Defying Dixie


Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore. Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008. 646 pages. ISBN: 978-0-393-33532-3. Reviewed by William E. O’Brien, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

The American South’s notorious twentieth century racial history has received extensive coverage by numerous authors and from many perspectives. Whether recounting the atrocities of Jim Crow or reliving the hopes and accomplishments of the civil rights movement, so much has been written that one might wonder what more can be uncovered. Yale University history professor Glenda Gilmore has provided a compelling answer in Defying Dixie, which relates in great detail the significant role played by political radicals in the fight against racial segregation in the American South. Gilmore is so effective in bringing the events and characters to life in this broad-ranging account that its 451 pages of text (and over 160 additional pages of notes/references) passed by very quickly, and I was left wanting more.

It is not new to point out that communists attained some success in the South, particularly for a brief time in the 1930s, in organizing unions and through their legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys. What this remarkable book adds to these topics and others is a synthesis of a wide range of sources, especially from recently-available archival material from the former Soviet Union. That resource opens a fascinating and insightful window into the activities of particular characters, ideologies, and strategies that guided communist activity in the segregated South. Gilmore ties this radical activity to a broader history of attempts to improve the condition of African Americans in the region, tracing this movement from the darkest years of white violence following World War I, through the more hopeful 1930s, and into fervent anti-communism of the early Cold War.

Taking a stand when and where others dared not, communists were the sole advocates of full racial equality in the South during the decade following the First World War. Spurred by a newly-emergent USSR that exported an ideology of racial justice and equality, American communists set an example for others by strictly enforcing integration in their political activities in the South, from party meetings to union ranks. The unwavering communist demand for social and racial justice attracted a number of African Americans, including Southerners. The most compelling of these characters is Lovett Fort-Whiteman, who is identified by Gilmore as America’s first black communist. Inspired after World War I by communism’s ideology of racial equality, he remained committed to the end. Outspoken and flamboyant, Fort-Whiteman was less than successful in organizing in the dangerous South of the 1920s and eventually left the United States to settle in the Soviet Union. A Dallas native who never felt comfortable in his home region, he felt acceptance among the Russian people, whose embrace of racial equality was expressed through fawning goodwill toward Fort-Whiteman and the few other American blacks who traveled and were educated there. After Stalin’s rise and as the purges of his opponents commenced and intensified, unleashing a more sinister side of Soviet communism, Fort-Whiteman’s opposition resulted in his imprisonment in Stalin’s gulag where he died in 1939.

"Removing the effective tactic of connecting Jim Crow and fascism was a blow to the Left generally, and with communists now siding with the Nazis as America prepared for war, the stance added new fuel to Southern white accusations that radical activity was anti-American."  


Gilmore contrasts the American communists’ bold commitment to racial equality during the 1920s and 1930s with the go-slow, incrementalist strategies of leading liberal reform groups such as the NAACP and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. While typically at odds with the communists, the reform groups by the latter 1930s had managed to coordinate some activities with the radicals in a Popular Front as fascism grew in Europe and posed threats in the American South. Whatever successes the communists attained in the South, however, were undermined by puzzling strategy directives emanating from the Soviet Union as well as an ideological rigidity that made it difficult to work with non-communists despite similar social justice concerns. The most egregious strategy misstep for American communists was their promotion of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact between Stalin and Hitler. Following Soviet direction, communists suddenly disengaged from their Popular Front effort to fight creeping fascism in the South, and thus severely undermined their own credibility in the fight for racial justice, especially among blacks. Removing the effective tactic of connecting Jim Crow and fascism was a blow to the Left generally, and with communists now siding with the Nazis as America prepared for war, the stance added new fuel to Southern white accusations that radical activity was anti-American. With communists on the run nationwide both during and after the war, it was left to the liberal reformists to bring about the great achievements in racial justice during the 1950s and 1960s.

While relating such events, Gilmore introduces readers to a large number of people with links to the radical edges of this history, many of whom were not specifically communists. Along these lines, the other most compelling character in the volume is an outspoken African American woman named Pauli Murray. Clearly Gilmore’s favorite character, Pauli Murray quickly became mine as well. In contrast with the strict ideological discipline of the communists, Pauli Murray pursued social justice through sheer force of will and by any means available. A native of Durham, North Carolina, Murray was inspired by communism’s commitment to racial equality but was only a party member for a short time in the mid-1930s. Her effort at Chapel Hill to gain admission to the University of North Carolina’s graduate school was a focus of her activities in the latter years of the decade. Irrepressible in spirit, she simultaneous charmed and annoyed sympathetic University administrators, NAACP attorneys, and even worked her way into a long friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, who sympathized with and chided Murray for her impatience with the slow struggle. Though her early communist ties later cost her an appointment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Murray emerged by the 1960s as a hero to struggles over both race and gender. She was a founding member of the National Organization for Women, advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment, and also pushed for the ordination of women priests in the Episcopal Church. Victorious in that latter struggle, toward the end of her life she was ordained as a priest and was invited to serve at the Chapel of the Cross on the very University of North Carolina campus where her political struggles began four decades earlier.

Glenda Gilmore’s entire account of radical activism in the South is extraordinary. She is successful in her attempt to remind readers that the post-1955 civil rights movement had important precursors that not only go beyond reform groups like the NAACP, but also involved close attention among African Americans to international affairs and trends. Additionally, she reminds us that these early radical activities focused on racial equality issues that included but went beyond desegregation, such as demands for economic justice and reform of the criminal justice system. Ending the book on an inspiring note, Gilmore relates Pauli Murray’s reflections on her ultimate triumph after many years of “failed” activism on issues perceived as lost causes. The perseverance of Murray and others like her helped generate the momentum that brought about ultimate success in attaining civil rights. I highly recommend this book to anyone.

William E. O'Brien
Associate Professor of Environmental Studies
Florida Atlantic University

Volume XII, Table of Contents


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