The Unemployed People's Movement: Leftists, Liberals, and Labor in Georgia, 1929-1941

The Unemployed People's Movement: Leftists, Liberals, and Labor in Georgia, 1929-1941

The Unemployed People's Movement: Leftists, Liberals, and Labor in Georgia, 1929-1941

The Unemployed People's Movement: Leftists, Liberals, and Labor in Georgia, 1929-1941

Synopsis

In Georgia during the Great Depression, jobless workers united with the urban poor, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers. In a collective effort that cut across race and class boundaries, they confronted an unresponsive political and social system and helped shape government policies. James J. Lorence adds significantly to our understanding of this movement, which took place far from the northeastern and midwestern sites we commonly associate with Depression-era labor struggles.Drawing on extensive archival research, including newly accessible records of the Communist Party of the United States, Lorence details interactions between various institutional and grassroots players, including organized labor, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, liberal activists, and officials at every level of government. He shows, for example, how the Communist Party played a more central role than previously understood in the organization of the unemployed and the advancement of labor and working-class interests in Georgia. Communists gained respect among the jobless, especially African Americans, for their willingness to challenge officials, help negotiate the welfare bureaucracy, and gain access to New Deal social programs.Lorence enhances our understanding of the struggles of the poor and unemployed in a Depression-era southern state. At the same time, we are reminded of their movement's lasting legacy: the shift in popular consciousness that took place as Georgians, "influenced by a new sense of entitlement fostered by the unemployed organizations," began to conceive of new, more-equal relations with the state.

Excerpt

Among the most persistent myths concerning the southern working class of the early twentieth century is the timeworn argument that the region’s workers were somehow impervious to the drive toward organization that affected urban, industrial America. To be sure, in many areas, including the bellwether state of Georgia, there was resistance to collective action that contributed to the development of a labor movement that grew strong primarily within the ranks of skilled operatives who organized on the basis of shared trades. Nonetheless, in recent years scholars have begun to unravel the story of Georgia’s laborers, both union and nonunion, whose experience contradicts the prevailing wisdom with regard to the appeal of organization. Modern historians, including Karen Ferguson, Georgina Hickey, Randall Patton, Douglas Flamming, Michelle Brattain, Clifford Kuhn, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Charles Martin, have gradually chipped away at the mistaken assumption that the state’s workers were unable to accept the idea of united action in class interest.

Perhaps the foremost proponent of the South’s new labor history has been historian Robin D. G. Kelley, whose landmark study of Alabama Communists and community organizing in the 1930s took a huge step toward an alternate interpretation of the southern working class. By focusing on the role of radical organizers in the mobilization of Alabama’s urban and rural workers, Kelley was able to demonstrate that in the heart of the Black Belt as well as the Birmingham district, African American . . .

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