Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South

Article excerpt

Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South. By Jarod Roll. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 266. Acknowledgments, introduction, epilogue, notes, bibliography, index. $80.00, cloth; $30.00, paper.)

On a cold January day in 1939, over 1000 men, women, and children in the Bootheel of southeastern Missouri began a dramatic protest. Evicted from their homes, they moved their belongings and meager food supplies to the roadsides of U.S. Highways 60 and 61. The demonstrators hoped their presence would provide a testament to their struggles and provoke moral outrage at the fate of hard-working American farmers. The protest brought national attention to the Bootheel. But what motivated 1500 people, both black and white, to take to the roadsides and boldly demand a New Deal for America's poor, landless farmers? What sustained a broader social movement of sharecroppers in southeastern Missouri during the late 1930s and early 1940s? Jarod Roll, director of the Marcus Cunliffe Center for the Study of the American South at the University of Sussex, England, seeks to identify the factors that led to the farmers' rebellions.

Roll devotes the first half of the book to explaining the transformation of southeastern Missouri between 1890 and the 1920s. White and black families migrated to the region to drain swamps, build railroads, cut timber, and cultivate fertile soil. They viewed the reclaimed land as a promised land, according to Roll, where prosperous futures could be coaxed from the earth and the ultimate goal, land ownership, might be attained. These dreams foundered as an elite oligarchy created a new rural economic and social order that centered on a system of tenancy and sharecropping, which became key features of the new cotton South.

Roll effectively shows that farmers cultivated more than crops in the Bootheel before the Great Depression. They nurtured intellectual and institutional traditions of protest that foreshadowed their activism in the 1930s. White and black farmers melded ideas of agrarian producerism with evangelical Protestantism to demand fairer treatment long before the roadside protest of 1939. Whites gravitated toward the Socialist party in the 1910s. Blacks formed active chapters of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1920s. Both groups derived inspiration from religious revivals and used their faith to keep their dreams of independent land ownership alive. …

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