The Unemployed People's Movement: Leftists, Liberals, and Labor in Georgia, 1929-1941

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In Georgia during the Great Depression, jobless workers united with the urban poor, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers. In a collective effort that cut across race and class boundaries, they confronted an unresponsive political and social system and helped shape government policies. James J. Lorence adds significantly to our understanding of this movement, which took place far from the northeastern and midwestern sites we commonly associate with Depression-era labor struggles.

Drawing on extensive archival research, including newly accessible records of the Communist Party of the United States, Lorence details interactions between various institutional and grassroots players, including organized labor, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, liberal activists, and officials at every level of government. He shows, for example, how the Communist Party played a more central role than previously understood in the organization of the unemployed and the advancement of labor and working-class interests in Georgia. Communists gained respect among the jobless, especially African Americans, for their willingness to challenge officials, help negotiate the welfare bureaucracy, and gain access to New Deal social programs.

Lorence enhances our understanding of the struggles of the poor and unemployed in a Depression-era southern state. At the same time, we are reminded of their movement's lasting legacy: the shift in popular consciousness that took place as Georgians, "influenced by a new sense of entitlement fostered by the unemployed organizations," began to conceive of new, more-equal relations with the state.

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Editorial Reviews

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"James J. Lorence has scoured numerous archives and mined myriad sources to unearth the history of the unemployed movement in Georgia. Well written and deeply researched, The Unemployed People's Movement makes a significant contribution to the growing literature on the 'Southern Front' of social activism and radical political culture during the New Deal years."--Alex Lichtenstein, author of Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South

"While this text contributes to an important national story, it also highlights the importance of local and regional factors and variations. It adds to the growing, albeit piecemeal, literature on the pre–World War II southern labor movement by demonstrating not only its existence and modest successes but also its indigenous origin...Given current U.S. unemployment rates, the story of this book could speak to the growing number of organizers and policy makers looking to again harness the grassroots." —American Historical Review

"Beset by racial divisions and official hostility, Georgia's workers nonetheless effectively mobilized in a range of organizations on behalf of radical politics to achieve far more than most would have expected. Richly detailed with examples from former Soviet archives and convincingly argued, The Unemployed People's Movement makes readers rethink their ideas about southern workers and the possibilities for social change." —Choice magazine

"This is a book for everyone seriously interested in southern, labor, and radical history."--Paul Buhle, coeditor of the Encyclopedia of the American Left

“Lorence gives a rich and honest portrait of the complexity, contradictions, struggles, achievements, and limitations of the unemployed people’s movement . . . Lorence’s monograph is a remarkable feat of research, a model case study of a movement deserving careful historical attention.”—North Carolina Historical Review

"Well-researched, well-written, and makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of reform movements and social change in the twentieth-century South."—Georgia Historical Quarterly

“Lorence’s method of working through the Depression is an impressive accomplishment. His work reveals years of research and careful examination of documents. . . . Lorence’s work makes important contributions to our understanding of organizing labour in the Deep South in the early 1930s”—Neal Adolph, Social History

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Product Details

Meet the Author

James J. Lorence is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County. His books include A Hard Journey: The Life of Don West and Screening America: United States History through Film since 1900.

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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Introduction: Depression and Response
1. Economic Crisis as Opportunity: The Great Depression as Seedbed for Radical Activism in Georgia, 1928-1930
2. The Employment Crisis as Catalyst: Communist Activism and the Insurrection Law, 1930-1933
3. Beyond Atlanta: The Struggle of Georgia's Rural Jobless
4. The Great Upheaval: A New Labor Activism, Jobless Workers and Families in Crisis, 1933-1934
5. Militant Labor: The Great Textile Strike of 1934 and the Problem of Unemployment
6. Serving Jobless Georgians: The New Deal and the Rise of the Unemployed Movement
7. The Workers Alliance and a United Front: Jobless Workers Organize, 1937-1938
8. Winding Down: A Revived Economy and the Decline of the Unemployed Movement, 1939-1940
9. The Crucible of War: Unfinished Business
Epilogue: The Implications of Mass Organization


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