In 1946, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) undertook Operation Dixie, an initiative to recruit industrial workers in the American South. Elizabeth and Ken Fones-Wolf plumb rarely used archival sources and rich oral histories to explore the CIO's fraught encounter with the evangelical Protestantism and religious culture of southern whites.
The authors' nuanced look at working class religion reveals how laborers across the surprisingly wide evangelical spectrum interpreted their lives through their faith. Factors like conscience, community need, and lived experience led individual preachers to become union activists and mill villagers to defy the foreman and minister alike to listen to organizers. As the authors show, however, all sides enlisted belief in the battle. In the end, the inability of northern organizers to overcome the suspicion with which many evangelicals viewed modernity played a key role in Operation Dixie's failure, with repercussions for labor and liberalism that are still being felt today.
Identifying the role of the sacred in the struggle for southern economic justice, and placing class as a central aspect in southern religion, Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South provides new understandings of how whites in the region wrestled with the options available to them during a crucial period of change and possibility.
About the Author
Elizabeth Fones-Wolf is a professor of history at West Virginia University and the author of Waves of Opposition: Labor, Business, and the Struggle for Democratic Radio, 1933-1958. Ken Fones-Wolf is the Stuart and Joyce Robbins Chair of history at West Virginia University and the author of Glass Towns: Industry, Labor, and Political Economy in Central Appalachia, 1890-1930s.
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Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South
White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie
By Elizabeth A. Fones-Wolf, Ken Fones-Wolf
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
The Wages of the "Problem South"
Alice Grogan spent her early years on a farm in the South Carolina upcountry, the eldest girl in a family of five boys and three girls. She began helping her mother with household chores at age five, and as soon as she was old enough, she began helping pick her father's cash crops, cotton and corn. Among Alice's other chores were picking blackberries, minding her younger siblings, carrying water from the spring, helping fix dinner for the young men who helped thresh her father's wheat, and helping can fruit and vegetables and prepare virtually everything the growing family ate. When she was eleven, Alice contracted pellagra, a disease associated with poverty and a vitamin-deficient diet. It recurred several times before doctors finally cured her. For the Grogan family, the hard times of the Depression did not wait for the stock market crash. In the 1920s they found it difficult to make ends meet, even with the work of sons and daughters. As was the case for many other farm families, the jobs in the nearby textile mills looked inviting. Finally, in 1926, the Grogans made the move to Greenville, where Charlie Grogan and his oldest children found work at the Woodside Cotton Mill. Even Charlie's wife Lydia filled batteries in the weave shop in the hours around the noon break when the weavers lunched. Although Alice and her brothers found town living and wage work a respite from the long hours of hard work on the farm, Charlie Grogan merely made the best of the change. Like many southerners who grew up on the farm, he never liked leaving the life he had known.
In some ways, the Grogans were fortunate to leave when they did, finding mill jobs relatively easily. Other country people made the difficult transition during less opportune times. At the outset of the Depression, Calvin and Lola Simmons were hardscrabble tenant farmers in Tennessee's Upper Cumberland region. Never able to get far enough ahead to acquire livestock, Calvin had to borrow a horse or mule to plow, which often meant that he had to plow in less than ideal conditions. Lola failed to make a sufficient garden for extra needs, and the couple was no more successful raising chickens or pigs, which Lola lamented "were two things it just wasn't no way for us to keep from dying." Eventually, the Simmonses left for Knoxville after Calvin had a fight with neighbors who accused his dog of killing their chickens. But middle aged and without skills, Calvin scrambled to make a living as a handyman, while Lola stretched his irregular income to meet rent, coal, and food for them and their son. They lived in a cold, damp, three-room apartment with a leaky roof and a "little water privy in the kitchen closet, but it don't flush right," Lola complained. Still, she noted, "being poor ain't easy nowhere, but it's a sight better in the city than on the farm."
The Grogans and the Simmonses were part of a dramatic transformation of the South that began in the 1930s, one that demanded momentous adjustments for much of the white working classes. In significant numbers they left their rural places of birth, many for the North or West, many more for towns, mill villages, and cities in the South. They left the farms that they owned, rented, or sharecropped in favor of wage-earning jobs in factories, mines, shops, and warehouses. They left the churches, schools, and kin networks, where they learned their values and their ways of understanding the world, for new homes where they had to adapt those values to new circumstances. They did this in a region with an economy ill suited for absorbing the masses of mobile people. The Great Depression began early in the rural South, and it flooded the labor markets of such low-wage regional industries as textiles, lumber, furniture, and tobacco, further depressing wages and leading to surplus production that only intensified price wars and put unhealthy industries on life support.
