Red, Black, and White

Historians of the American South have devoted relatively little attention to the 1930s and 1940s. They have mostly concentrated on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which witnessed the rise of legalized segregation and the disenfranchisement of most African Americans, and then tended to skip ahead to the eventful story of civil rights protest and desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. In between, it has been generally assumed, very little changed. The Jim Crow system was firmly in place and virtually unchallenged. The Great Depression hit the South hard, but the region was already so poor that its effects seemed less dramatic than elsewhere. Southern conservatives successfully controlled the administration of New Deal programs to inure that they did not threaten the status quo of class and race relations. World War II and postwar prosperity began to narrow the economic gap between the South and the rest of the nation, but the South at midcentury was still clearly distinguishable from the North and West by its blatant white supremacy, one-party rule, unorganized labor, and extensive rural poverty.

This conventional image of a South that was resisting change and retaining its distinctiveness as a “backward” and flagrantly racist region is not so much wrong as incomplete. It remains undeniable that reformers of the Thirties and Forties had little success in their efforts to make the South more democratic and egalitarian. Federal court decisions were chipping away at the edges of segregation and disenfranchisement, but for the most part Southern African Americans remained without power and subject to violence and intimidation if they got out of their “place” as members of a pariah caste. What the books under review reveal, however, is that the prevailing system of race and class domination did not go unchallenged during the Thirties and Forties. They rescue from obscurity the dissenters, black and white, who sought—by means that ranged from gradual reform to violent revolution—to make the South a more just society. To varying degrees and in different ways, they pose the question of precisely why it was that determined efforts to change the South from within failed to leave in place an interracial left-wing group capable of broadening the scope of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s and possibly reducing the need for federal intervention to eliminate Jim Crow. Three of the books—Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, Michael K. Honey’s Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights, and John Egerton’s Speak Now Against the Day—deal directly with this issue. All of them show how militant anticommunism provided the ammunition for a devastating attack on the Southern left—radical and liberal alike—that left it wounded and disabled at the dawn of the civil rights era.

White Southerners first became seriously alarmed about Communist interference with their way of life when a legal defense organization dominated by the Communist Party took over the case of nine black youths condemned to death for allegedly raping two white …

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