Reviewed by Suzanne Marshall
Vol. 15, No. 1, 1993, pp. 24-25
Refuse to Stand Silently By: An Oral History of Grass Roots Social Activism in America, 1921-1964 , Eliot Wigginton, ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1991, 430 pages, index).
“But see, I went through a whole lot of things a whole lot of people never knew about. And I kept on doing it, not because I wanted to be a big man,” recalled civil rights activist Edgar Daniel Nixon. “I done it because I thought it needed doing.” Ordinary people have always done things to bring about change in society, as E. D. Nixon did, without desiring recognition. After finishing their work, they resumed their lives. But through the research of oral historians, the lives and actions of ordinary people are illuminated. Eliot Wigginton, a pioneer in oral history, has provided an inspiring, moving account of grassroots activists who were affiliated with the Highlander School in Tennessee.
Highlander was founded in the early 1930s as a training center for labor activists. Over the past sixty years it has concentrated its efforts on labor issues, civil rights and Appalachian concerns. Currently, the center concentrates on economic and environmental issues. During all the years of its existence Highlander’s founders and directors sought to work from the grassroots. As Dorothy Cotton explains, “if you want to have change, of course, the bottom line is that the folks for whom the change is meant must be involved in it.”
Wigginton allows the people involved in Highlander to tell its story, its philosophy, its transformations, and its effects on the activists who worked with it. Through their stories a narrative history of Highlander School and its influence evolves. “Highlander, in a sense,” interviewee Studs Terkel points out, “is symbolic, but more than that it is representing, as a school, all those disparate forces of positive change.” And these people did force change—sometimes minimal, sometimes dramatic—that inspires awe and spurs new forms of activism today.
The stories reveal the hardships and pleasures, the dangers and excitement of social justice work. They exemplify how people became involved in trying to achieve social change and how they persisted in the work when all signs pointed to failure. For instance, Ralph Helstein, a leader in the 1940s of the CIO, later of the AFL-CIO explained his commitment to social action as “this strong moral urge that unquestionably reflected my family’s strong drives toward responsibility toward the community.” When the road ahead looked dark and forbidding, Septima Clark carried on because, “you have to be strong. You have to tell the truth and take the consequences. And it’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be pleasant” Nevertheless, Ms. Clark continues, “you live through the bad times. You have to have faith.”
Faith, courage, moral strength, and hard work characterize the efforts of all the people interviewed. Although each person in this book tells a unique and compelling story, I have chosen just two, E. D. Nixon and Bernice Robinson, as examples. Together their lives and work span great years at Highlander.
E. D. Nixon, of Montgomery, entered social justice work in the 1920s when he joined A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a courageous act for a Southern black man. When his boss warned against union activity, Nixon threatened a lawsuit if anything happened to his job. He encountered no problems after this confrontation. As a union man he learned valuable skills in public speaking and organizing. When the civil rights movement began in the 1950s, Nixon was experienced and ready to act. “I was the first man anywhere in the United States to lead a group of black children into an all-white school.” He also served as the head of the local NAACP, worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., during the bus boycott and continued activism throughout his life. Nixon, in his concluding interview, looks to the future and advises social activists to learn from their elders, to learn from experience and to work for economic equity because, “you can’t be independent and broke. As long as you’re broke, you got to stay on your knees.”
Bernice Robinson, a South Carolinian, moved to New York in the 1940s and experienced a freedom unknown in her home state. Eventually, due to family demands, she returned to the South and its Jim Crow society. She had trained as a beautician, an occupation where she could be self-supporting and independent of white control because her customers came from the black community. This economic freedom and her own courage allowed her to become politically active, join the NAACP, and work for civil rights. She had become acutely aware of discrimination in the South after tasting the comparative freedom of the North. This consciousness drove her to action. She worked with voter registration projects in the late 1940s, attended a Highlander program with her aunt, Septima Clark, and together they set up the first Citizenship Schools in South Carolina which became models for other states. She concludes that her work was productive and
rewarding. “Although we haven’t scratched the surface as far as literacy is concerned, we have had an influence. So some progress has been made, even though it may be minute when you look at the overall picture.” For the future, “we have to protect that progress and hold it or else we’ll be right back in the same boat we were in right after Reconstruction when everything was going fine until the troops were pulled out of the South and we lost almost everything again.”
A number of interviews were conducted with people who began their association with Highlander as ordinary citizens, but because of their work became famous. Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger, Andrew Young, and Julian Bond all participated at one time or another. Highlander co-founder Don West defined a revolutionary as “one who wants to change ugly conditions to more positive humane conditions and to have a turnover from the kind of regime that may be rotten and corrupt to one that is more humane.”
According to West’s definition, all the people interviewed in this book are revolutionaries. Transforming society required dedication, vision, and persistence. Pete Seeger declares that, “if you’ve got any energy, use it wherever you are, wherever you think you can be effective. City or country, family or community, do whatever you can do. Everything has an effect.” These people had the energy, and they used it in many ways and in many projects.
This book will remind readers of the importance of ordinary people who rise up and decide to take action. It shows that change can be made by committed individuals and by grass roots organizations. Much of history has been made by people who remain anonymous. Fortunately Wigginton and his primary collaborator, Sue Thrasher, have provided an oral history that is a testimony to the power of the people.
Suzanne Marshall is on the history faculty of Jacksonville State University in Alabama.