“Defying Dixie. The Radical Roots of Civil Rights 1919-1950.”
By Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore.
W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2008.
Hardcover, 640 pp., $39.95.
Professor Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore’s book, “Defying Dixie, The Radical Roots of Civil Rights 1919-1950,” creates full-color mosaic portraits of the great men and women who took on the horrific task of fighting for civil rights at a time and place when fearsome lynchings and race riots were common occurrences. Each delicate tile of each mosaic is gingerly placed in the natural flow of time, and in conjunction with the ever-clearer portraits of others involved in the same events.
It will come as no surprise that the earliest and bravest of these early fighters came from the newly formed Communist Party, USA. The great civil rights cases involving the Scottsboro Boys, accused of rape, and Angelo Herndon, accused of sedition, had Communists as the principals.
But Gilmore reveals many surprises in the details of the battles that made up the war against Southern racism. For example, who knew that the first American Black Communist was born in Dallas, Texas? How many were aware that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI kept up a merciless surveillance against all civil rights individuals and organizations before and during World War II? Who knew that Ella Mae Wiggins, martyr of the Gastonia Textile strike, was not African American, but an Anglo woman who was targeted because she stood up for full integration? Who knew that the dreaded House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) actually began as an anti-fascist investigation? Who knew that the fundamentals of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were actually developed twenty years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott began? Who knew that, in 1937, the German Embassy actually tried to buy the Ku Klux Klan outright?
Even though Professor Gilmore’s wonderful descriptions breathe life into largely unknown historical characters and events, limits to the epic story are evident. In addition to what was generally known, Gilmore seems to add primarily from her research in the Soviet Archives and from the memoirs of North Carolina activist Pauli Murray. A great deal of the book is centered on Murray, and the point of view seems to come directly from her.
Like virtually every other history published in this capitalist world, the greatest lack in “Defying Dixie” is an understanding of the class struggle.
No historical event, neither the great civil rights struggles of the South, not even World War II itself, can make sense without the broader analysis of the ongoing class struggle.
“Defying Dixie” has no class basis. The author’s sympathies are clearly with the civil rights fighters and against all who oppose them, but they could have been understood better, and their contributions could be appreciated even more, if the author had included the underlying meaning of each of these wonderfully described battles.