Recovering the Core Radicalism of the Civil Rights Movement: An Interview with Glenda GilmoreHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, Jim Crow, African American history, Protest, social movements, radical history
Glenda Gilmore is Peter V. and C. Van Woodward Professor Emeritus of History, African American Studies, and American Studies at Yale University.
Robert Greene II is an assistant professor of history at Claflin University and publications chair for the Society of US Intellectual Historians and lead associate editor for Black Perspectives.
In Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919–1950, historian Glenda Gilmore turns our attention to the decades before the “classic” Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Her focus is on the Southerners — Pauli Murray, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, Harry Haywood, Junius Scales, and many others — who left the region to conduct the fight against Jim Crow segregation from beyond its borders. These figures were radicals of various stripes — Communists, Socialists, labor militants — and served as the leaders and foot soldiers of the struggle against racial and economic tyranny. Only “Cold War anti-Communism,” Gilmore asserts, was able to snuff out their singular contributions from the history books.
Gilmore’s narrative follows a path of struggle through Southern, American, and world histories that links together the Russian Revolution, the rise and fall of fascism, and the “long civil rights movement” in the United States. Lovett Fort-Whiteman, a Texas native and dedicated Communist, educated his comrades abroad about the “Negro Problem.” Fellow Communist Harry Haywood promoted his controversial “Black Belt thesis” — which held that black Americans in that part of the Deep South constituted a “nation within a nation” with the right to self-determination — before the Communist International in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
While such ideas were being debated within the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and Comintern, Communists in the US South gradually found themselves on the front lines of a Southern Popular Front that included Socialists and Southern liberals who opposed Jim Crow segregation and what many saw as its international ally — fascism.
Communists took the lead. They defended the Scottsboro Boys in 1931 (nine young black men in Alabama who were flagrantly denied due process after being accused of raping two white women) and spearheaded the defense of Angelo Herndon in 1932 (a black Communist who was arrested in Atlanta, Georgia, while attempting to organize African American and white industrial workers). They were the most aggressive in organizing interracial labor unions. And they were crucial to labor-based civil rights organizations like the Southern Negro Youth Congress.
To many of these radicals, as New York Communist Ben Davis put it, communism was “20th Century Abolitionism” — and only an unflinching, militant, working-class movement could topple Jim Crow tyranny and economic oppression. “It was Communists,” Gilmore writes, “who stood up to say that black and white people should organize together, eat together, go to school together, and marry each other if they chose.”
The 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact crippled the Popular Front in the US, and the onset of the Cold War dealt a still more devastating setback. However, as interviews in Defying Dixie with older activists show, many refused to simply forget the flowering of radical organizing that laid the groundwork for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, and other better-known events.
Historian Robert Greene spoke with Gilmore about Defying Dixie and the radical fight to create a better South, both in previous generations and today.
ROBERT GREENE II
You and fellow historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall have pushed for the idea of a “long Civil Rights Movement.” Why do you think this idea is important when thinking about the history of black freedom struggles in the United States?
Hall cochaired my dissertation committee, and she encouraged students to see history from the ground up, to explore power dynamics through labor history, and to accord agency and influence to those who pursued causes that some historians might see as lost. The existing historical literature named the period from roughly 1954 to 1966 the Civil Rights Movement, yet it was clear that African Americans had fought for rights since the Civil War. To discount those longer struggles casts the fight as arising spontaneously and limits its scope.
The century-long civil rights movement was always about more than eliminating segregation and getting voting rights, the two major accomplishments of the 1950s and 1960s. Looking at the Civil Rights Movement as short, successful, and led by male clerics, persuades Americans that the nation’s racial problems were shallow, and pious men easily settled them.
Perhaps most consequentially, limiting civil rights to that short period prevents us from understanding the pervasiveness of racial discrimination and the deep roots of racialized capitalism. Economic justice and structural change of the social and political system, long-standing goals of African Americans since Reconstruction, remain on the present agenda.
ROBERT GREENE II
There is a strong undercurrent of transnational solidarity of left-wing movements throughout the book. But you start by talking about the global currents of white supremacy and fascism that also crossed borders in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Southern system of white supremacy that stood until the 1950s had many fascist elements, although, by 1940, most white Southerners would have denied the similarities. However, in the 1920s and 1930s, many of them embraced eugenics and routinely spoke of “white supremacy” as the natural order of things. Many supported the terrorism of the lynch mob.
At first, the global rise of fascism gave them an encouraging model, but by the mid-1930s it became a comparison to argue that the South’s system of racial oppression was more benign.