- The Last Orator for the Millhands: William Jennings Bryan Dorn, 1916–2005 by John Herbert Roper Sr.
This meticulous biography, The Last Orator for the Millhands: William Jennings Bryan Dorn, 1916–2005, provides an intricate journey into South Carolina politics, particularly the post–World War II period. The book immerses readers in the negotiations and political compromises of William Jennings Bryan Dorn’s campaigning and legislative bargaining. The challenges of Jim Crow and questions about women’s roles have their place, but stories focus on Dorn, his political career, his family, and his colleagues. John Herbert Roper Sr. presents Dorn as “of the people” and not simply with them (p. 9). He argues for the relevance and liberalism of Dorn, a dedicated if flawed man who sought to represent working people, like millhands and small farmers, in the halls of government while advancing his inadequate vision of progress.
In chapters 1 and 2, Roper examines the roots of Dorn’s religious faith, his worldview, and his political savvy in the red hills of western South Carolina. The bulk of the biography, chapters 3–10, plunges through Dorn’s peak years as a state and congressional politician from 1945 to 1973. Chapters 8–10 give readers a view of committee negotiations and maneuverings on trade, business development, and military appropriations during the tumultuous 1960s. Dorn’s final years in the United States Congress and his runs for South Carolina governor in 1974 and 1978 appear in chapter 11. The postlude offers Roper’s assessment of this long political career. Using Dorn’s memoirs, interviews with members of his inner circle, South Carolina political collections, and the papers [End Page 537] of other politicians, this biography describes personal decisions and family contributions as well as public campaigns and legislative issues.
Roper sets out to rehabilitate Dorn, and by extension the millhands of the Piedmont, without denying the existence of Jim Crow. While the acknowledgment of segregation does not slide into apologia, Roper avoids analysis of its impact on black communities. He centers white responses to Jim Crow, from strict enforcement to uncomfortable tolerance, with Dorn falling into the latter category. Roper also highlights Dorn’s evangelical faith and dedication to the military while emphasizing his support of desegregation, employment opportunities for women, and public education, including the teaching of evolutionary science.
Roper has made a decision to use official and formal primary sources, and secondary sources include other political biographies. The bibliography does not reference oral history collections from working people, papers from civil rights or black church groups, or interviews with average voters who supported Dorn. Considering Dorn’s career, these sources most likely contain comments about him and the Democratic Party in South Carolina.
For people with an interest in southern politics or South Carolina history, The Last Orator for the Millhands gives a close-up view of personalities along with connections to national events like the Fair Deal and Great Society. In an American studies course on the South, the book could serve as an exemplar of traditional biography. An undergraduate course on postwar industry and trade could pair excerpts from chapters 6–10 with books like Ellen Israel Rosen’s Making Sweatshops: The Globalization of the U.S. Apparel Industry (Berkeley, 2002) and Timothy J. Minchin’s Empty Mills: The Fight Against Imports and the Decline of the U.S. Textile Industry (Lanham, Md., 2013), which trace United States trade and quota policy in the second half of the twentieth century. That would set Dorn’s activities in a national history of global trade, manufacturing, and financialization.
The Last Orator for the Millhands stands in contrast to southern labor or working-class history. The title denotes Dorn and not the working people—as such it does not explore millhands’ communities, daily lives, or labor activism. In books like Michael K. Honey’s Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle (Berkeley, 1999), Jacquelyn Dowd Hall...