By 1938, the administration of Franklin Roosevelt had identified what some called the "colonial economy" of the South as the nation's number one economic problem. In The Report on Economic Conditions of the South, key southern liberals, under the auspices of the administration's National Emergency Council, identified the paradox of the South, a region "blessed by Nature with immense wealth" whose "people as a whole are the poorest in the country." The report described the poverty of the region and highlighted the need to embark on a program of economic development to bring the South's economy into convergence with the nation's, but changes were already in the works. Between the issuing of the report and the end of World War II, the South made great strides forward, positioning the region for economic growth at a rate that would surpass that of the nation. These years raised hopes for some that progressive forces could break the shackles of traditionalism that many liberals believed rested at the core of southern poverty and underdevelopment. They also generated fears among others in the South that change would come at the expense of their regional identity and well-being. This should not surprise us; Vanderbilt University professor Edwin Mims noted that the parallel strains of provincialism and advancement had been engaged in this conflict "ever since Appomattox."
To understand the powers at work as the Congress of Industrial Organizations launched its crusades to construct a new South, it is necessary to chart the changes that occurred starting with the Depression. By revealing both how much changed as well as how much remained to be accomplished, it is possible to see just how high were the stakes in that conflict between progress and reaction. Our guide through the late Depression and wartime South is another Vanderbilt professor and Disciples of Christ minister, Alva Wilmot Taylor. As professor of social ethics in Vanderbilt's School of Religion, Taylor was a strong proponent of the Social Gospel and thus a keen observer of both the sacred and the secular aspects of the South's transformation.
Correspondence from the New South's New Deal
Alva Wilmot Taylor was born in Anamosa, Iowa, in 1871 and moved with his family to western Iowa in a covered wagon at age three. After attending a one-room school in a rural area, he taught school in 1890 to earn the money to enter preparatory school at Drake University, graduating in 1896. He then completed two years of graduate work at the University of Chicago, studying with such luminaries as Albion Small, W. I. Thomas, and Lester F. Ward before spending a year under the tutelage of Graham Taylor, founder of the Chicago Commons Settlement House and editor of the leading Social Gospel magazine of the day, Charities and the Commons. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Taylor ministered to a church in Cincinnati and then in Eureka, Illinois, punctuated by leaves to travel in Europe and Ireland, studying landlord and tenant conditions and earning a master's degree from Chicago in 1910. As his national reputation grew, the liberal Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America commissioned Taylor to write pamphlets on the 1919 steel strike and on the wage question. He also coauthored a book, The Church and Industrial Reconstruction, published by the Federal Council.
In his denomination, the Disciples of Christ, Taylor was somewhat unusual as a forceful proponent of the Social Gospel. The Disciples, founded in the early nineteenth century, began as a protest against sectarianism and denominational exclusiveness. Disciples of Christ churches strove to restore Christian unity by returning to New Testament faith and practices and witnessing for Jesus as the Lord and Savior of the world. Taylor shared this faith but also combined it with the optimistic postmillennialism of Social Gospel advocates who believed that by blending science and religion they could reform society along Christian lines. In the Progressive Era, Taylor absorbed nearly all the currents of Social Gospel thinking, believing in the white man's burden to uplift all other peoples, in the importance of prohibition, in improving race relations, and especially in the need to reform industry to stop the exploitation of working people. In 1921, Taylor took a position at the Bible College of Missouri, where he taught courses on the social teaching of Jesus, the social work of Christian missions, and the social function of the work of the church. From 1921 to 1931 he served also as the Disciples' Secretary of the Board for Temperance and Social Welfare. In that position he fought against what he saw as the denomination's reactionary leadership and limited contact with working people. He confided to a friend that he was "a Disciple most of the time except Convention week." Nevertheless, he gained notoriety for the studies he directed on such topics as temperance, race relations, and labor-capital relations.
In 1928 Taylor accepted a position as chair of Social Ethics in the School of Religion at Vanderbilt University. Although almost immediately labeled a "radical" both for the content of his courses and his encouragement of students to become involved in social problems, Taylor felt uncomfortable with the tag. In 1933, when Jerome Davis asked him to take on the editorship of the Religion and Labor Foundation's Bulletin, Taylor declined, claiming, "Frankly, my attitude [is] in contrast to that of your younger colleagues. I am progressive not radical, and I fear they would fret under the difference in expression." Taylor refrained from joining radical organizations despite his interest in social reform. "If we are to be 'ministers of reconciliation' and advocates of equity and justice, I belong," he insisted, but no matter how much he sympathized with the objectives of radicals, his vision of an ideal future was less secular and more sacred. "When science gives the technique and the Church gives the social passion," he wrote in 1931, "we will possess power to make the world over into the kingdom of God."
Nevertheless, Taylor adopted causes and mentored students who linked his name to prophetic radicalism. Shortly after arriving at Vanderbilt, Taylor served as the chair of the Church Emergency Relief Committee, a left-leaning group of ministers who raised money and provisions for striking workers and their families. Committee members included the most-well-known prolabor clergy of the 1920s and 1930s—William B. Spofford, James Myers, Charles Webber, Jerome Davis, Worth Tippy, and Reinhold Niebuhr. In 1932 and 1933, appeals for assistance and condemnations of employer brutality in two of the most noteworthy and violent strikes of the time (in Harlan County, Kentucky, and Wilder, Tennessee) went out under his signature. Among the students frequenting Taylor's classroom and accepting his mentoring were Howard Kester, Don West, Ward Rodgers, and Claude Williams, each of whom rose to prominence in labor and radical circles. Not only did they forge the intellectual tools of their prophetic Christianity in Taylor's classes, but they also developed the skills and passions necessary to maintain a life of social activism.
