Odyssey of a Southern Radical
Reviewed by John Egerton
Vol. 14, No. 4, 1992, pp. 29-30
James A. Dombrowski: An American Heretic, 1897-1983, Frank T. Adams (University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1992, 377 pages).
It’s the American Dream in another of its infinite versions: a shy youngster from Tampa, Fla., son of a Lutheran merchant, grandson of Polish immigrants, strives in high school to prove that he is an excellent and altogether worthy student. He works hard to save for college, goes off to serve in France during World War I, and then enters Georgia’s prestigious Methodist university, Emory, at its new campus in Atlanta. A fraternity man and an honor student, he is so highly regarded that the university hires him as its alumni secretary right after he graduates in 1923. Then, within six years, he is ordained into the Methodist ministry and pursues graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley, at Harvard and Columbia, and at Union Theological Seminary in New York. By the time he is 32 years old in 1929, James Anderson Dombrowski has demonstrated impressively that all things are possible in this great land, even for Southern boys with strange-sounding foreign names.
But life seldom follows a storybook course, even in America. In June 1929, Jim Dombrowski was arrested and jailed during a workers’ strike near Elizabethton, Tenn. He was accused of being a “dangerous agitator,” a Communist, even an accessory to the murder of a police officer. The charges were dropped a few hours later, but the experience had more of a lasting impact on him than 10 years of formal higher education. In fact, you might say that it was at Elizabethton that Dombrowski’s education—not to mention the altered course of his fascinating life—really got its start
It is this little-known life—this odyssey of a Southern radical of the 1930s and beyond—that social critic and biographer Frank T. Adams captures so impressively in these pages. Dombrowski was a Christian Socialist who spent his entire professional career working for racial equality and other social goals in his native South. At the Highlander Folk School, the Southern Conference for
Human Welfare, and the Southern Conference Education Fund—three of this region’s most radical and controversial institutions of the mid-20th century—the tall, soft-spoken reformer was one of the first of a handful of white Southerners to oppose racial segregation in the generation before the U.S. Supreme Court and the Montgomery bus boycott of the mid-1950s brought the long-smoldering civil rights issue to the surface.
Dombrowski was not your average Southerner, for obvious reasons, but the South had its hooks in him just the same. When he was young and impressionable—and still deep in Dixie—the American Dream beckoned to him like the Holy Grail.
His religious commitment was awakened in him here, and it never left him. His idealism, his understanding and empathy for the black minority, his belief in the promise of democracy—all these were a part of his Southern heritage.
The great value of books like this is that they rescue from obscurity heroic and courageous people who would otherwise be lost to us forever.
The record is full of demagogues, charlatans, knaves, and scoundrels who sold us down the river in the name of mother, God, and country. Far too little is known about the men and women, white and black, who tried to tell us, long before we were disposed to listen, that segregation was a bilbo (that’s a leg iron on a slave ship, and an infamous politician’s signature), and we could only free ourselves from it by speaking the truth about democracy, equality, and justice.
Only two things mystify me about this excellent biography. One is that it took more than 25 years after Dombrowski’s retirement to bring his story into print.
The other is that the publisher would find it necessary to charge a prohibitively high price for the hardcover edition—and a hardcover price for the paperback ($49.50 and $22.50).
Too many people who need to read this book will miss it for that reason. I hope the libraries, at least, won’t pass it up, and that those who can’t afford it will go there and check it out.
One way or the other, we need to spread the word about the Frank Adams rendition of Jim Dombrowski’s life.
John Egerton’s latest book is Shades of Gray. He works now on a study of Southern racial relations during the eve of the civil rights movement.