Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950

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“Remarkable . . . an eye-opening book [on] the freedom struggle that changed the South, the nation, and the world.” —Washington Post
The civil rights movement that looms over the 1950s and 1960s was the tip of an iceberg, the legal and political remnant of a broad, raucous, deeply American movement for social justice that flourished from the 1920s through the 1940s. This rich history of that early movement introduces us to a contentious mix of home-grown radicals, labor activists, newspaper editors, black workers, and intellectuals who employed every strategy imaginable to take Dixie down. In a dramatic narrative Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore deftly shows how the movement unfolded against national and global developments, gaining focus and finally arriving at a narrow but effective legal strategy for securing desegregation and political rights.

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Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times
“Painstakingly researched and vividly told, Defying Dixie is, by any standard, a formidable achievement.”
New York Times Book Review
“Introduces scores of dedicated, colorful and sometimes eccentric dreamers and agitators.”
Raymond Arsenault
Gilmore…transformed our understanding of the Southern progressive movement with her first book, Gender and Jim Crow, published in 1996. Defying Dixie promises to do the same for the emerging freedom struggle of the post-World War I era. The early stages of what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has aptly labeled "the long Civil Rights Movement" have attracted considerable scholarly attention in recent years, so much so that most historians no longer feel comfortable with accounts of the movement that begin in the mid-1950s with the Brown decision or the Montgomery bus boycott. But even the most enlightened civil rights historians will find new material and much to ponder in Gilmore's richly textured study of the Southern communists, socialists and expatriates who challenged Jim Crow during the three decades following the Bolshevik Revolution…no one who reads this eye-opening book will come away with anything less than a renewed appreciation for the complex origins and evolution of a freedom struggle that changed the South, the nation and the world.
—The Washington Post
Maurice Isserman
As Gilmore acknowledges, she is not the first to explore the notion of the "long civil rights movement," stretching back many years before Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycott. Readers of histories by John Egerton, Patricia Sullivan and others will recognize many of the characters and events discussed in Gilmore's account. The return visit is mostly worthwhile thanks to her gift for vivid description and a number of interesting observations she offers along the way.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Yale historian Gilmore turns a wide lens on the battle against Jim Crow in this worthy if overstuffed collective biography of the black and white Southern activists whose work before the larger Civil Rights movement constitute its neglected, forgotten or repressed origins. Expanding the "temporal and geographical boundaries" of the fight for racial equality, Gilmore's scholarship considers international racial politics and traces a progression from 1920s Communists, who joined forces in the late 1930s with a radical left to form a Southern popular front, to the 1940s grassroots activists. Gilmore (Who Were the Progressives?) lavishes attention on the "first American-born black Communist," Lovett Fort-Whiteman, who died in a Siberian gulag in 1939; and on FDR-era civil rights activist Pauli Murray, distinguished by her fight against segregation at the University of North Carolina in 1939 and her involvement in the defense of Virginia sharecropper Odell Walker, ultimately executed for killing his white landlord. Gilmore's sweeping, fresh consideration of pre-movement civil rights activity, with its links to both the exportation of American racism and the importation of Communist egalitarianism, is full of informative gems, but the mining is left to the reader. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Gilmore (History/Yale Univ.; Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920, 1996) reconstructs the battle of radical Southern activists against Jim Crow in the three decades preceding Brown v. Board of Education. During the first half of the 20th century, the Communist Party attracted those determined to dismantle the South's white regime. Its forthright commitment to racial equality far outstripped any declaration by the NAACP, the agenda of any regional commissions dedicated to racial harmony and the platforms of the Republican or Democratic parties. Gilmore's wide-ranging research uncovers the fascinating story of how communists, socialists, liberals, legal and labor activists helped lay the groundwork for the mainstream civil-rights breakthroughs of the 1960s. Although she hobbles an already complex narrative with irritating academic tics-e.g., the tiresome use of "privilege" as a verb and, notwithstanding her concession that the Scottsboro defendants "were really boys," her insistence on preciously denominating the case as the Scottsboro "Boys"-she offers colorful set pieces about the 1929 Gastonia, N.C., textile strike; the ill-conceived 1932 attempt to film in Moscow Black and White, a movie about working conditions in Birmingham, Ala.; the origin and ambiance of The Intimate Bookshop in Chapel Hill, N.C., a simultaneous hotbed and safe haven for radical thought; and the 1942 sit-ins by Howard University students in Washington, D.C., cafeterias. Famous names-A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Thurgood Marshall-dot the narrative, but this story's charm lies in the sensitivemini-portraits of lesser-known recurring characters: Lovett Fort-Whiteman, the first American-born black communist; Junius Scales, child of privilege turned communist; Frank Porter Graham, heroic UNC president; tortured professor Max Yergan; smarmy sociologist Howard Odum; and the narrative's star, Pauli Murray, an utterly relentless, remarkable activist whose life by itself is worthy of book treatment. For Americans who believe the modern civil-rights movement began with the Montgomery bus boycott, Gilmore ably readjusts the record.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393335323
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/10/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 664
  • Sales rank: 704,258
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore is the Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History at Yale University.

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