Although Taylor frequently complained about the dogmatism of Socialists and Communists, he was uncompromising when it came to confronting injustice. In addition to coordinating fundraising to help strikers' families, Taylor participated in efforts to halt lynchings in Tennessee, to improve race relations in Nashville, and to support the Tennessee Valley Authority. By 1933 he was in trouble at conservative Vanderbilt, having run afoul of university officials as well as key donors and alumni. Most important among them was John Emmett Edgerton, a prominent industrialist, former President of the National Association of Manufacturers and founding member of the Southern States Industrial Council, a vociferously anti-Roosevelt and anti–New Deal association. Edgerton was a devout Methodist who led daily prayer meetings and hymn singing in his woolen mills; he also served as chair of the board of directors of Vanderbilt's School of Religion. As the Depression began to force cuts in Vanderbilt programs, Taylor's position, which had been part of an expansion project, came on the chopping block, a fact that he blamed on Edgerton and Vanderbilt's reactionary chancellor. In 1934 and 1935, his former students helped raise donations to pay Taylor's salary, but by 1936 their efforts were no longer enough. Vanderbilt announced that it was "transferring" Taylor to Fisk University, where he taught a couple of courses on Christian race relations, but this was merely an attempt to quiet student protests against Taylor's ouster.
Over the next decade Taylor, then in his sixties, had to scramble to find positions and support his family. He worked for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, as manager of the Farm Security Association's Cumberland Homestead, and as an arbitrator for the War Labor Board. He also served, from the 1930s until his death in 1952, on the editorial boards of several religious magazines, including perhaps the most important mainline Protestant magazine of the day, Christian Century. Throughout the Depression and war years, Taylor wrote a regular column, "Correspondence from the New South," in which he observed the important social, economic, and political changes wrought by a growing federal government presence in the region. Although hardly a representative southerner, Taylor's dispatches allow us to gain insights about how these changes appeared to an individual committed to applied Christianity.
When Taylor began reporting on the New Deal in the South, nowhere was the Depression's impact greater than in the rural, agricultural areas. Counties throughout the South struggled to meet the burdens of what were woefully inadequate relief efforts. Franklin County, North Carolina, for example, budgeted just $3,500 a year for 349 families on relief, and a county home provided food and shelter for only about thirty people. Meriwether County, Georgia, was in worse shape; it had 2,385 people on relief, 10.6 percent of its population. Leflore County, Mississippi, relief rolls topped 9,000 in January 1934, about one of every six in the county. Official surveys in Alabama listed 86,733 families on relief on September 1, 1933. Federal agricultural policy, strongly influenced by southern planters and their representatives, sought to stabilize crop prices by subsidizing farmers to restrict production. Federal agriculture subsidies to plow up much of the cotton crop in fact raised cotton prices dramatically and provided a stimulus to regional purchasing power. South Carolina, for example, reported in December 1933 that its cotton crop was worth two-thirds more than the previous year's harvest; Tennessee increased its purchasing power by one-third. The southeastern division of the Chamber of Commerce described the improvements as "almost magic," noting that there had been no farm strikes in the South. Planting contracts for the 1934–35 growing season reduced cotton planting from 40 million to 25 million acres. For Taylor, however, there was "a dark side to this picture." No legal obligation required landowners to share benefits with tenants or croppers, resulting in thousands being "thrown back on wages, if any were offered, or upon relief."
As early as 1934, one observer estimated that six hundred thousand families had been displaced by New Deal agricultural policies, which rewarded the large planters and encouraged them to evict tenants and sharecroppers. Many of these families had no choice but to turn to low-wage farm labor or leave rural areas altogether. Throughout the South, tenants began to organize to resist evictions and demand government assistance, while farm laborers mobilized to fight for higher wages. Alva Taylor received firsthand information on this rural social movement from his former students, Ward Rogers, Howard Kester, and Claude Williams, who were key activists in the struggle, working with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and other agricultural workers' organizations. Taylor praised their protests and the changes they brought in agricultural policy, however limited they were. He also vilified the reactionary planters who met working-class mobilization with violence and repression. He reported in Christian Century about the "elements which have spread terror" by beating STFU organizers, shooting up the homes of black preachers, and attempting "to railroad Ward Rogers, a Christian minister, into the penitentiary" for organizing agricultural workers.
Excerpted from Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South by Elizabeth A. Fones-Wolf, Ken Fones-Wolf. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgments vii
A Note on Religious Terms xiii
1 The Wages of the "Problem South" 11
2 Unrest in Zion: Southern Churches in Depression and War 33
3 "If You Read Your Bible": The Faith of Southern White Workers 55
4 Constructing a Region of Christian Free Enterprise 87
5 The Bible Speaks to Labor 113
6 Ministering in Communities of Struggle 147
7 Red Scares and Black Scares 179