“Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights (1919-1950)”

by Glenda Gilmore

2008 W.W. Norton

I picked up this book randomly when I saw it in the library, and it turned out to be a worthwhile read. Gilmore, a white female professor from North Carolina, surveys the “radical roots of civil rights” through the efforts of the Communist Party in the South during the 1920s through 1940s.

Gilmore tells the story by focusing on a few individual black radicals who have been forgotten by history, especially Lovett Fort-Whiteman and Pauli Murray.

Whiteman, an extravagant early supporter of the Soviet Union, founded some of the first communist organizations for African Americans, before being scared out of the country by the feds, becoming a darling in the Soviet Union, then ultimately winding up in one of Stalin’s gulags in Siberia, where he worked/starved to death.

Murray had more luck, despite being a transgendered black woman in the South in the 1940s.  With a bold attitude, she attempted to integrate various institutions, like the University of North Carolina Law program, and although she herself was not successful in these efforts, her example paved the way for future victories within the Black Freedom Movement.

We also learn quite a bit about Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Max Yergan, and many other heroic characters who fought early and often for equality in the apartheid South.

More interesting to me though was what I learned about movement strategy, for example we explore how the first integrated unions in the South scared the bejesus out of the capitalists, or what it meant for the Communist Party to bring the country’s attention to the case of the Scottsboro “Boys”, or how the “Popular Front” strategy of allying with liberals succeeded, and failed.

The writing is interesting, but could be more purposeful.  Defying Dixie focuses probably too much on the Communists, and not on other radicals, but still this book really clarified for me important stuff like the Depression, the South in the 1930s, and the early Civil Rights Movement, and how once-radical ideas like social equality of the races is now accepted fact (even though still not fully realized).