The Liberals' Southern Strategy

By Whitfield, Stephen J. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

The Liberals' Southern Strategy


Whitfield, Stephen J., The Virginia Quarterly Review


Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era. By Patricia Sullivan. University of North Carolina Press. $39.95 cloth, $17.95 paperback.

When, in a pop paean to "Little Sister" (1961), Elvis Presley snarls that "she's mean and she's evil/Like a little ol' boll weevil," the analogy is region-specific; the lyric would make no sense if sung by, say, Simon & Garfunkel. No region makes generalizations about the United States more subject to qualification than the South, which has diverged so strikingly in its income levels, its race relations, and its political culture that the attention of historians is still enlisted. Days of Hope (a dull title, by the way) shows how regional anomalies complicated the attempts of civil rights workers and of labor organizers in the 1930's and 1940's to promote economic justice as well as a more expansive democracy. The ex-Confederacy, which Franklin D. Roosevelt designated in 1938 "the nation's number one economic problem," posed challenges to the NAACP and the CIO that proved more formidable than elsewhere; such divergences mattered. According to current practitioners of social history, race and class and gender form the iron triangle that frame the national experience. According to Patricia Sullivan, region is a category of analysis that can displace gender; and her splendid book traces how militant idealists realized that "racial discrimination and exclusion thwarted any effort to secure fundamental economic and political reform." Inspired by the New Deal, such activists thus softened up Southern society before the final assault on Jim Crow in the 1960's.

Though historians have hardly ignored the origins of the civil rights struggle in earlier eras, Sullivan thus reinforces the professional tendency to find continuities in the past. It is now widely recognized that the Southern movement was not created ex nihilo when Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat, but Days of Hope is invaluable in unearthing a legacy of mostly white Southerners who broke with their families and friends more than half a century ago to promote greater equality among races and classes. Sullivan has excavated a heroic past that is inevitably threatened with oblivion in our amnesiac culture (which has managed to produce a biography of Brad Pitt but until recently lacked a book about Bayard Rustin). In resurrecting forgotten but admirable figures, she has scoured a staggering number of primary source (in archives, in newspapers, and in oral history collections), and has interviewed just about everyone from Strom Thurmond to Alger Hiss. Gracefully written and handsomely produced, Days of Hope has gestated slowly; the dissertation from which it springs was completed 13 years earlier (longer than the duration of the New Deal itself. The effort has paid off as "the study of a generation," the record-in Sullivan's words-of "more than a hundred women and men who helped create the political possibilities of the 1930s and 1940s," and gallantly overcame the burden of Southern history.

The figures she portrays are far more obscure than Rustin. Among the whites are the patrician Clark Foreman, who directed the Georgia Commission of Interracial Cooperation when Atlanta had not yet become "the city too busy to hate"; the intellectual Palmer Weber, a Virginian who spearheaded the fight of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare against the poll tax; James Dombrowski, the Floridian who served as executive secretary of the SCHW; Lucy Randolph Mason, whose great-great-grandfather had signed the Declaration of Independence and who became the chief publicist for the CIO in the South; Virginia Foster Durr, a former member of the Junior League in Birmingham and an energetic champion of racial equality; and C. B. (Beanie) Baldwin, a close associate of the most maverick and visionary of the New Dealers, Henry A. Wallace. Among the blacks are Charles Hamilton Houston, the legal strategist at Howard University who tutored a generation of civil rights attorneys in the battle against discrimination in education that came to fruition with Brown v. …

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