A new book exploring the social justice activism of two Southern preachers during the 1930s and 1940s has been published by Roosevelt University Assistant Professor of History Erik Gellman and Jarod Roll, an American historian who teaches at the University of Sussex in England.
The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor’s Southern Prophets in New Deal America is a narrative, weaving together the stories and lives of Owen Whitfield, an African American Southern Baptist minister and Claude Williams, a white Southern Presbyterian preacher.
A dual biography as well as a cultural history, the book traces the influence of the two men who used their ministries and religious belief to organize ordinary working-class people, stirring them to demand social and economic justice during the Great Depression, New Deal and World War II.
“We set out to show that an understanding of social activism in the 1930s and 1940s is crucial if one is to understand 20th Century social justice movements, including the Civil Rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties,” said Gellman.
An expert in urban African American social protest movements of the 1930s and 1940s, Gellman collaborated on the research and writing for the book with Roll, an expert in rural African American protest movements and the director of the Marcus Cunliffe Centre for the Study of the American South at the University of Sussex.
The two met in graduate school at Northwestern University while both were working on dissertations that included research and a joint article on the work and career of Whitfield.
“By looking at Whitfield and Williams in tandem we thought we could go further and combine fundamental stories of race and region that are often told separately – white or black, North or South – into a single historical narrative alongside our…focus on labor and religion in rural and urban America,” Roll told blogger Heath Carter in his in-depth look and review of the new book for Religion in American History at http://usreligion.blogspot.com/
While much has been written about activism in the South during the time period, The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor’s Southern Prophets in New Deal America is unique in its exploration of the role that religion has played in galvanizing average people to fight for unions and worker’s rights.
“When historians talk about the time period, civil rights activities and labor movements, they rarely see religion as a fundamental motivation in organizing workers and sustaining a movement for economic justice and civil rights,” said Gellman. “This book shows us that religion has been a strong motivator in our nation’s history for progressive activism against societal ills like racism and poverty. It defies the notion that those who are religious or are part of the religious right necessarily embrace reactionary politics and authoritarian ideas,” he said.
Published by the University of Illinois Press, the book has received accolades from a number of notable activists and scholars including American icon folk singer and artist Pete Seeger. “This is the story of heroic people, black and white, who try to democratize the southeastern states of the USA in the years before Dr. (Martin Luther) King and the Warren Court,” noted Seeger.
The Rev. Calvin S. Morris, executive director of the Community Renewal Society in Chicago, called the book “A must read for today: two activists, one black, one white, organize America’s laboring poor through a powerful social gospel to confront racism and economic injustice in the Great Depression and World War II era.”
Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, author of American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta, called the work an “outstanding and impressively researched study,” which shows “the significance of religion in southern working class history.”
“There have been other studies of various religious figures who worked for social justice in the South during this era, but this is the finest one that I have read,” noted Woodruff.
The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor’s Southern Prophets in New Deal America is available at www.press.uillinois.edu or www.amazon.com. For more information or to contact the authors, call Laura Janota at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-341-3511.
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