Against the Grain: Southern Radicals and Prophets, 1929-1959. Edited by Anthony P. Dunbar, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981.
Vol. 4, No. 3, 1982, pp. 14-15
The past remains as unpredictable as ever. As proof, we have Tony Dunbar’s fine book, Against the Grain. From scattered, vagrant and half-forgotten sources, he has fashioned a story which is not only important in its own right, but also is suggestive of what remains uncollected and as yet, untold.
Dunbar himself acknowledges that his narrative is only “a piece of the history” of Southern radicalism and protest in the 1930’s. “No single work,” he writes, “could record all that happened in the mines and factories, all that was attempted by women’s organizations, or all that resulted from the dissatisfaction of blacks and the poor in little towns without number.” In its fashion Against the Grain now joins several recent books already on the shelf: Donald Grubbs’ Cry from the Cotton, Thomas Krueger’s exploration of The Southern Conference for Human Welfare, H.L. Mitchell’s autobiography, Ted Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers, Nell Painter’s edition of Hosea Hudson’s recollections and essays and oral histories in numerous issues of Southern Exposure. Additionally, these volumes of printed word have appeared concurrently with a rediscovery and reissuance of the 1930s music of Southern working folk. Record labels such as Folkways, Rounder, County, Flyright and Clanka [unclear] have tracked down the scratchy old seventy-eight rpm recordings and made them available, with extensive annotation, on shiny new albums. (This is a story for another occasion, however; readers interested in surveying the range of these musical materials should write Roundup Records, P.O. Box 147, E. Cambridge, MA 02141 and ask for a catalog or the current issue of The Record Roundup.)
All this energy betokens several genuine cravings. First in mind are the empowering effects which come through the rediscovery of indigenous traditions of Southern protest and activism. Each generation needs to know the persistent themes of its predecessors, the context of their temperaments, the campaigns waged, the findings and keepings. Awareness of kinship with the critical past, Dunbar knows, can help clarify insights and shore up our courage. A rock in a weary land.
Against the Grain traces the origins, emergence and transformation of the South’s “radical gospel”
uprising. This was a movement which shook not so much the established church as the lives of many farmers and millworkers. For a time it restored grass-root meaning to the word Protestant. Ultimately, of course, it had its failures. The redress of class power and racial prejudice are no modest goals. The movement’s ommission from or slighting by standard history books testifies to Lillian Smith’s understanding that history’s winners name their age and to the selective orientation of historians interpreting backwards from these winners.
But as the swift ages roll, new possibilities appear and old alternatives revive, provided there’s someone like Tony Dunbar around to prod us with the memories. His interpretation first establishes the influence of teachers, people such as Alva Taylor of the Vanderbilt School of Religion, Reinhold Niebuhr and Harry Ward at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. These teachers themselves carry the spirit of a generation older than Dunbar’s central characters: Claude and Joyce Williams, Don and Constance West, Miles and Zilphia Horton, Ward Rogers, Alice and Howard Kester, James Dombrowski, Elizabeth Hawes, and others. Dunbar then follows these “students,” their ideas, institutions and influences primarily through the 1930s, but also, in more summary fashion, right down to now.
Yet, Dunbar is far from suggesting that the orders went out from an old line of graybeards to a young cadre of ideologues. Perhaps the most important notion in Against the Grain in is that Southern farmers and working people carry, within their own cultural resources, the seeds of populist revolt. And that organizers and teachers who can speak the language of the culture, who can, for instance, bring home a radical gospel, can help these seeds to flower. Such was clearly the case in the mid-1930s with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Thousands of black and white Mississippi and Arkansas tenants risked their lives in several strikes. This rising, before it was broken by state and vigilante violence and by the political clout of certain Southern Democrats within the New Deal coalition, “marked the high point of agricultural unionism in the South and provided an example of the races working together which would not be repeated until the civil rights movement emerged two decades later.”
Finally, a note on the book itself as object and artifact. From the dust jacket to the photographs which bind it’s beginning and end, the University of Virginia Press has done an excellent bit of handiwork. Photographs of the participants are interspersed throughout, along with occasional copies of period handbills, posters, poems and song texts. The type is large and easily readable and the overall design speaks of that rarest of modern productions, a work of thought and care.