from the viewpoint of Whitfield and Williams in the thirties and forties. They imagined that the region’s impoverished working class could be brought together across the color line, and, in many instances, they succeeded. This book, and others on the southern working class, raises major questions about the diminution of race/racism in contexts where there are substantive commonalities of class.
For all of their adult lives, Whitfield and Williams were preachers (Whitfield, a Baptist; Williams, first a Presbyterian and later a Baptist) and activist Christians...