Tilling the Ground for Change

Tilling the Ground for Change

Reviewed by Matthew Lassiter

Vol. 18, No. 2, 1996

Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era, by Patricia Sullivan (University of North Carolina Press, 1996, 335 pages).

The travails of Southern liberals and radicals during the 1930s and 1940s have recently moved to the center of pre-Brown era Southern and civil rights history as scholars continue to probe beneath the surface of white supremacy in the so-called Solid South. Following closely on the heels of Speak Now Against the Day, John Egerton’s extensive chronicle of dissenting Southerners, Patricia Sullivan’s welcome new book examines the changes brought to the South by the New Deal and World War II. Through the perspectives of Southern-born New Deal policymakers, indigenous voting rights activists, and especially the labor-liberals in the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), Sullivan portrays the rise and fall of a progressive alternative to the white supremacist South: “days of hope” during which a New Deal-inspired biracial movement for economic and social justice emerged as a challenge to the region’s reactionary politicians. The repercussions of this effort shaped national as well as regional politics; in the decade between 1938 and 1948, Sullivan argues, the fate of the labor organization drives and voting rights campaigns of the South largely determined the future of New Deal liberalism and the Democratic Party, and the commitment of Democratic policymakers in Washington substantially influenced the fate of Southern progressivism.

The harsh realities of the Great Depression weakened the South’s traditional political opposition to federal intervention, and the events of 1938 in particular “opened the way for a new political realignment in the South” (p.5), ushering in a pivotal decade of extraordinary fluidity in Southern politics. Southern New Dealers drew up the Report on the Economic Conditions of the South, which labeled the region the “nation’s number one economic problem”; Roosevelt traveled to the deep South to campaign against recalcitrant New Deal opponents from his own party; the NACCP won its first significant legal victory against educational segregation in the Gaines v. Missouri law school case; the CIO escalated its push to organize black and white Southern workers; and an eclectic group of Southerners organized the SCHW, with repeal of the poll tax at the top of the new organization’s agenda.

Sullivan disagrees with many scholars who have focused on how political constraints and policy compromises resulted in an essentially conservative thrust for the New Deal. Despite a caveat that many New Deal policies reinforced racial discrimination, she paints the era as a time when, across the country, “there was a deep, abiding awareness that a sea change in American politics was under way” (p.24). It would have been helpful if this thesis were better qualified; Days of Hope leaves the impression that racial egalitarians and labor sympathizers had more power in formulating New Deal policies than they actually exercised, and it glosses over the clearly significant influence enjoyed by industrialists, bankers, and other conservative interests. This is partly because for Sullivan, the truly radical potential of the New Deal lay in its ability to raise consciousness and engender protest, as the federal government’s aggressive new stance

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brought an unprecedented opportunity for biracial challengers to the South’s manifestly undemocratic political structure. Even the New Deal’s limitations had an indirectly progressive impact: it was precisely the disjuncture between the optimism it inspired and the realities of everyday life under segregation and economic hardship which motivated a diverse array of Southerners to mobilize in demand of equal rights and economic justice.

Throughout the narrative, Sullivan combines the broader sweep of national-regional political developments with a narrow focus on individual Southern activists. Although at times extensive biographical sketches disrupt the narrative flow of the book, we are treated to evocative portraits of Southern New Dealers such as Clark Foreman, Virginia Durr, Palmer Weber, and Robert Weaver. Days of Hope is in large part a tribute to the Southern progressives who demanded large-scale federal action in the South, integrated race and class analyses through campaigns for labor and voting rights, and envisioned an interracial democracy in place of segregation and white supremacy. Coalescing in the SCHW, they forged a popular front with labor leaders such as Sidney Hilman at the CIO-PAC, civil rights activists such as Charles Houston of the NACCP, and Washington allies such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Agricultural Secretary and eventual Vice-President Henry Wallace. The book is a “study of a generation”–a more radical generation than the prominent academics and journalists who led the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and its successor, the Southern Regional Council. To Sullivan, white SRC moderates were “apologists for the segregation system” (p.166) because they believed that social change would have to come gradually and be led by elites such as themselves, not the federal government and certainly not ordinary black Southerners.

Sullivan is much more sympathetic toward the pragmatic compromises of her heroes in the SCHW than those of the moderate progressives of the SRC, but the latter also supported the New Deal and opposed voting discrimination, and the two organizations were not as far apart as she implies. The white activists in SCHW rejected segregation more forcefully but, like the SRC, often phrased their protests in economic rather than explicitly racial terms. Fighting for Southerners such as the sharecroppers who formed the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the black citizens who protested the all white primary which rendered the Fifteenth Amendment irrelevant, SCHW progressives advocated federal action against anti-democratic voting laws and campaigned against conservative politicians who red-baited and race-baited them in response. The transformations wrought during the war years provided an even wider opening for the South’s progressive vanguard, especially after the 1944 Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Allwright signaled the demise of the white primary, the linchpin of efforts to deny the right of African Americans to vote.

