In Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf analyze the religious beliefs of working-class people to offer new explanations for the fate of southern unionism from the Great Depression to the Cold War. Noting that the CIO’s post–World War II Southern Organizing Campaign—otherwise known as Operation Dixie—has not received a book-length treatment for a quarter century, the authors reconsider both its strategies and the ultimate failure that has cast a restrictive national cloud over the labor movement ever since. In so doing, they reevaluate Operation Dixie through the eyes of CIO organizers and white workers. Through this analysis, the authors reveal that religion represented far more than a prop or a fatalistic delusion. Instead, it was a dynamic and central way white workers made sense of their world.
After a first chapter that analyzes southern political economy as it became more urban and industrial, the authors dig into the concomitant transformations in southern white churches. They pay particular attention to how ordinary people’s personal religious faith shifted in the 1930s and into the war years. “Dixie’s ‘forgotten people,’” the authors write, “looked for answers to the chaos in the sacred realm” (34). Three-quarters of all southern whites identified as evangelical Protestants by the 1930s. This meant that they affirmed the Bible as their sole religious reference, sought personal access to God, understood morality as an individual set of beliefs, and were attracted to less formal worship. Thus, while the hardships of the Depression years led to a decline of church membership among major Protestant denominations, this did not mean that ordinary people’s faith, or what the authors call “popular religiosity,” eroded. Interestingly, Holiness and Pentecostal churches increased their membership in the 1930s as workers and poor white Southerners gravitated to more charismatic, independent, and regional forms of worship. These first two chapters also establish one of the book’s key arguments. White workers’ religious beliefs became more conservative, the authors explain, because increased prosperity was accompanied by the “unspeakable horrors of war.” These dynamics made working-class whites more receptive to “religious leaders” who exhorted them to “take comfort in traditional southern culture, American democracy, and the capitalist free-enterprise [End Page 65] system” (49). White workers thus deepened their distrust of further expansion of the federal government and reconfirmed the “theology of segregation” within their Protestant faiths (52).
In the next two chapters, the authors outline in more specific terms the efforts of two significant and seemingly opposing lobby groups—the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen—to reveal the contours of the sacred and secular world encountered by the post–World War II white working class. Backed by business interests, the NAE sponsored new forms of welfare paternalism in an attempt to foster religious harmony bolstered by free enterprise. These efforts included sponsoring an industrial chaplain program and waging a propaganda campaign in print and radio that cast CIO leaders of foreign faiths—specifically Catholics and Jews—as from a foreign land: the North. This union drive, they claimed, would bring divisiveness and erode southern morality. As just one indication of the NAE’s popularity, when in 1946 the Knoxville radio station WNOX canceled fundamentalist J. Herald Smith’s program Bible Radio Hour, more than 15,000 people took to the streets to march, pray, and protest the decision. On the other side of this cultural war, the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen became a key network of liberal religious leaders in the South. This group sought to convince southern workers that unions were symbiotic with the South’s religious values.
Having established this crucial religious context, the authors get to the heart of the matter—Operation Dixie. This bold postwar CIO strategy sought to organize unions across the South. “In their minds,” the authors wrote of the CIO leaders, “it would be impossible to sustain the achievements already accomplished in the North if the economic and political environment in the South remained hostile to unions and liberalism” (136). Organized as a “highly centralized affair...