The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s & 1940s by Michael Goldfield

BY Barry Eidlin

The U.S. Civil Rights Movement (CRM) from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s has served as the template for contemporary social movement scholarship. Not only has the movement itself been the most widely studied, but many of the core theoretical concepts, most notably political process theory, either were developed as part of explaining the emergence and development of the CRM, or had the CRM as a key empirical vantage point.

Vast amounts of scholarship have sought to explain the timing and trajectory of the CRM, how it framed issues, how it won key rights and freedoms. Considerably less scholarship examines why the movement took the shape it did (i.e. based in the Black church and clergy-led) or ended up focusing on the issues it did (i.e. equal individual rights such as voting, access to desegregated public and private facilities, etc.).

The scholarship that does exist reveals an earlier incipient civil rights movement in the 1930s and 40s. As scholars like Robin D. G. Kelley, Robert Korstad, and Manning Marable have shown, this one was far more rooted in the organized working class, with the Communist Party (CP) playing a leading role. Its program took aim much more squarely at the economic power of Southern racism and Northern reaction, while linking principled anti-racism to a broad program for economic justice.

This movement was violently repressed in the aftermath of World War II. Its defeat delayed the emergence of a full-blown civil rights movement in the U.S. for a decade or more, and constrained the demands the movement that did emerge could win. While it is true that the 1963 March on Washington was for “Jobs and Freedom,” and that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s program incorporated broader economic demands, this part of King’s dream was deferred.

Understanding how and why this incipient labor-based civil rights movement was snuffed out remains critical for explaining not only the trajectory of the later CRM that emerged, but Southern and U.S. politics more broadly. 

That’s why I’m recommending Mobilizing Ideas’ summer reading list a great new book from Michael Goldfield entitled The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s (Oxford University Press, 2020). Few scholars have delved as deeply as Goldfield into questions of race, labor, and Left politics, particularly in the U.S. South. The result is a book that is a culmination of his life’s work, and a tremendous contribution not only to the study of labor history and politics, but of social movements more broadly.

What is Goldfield’s explanation for why a labor-based CRM failed to take root? Briefly, he argues that conservative business union leaders tamped down the worker upsurges of the 1930s, preventing the broader community alliances and grassroots organizing that could have overcome racial divisions and the power of Southern reaction. The possible counterweight to the business unionists was the CP. It had considerable influence within labor thanks to its members, who proved themselves to be the hardest-working, most dedicated organizers. They were also the most consistent, principled anti-racists, which won them respect among Black workers and Black communities more broadly. Through its campaigns, the CP served as the base for an incipient labor-civil rights movement. 

However, the CP’s Stalinist-influenced politics vacillated according to the dictates of the Soviet Comintern. While these shifts penetrated the ranks unevenly, in the South they meant that the Party soft-pedaled its principled anti-racism and allied with business unionists in the name of building a “Popular Front,” even in cases where it legitimately enjoyed broader worker support than the more conservative alternative. This undermined the CP’s ability to counter the business unionist vision while leaving its leaders and activists more vulnerable to Red-baiting attacks that destroyed the Party, and with it the possibility of a broader labor-civil rights movement in the South.

Goldfield develops this argument through in-depth analyses of organizing in key Southern industries: coal, steel, wood, and textile. These are the industries which would have been key to organizing the South. In each case, he carefully documents the objective possibilities for organizing the industry, the internal politics of the unions or committees leading the organizing drives in each industry, and how and why they came up short. A subsequent chapter on the failure of Operation Dixie in the late 1940s shows that it was a coda to previous failures to organize the South rather than a decisive moment itself, while a concluding chapter focused on the CP offers a nuanced assessment of how it both built and undermined possibilities for a stronger, more interracial labor movement.

As he discusses in a methodological first chapter, Goldfield’s approach is resolutely structural, focusing on how economic relations shape the forms that protest takes and the conditions for movement success. In this he evokes the work of pioneering social movement scholars like Doug McAdam and Frances Fox Piven. This approach is essential for challenging widely held shibboleths about race, politics, and social mobilization in the South, which tend to view the region as inherently conservative and irredeemably racist.  

A great example of this is Goldfield’s analysis of textile organizing, a strategically vital sector where organizers consistently ran into trouble. Much existing scholarship lays the blame on conservative Southern textile communities. But through a comparative analysis of textile industry organizing at a global scale, Goldfield shows that it is challenging everywhere, not just the U.S. South. The reason is textile’s relative mobility, which undermines workers’ structural power, as compared to miners or steelworkers for example. To compensate for this and to organize successfully, textile workers must rely on building up associational power through community alliances, solidarity strikes from workers in other structurally powerful industries, and other such measures. In the case of the U.S. South, organizers focused on large textile mills in isolated, rural areas, instead of starting by building a base in mills located closer to urban areas, where possibilities for associational power were greater. 

While his analysis is structural, Goldfield also takes seriously Marx’s oft-quoted maxim that “men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it…under self-selected circumstances.” Leadership styles and organizational decisions play key roles in Goldfield’s account of labor and the Left’s defeat. This comes through in his meticulous archival research, which includes fascinating organizational correspondence from union and CP staff and leadership. You get to observe these actors weighing and making the fateful decisions that doom their organizing drives. By extension, you gain a clearer sense of what alternate possibilities could have been viable, and what it would have taken to win. 

This, ultimately, is the most important point of Goldfield’s book, and what makes it important for social movement scholars to read: its insistence, based on carefully documented evidence, that failure was not inevitable. Organizing the South and building a labor-based civil rights movement was indeed possible, but failed due to certain critical decisions and the outcomes of key battles. By implication, different decisions and battle outcomes could have led to a different outcome. And, by extension, in spite of the historic challenges that workers in the South and across the U.S. face today, winning is still an option. 

But in order to win, it’s crucial to learn the lessons of these historical events from the 1930s and 40s. That’s why it’s worth spending part of your summer with Michael Goldfield’s The Southern Key.

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Filed under Great Books for Summer Reading 2021

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