Sullivan’s passages about black efforts to gain entry into the Democratic primary are among the most compelling in the book. These middle chapters are a significant contribution to scholarly discourse, demonstrating that during the 1940s the voting arena witnessed many of the same conflicts which would rock the South during the desegregation struggles of the late 1950s and early 1960s. For the Southern black reformers who mobilized under the “Double V” campaign, Smith v. Allwright was as inspirational as the Brown decision would prove to their successors. In South Carolina, for example, a statewide movement for black voter registration led by John McCray and Osceola McKaine resulted in increased political power and a firmly established NAACP network which would provide the basis for the legal civil rights protests of the following decades. In response to black challenges to the white primary, conservative politicians through legal machinations and the Ku Klux Klan through intimidation pursued the same strategies which would later be known as massive resistance. The foreshadowing took place at the national level as well, as the South Carolina Progressive Democratic Party organized by McCray and McKaine challenged the state’s all-white delegation at the 1944 Democratic national convention but met the same fate as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party would twenty years later in Atlantic City.

The 1944 convention also provided a bitter battle over Vice-President Henry Wallace’s renomination, an event Sullivan presents as a symbolic struggle over the fate of New Deal liberalism. The NACCP, the SCHW, labor unions, and other New Dealers rallied around Wallace, who denounced Southern conservatives and stirringly advanced a progressive vision sympathetic to organized labor and hostile to racial discrimination. Although party leaders, with Roosevelt’s knowledge, defied

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the will of convention delegates by replacing Wallace with Harry Truman, progressives felt that momentum was on their side. Wallace and his allies believed that changing the South was critical to the survival of New Deal liberalism, and after Roosevelt’s reelection Wallace remarked that “a spirit of liberalism is abroad in the South.” According to Sullivan, the changes wrought by the New Deal and World War II comprised “the seedbed of a genuinely liberal and progressive movement,” “an opening for racial tolerance and political democracy in a society steeped in segregation and white supremacy” (p.188, 194).

Could interracial democracy have transformed the South and, by extension, the nation? The key to this progressive hope was a class-based alliance which reached across racial boundaries, and in 1945-46 voter registration drives constituted a political challenge which “revived the democratic promise of Reconstruction and moved beyond the tentative interracialism of the Populist movement. “(p.220) But despite substantial increases in black voter registration and a number of electoral victories, the labor-liberal movement to shore up the national Democratic party by transforming its Southern base was ultimately unsuccessful. Southern politicians successfully exploited anti-union and pro-white supremacy sentiments, but in Sullivan’s analysis it was not the Dixiecrats but rather the national Democratic party which slammed shut the progressive window in the South by failing to enforce constitutional guarantees. In the new arena of Cold War politics, liberal anticommunists attacked labor unions and groups such as the SCHW for supposed Communist ties, fragmenting what was left of the Popular Front. Truman, who “lacked any basic commitment to the social democratic thrust of New Deal reform” (p.223), cracked down on organized labor and abandoned the South to conservative Democrats. Under fire, the CIO distanced itself from the SCHW and purged the radicals and Communists in its ranks. Branded a Communist-front organization by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the SCHW descended into internal bloodletting and disbanded after Henry Wallace’s campaign as the 1948 presidential candidate of the Progressive Party.

The epilogue of Days of Hope is a beautifully written account of Wallace’s Southern campaign swing in 1948. Wallace questioned the Cold War foreign policy consensus, adamantly supported the rights of laborers and unions, and told white Southerners to their faces that segregation was a sin. He was greeted by determined supporters but also jeered and assaulted by amazingly hostile mobs, at times even afraid for his life.

On one hand, Wallace’s defeat symbolized the end of the New Deal era and the failure of interracial democracy in the South. During the 1950s the southern black freedom struggle operated in relative isolation, and only after 1960 did the federal government through the Democratic party join forces with progressive Southerners once again. On the other hand, the “activists of the earlier decades tilled the ground for future change” (p.275), fighting to establish the legal precedents and political power which would be crucial to civil rights activists of the next generation.

Sullivan’s book embodies the contradictions of hoping against hope that things might have been different in the South. The window of opportunity approach is a mainstay of progressive Southern historians but is always problematic because it dwells on what might have been and by definition must downplay the often overwhelming evidence of why history turned out the way it did. In Days of Hope, the depth of interracial democracy in the South during the 1940s seems exaggerated; Sullivan does not provide evidence that a popular interracial movement existed, as opposed to a more limited cooperation among political activists and New Deal supporters. White farmers and industrial laborers rarely were willing to work on equal terms with their black counterparts; one of the fundamental dilemmas facing progressives was that white working class Southerners overwhelmingly supported Roosevelt and simultaneously resisted other components of what Sullivan calls interracial democracy. The CIO’s 1946 Operation Dixie drive to unionize the Southern textile industry was only the latest example of how many obstacles lay in the path of biracial class-based politics.

In its attention to the fluidity, radical potential, and reservoir of dissent which existed beneath a rigged political system, Sullivan’s book is a compelling challenge to easy generalizations about the Solid South. Its greatest contribution is the chronicling of Southerners who knew that their region had to change from within and knew that federal intervention was also a prerequisite, a lesson which still resonates today. The book opens with an official of the Hoover administration telling Congress that “federal aid would be a disservice to the unemployed,” and its main villains are the Southern politicians who opposed New Deal liberalism and the national Democrats who abandoned it. Days of Hope is an eulogy for an earlier time when the pragmatic and freewheeling New Deal offered hope and provided inspiration to millions of Southerners and Americans caught in desperate circumstances, but it is also a reminder of the possibilities of social change and the necessity of aggressive action in these less hopeful days, when the legacies of the New Deal are again under assault from traditional enemies and only half-heartedly defended by many traditional supporters.

Matthew Lassiter is a graduate student at the University of Virginia.