Gilmore (History/Yale Univ.; Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920, 1996) reconstructs the battle of radical Southern activists against Jim Crow in the three decades preceding Brown v. Board of Education.
During the first half of the 20th century, the Communist Party attracted those determined to dismantle the South’s white regime. Its forthright commitment to racial equality far outstripped any declaration by the NAACP, the agenda of any regional commissions dedicated to racial harmony and the platforms of the Republican or Democratic parties. Gilmore’s wide-ranging research uncovers the fascinating story of how communists, socialists, liberals, legal and labor activists helped lay the groundwork for the mainstream civil-rights breakthroughs of the 1960s. Although she hobbles an already complex narrative with irritating academic tics—e.g., the tiresome use of “privilege” as a verb and, notwithstanding her concession that the Scottsboro defendants “were really boys,” her insistence on preciously denominating the case as the Scottsboro “Boys”—she offers colorful set pieces about the 1929 Gastonia, N.C., textile strike; the ill-conceived 1932 attempt to film in Moscow Black and White, a movie about working conditions in Birmingham, Ala.; the origin and ambiance of The Intimate Bookshop in Chapel Hill, N.C., a simultaneous hotbed and safe haven for radical thought; and the 1942 sit-ins by Howard University students in Washington, D.C., cafeterias. Famous names—A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Thurgood Marshall—dot the narrative, but this story’s charm lies in the sensitive mini-portraits of lesser-known recurring characters: Lovett Fort-Whiteman, the first American-born black communist; Junius Scales, child of privilege turned communist; Frank Porter Graham, heroic UNC president; tortured professor Max Yergan; smarmy sociologist Howard Odum; and the narrative’s star, Pauli Murray, an utterly relentless, remarkable activist whose life by itself is worthy of book treatment.
For Americans who believe the modern civil-rights movement began with the Montgomery bus boycott, Gilmore ably readjusts the record.