AGAINST THE GRAIN: Southern Radicals and Prophets, 1929-1959 by Anthony P. Dunbar

AGAINST THE GRAIN: Southern Radicals and Prophets, 1929-1959

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Dunbar has a feel for his subjects--Howard Kester, Myles Horton, and other Southern radicals of the Thirties--and for their protest-world (he is the author also of Our Land Too, 1971, a close-up of Southern poverty). He has traced their origins, their activities, even what they're doing today. And the results of his research constitute the one inclusive history of the movement whose ""most potent creation"" was the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, whose long-time symbol was Horton's Highlander Folk School, whose legatees include Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez--and whose credo combined ""economic equality and racial equality."" But beyond showing that all the principals were activist ministers, infected with the social gospel either at Vanderbilt's School of Religion (by Ava Taylor) or at Union Theological Seminary (by Reinhold Niebuhr and Harry F. Ward), and that the movement collapsed because of leftist infighting (Socialist vs. Communist, and fragmentations thereof), Dunbar offers little in the way of interpretation. The big question of how, and to what extent, the movement was specifically or characteristically Southern, he doesn't raise at all--though one can draw inferences from the evidence. In that regard, however, the context is debilitatingly weak--on the particularly onerous situation of Southern farming (and industry) in 1932, on the South as a social laboratory under the New Deal, and, very pertinently, on American radicalism and its internal conflicts. (It's a Trotskyite boast, not history, that they destroyed the foundering Socialist Party in 1937; sometimes Dunbar seems to have stuck too close to primary sources.) So the opportunity to distinguish the Southem radical Christians from other leftist currents is largely lost--and wholly overlooked when Dunbar carries their story forward into the quiescent war years and the beleaguered, Dies-Committee postwar period. What other nativist radical institution, for instance, persisted as long as Highlander--from 1932 to 1957 (the year after Rosa Parks, following a summer visit, kept her seat on the Montgomery bus)? What other group could claim as many leaders who stood on principle, and/or the First Amendment (instead of sheltering behind the Fifth), before congressional investigating committees? But these questions serve also to point up the intrinsic importance of the material; and the internal story is laid out scrupulously, if sometimes a shade too nicely, in Dunbar's involved, not uninvolving, account.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Univ. Press of Virginia