Stalking Jim Crow

Valerie Boyd is the author of "Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston" and the forthcoming "Spirits in the Dark: The Untold Story of Black Women in Hollywood." She teaches journalism at the University of Georgia.

During the first half of the 20th century, the South routinely chased away "some of its brightest minds and most beautiful spirits," historian Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore notes in the introduction to her new book, "Defying Dixie." "Many of those who left did so, directly or indirectly, because they opposed white supremacy. . . . Counting them back into southern history reveals an insurgent South and shows some Southerners to be a revolutionary lot that fought longer and harder than anyone else to defeat Dixie."

Indeed, counting in these expatriates changes our view of history. And that is exactly what the Yale professor seeks to achieve with this complex, nuanced narrative of the civil rights movement before 1950.

That movement actually began, Gilmore argues, in 1919 when black soldiers returned from World War I and, in the face of violent opposition, began demanding the same freedoms at home that they'd fought for abroad. The author makes sweeping (and convincing) connections between Jim Crow segregation in the South and white supremacy in such places as Haiti and South Africa. In her retelling of history, the fight against Southern injustice moves well beyond Dixie to become a struggle for human rights that plays out in Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union and around the globe.

By the 1930s, Gilmore writes, African American activists and journalists had begun to sway public opinion against Jim Crow laws by successfully linking Hitler's reign of terror with domestic fascism down South. Hitler, too, compared Germany with the South -- and judged his system more humane. Echoing Hitler, one of his followers said in 1935, "The treatment of Negroes in America [is] far worse than that accorded Jews by the Nazis and America's criticism should be turned in that direction rather than toward Germany. Here in Germany we say that when a Negro is lynched for assaulting a white woman he gets what is coming to him. As we do not bother about executions of Negroes, you [Americans] should not bother when we lead a race desecrator through the streets."

With this Nazi/Jim Crow link as a backdrop, Gilmore writes, "racism had become un-American" by the mid-1940s, as World War II came to an end. Albert Einstein, deploring the second-class citizenship of black Americans, warned that "the fall of Berlin does not mean the end of fascism . . . yes, there are fascists in America, too." Around the same time, such American icons as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra began to publicly caution against "race prejudice," which they said was better left to Hitler and his ilk. This high-profile talk of tolerance helped lay the foundation for Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement as we came to know it during the 1950s and '60s.

How that foundation was laid decades earlier is the central concern of Gilmore's narrative. Rejecting the notion that "middle-class black men in ties radicalized the nation," she writes: "By giving the movement a 1950s start, we discount the forces that generated and sustained human rights during the 1930s and 1940s and privilege its religious, middle-class, and male roots."

Gilmore's ambitious enterprise, then, is to recover and recount the stories of those people -- Communists and radicals, activists and artists -- who defied Dixie segregationists long before TV news cameras began to roll in the 1950s, when most white Americans outside the South noticed the civil rights movement for the first time.

Many of the early unsung fighters, she notes, were Southern expatriates, so-called "outside agitators" who returned home, either physically or figuratively, "to redeem the place they loved but where they could not stand."

More than a few memorable characters emerge from Gilmore's sprawling history:

* Langston Hughes, the king of the Harlem literati, is recast here as an affable radical. Gilmore breezily recounts his jaunt to the Soviet Union with dozens of other young black intellectuals in 1932 to make "Black and White," an aborted film depicting working conditions in Birmingham, Ala.

* Lovett Fort-Whiteman, a Tuskegee-educated black Texan who became Communist, eventually moved to Moscow, where, among other achievements, he wrote a script for "Black and White" that Hughes judged "improbable to the point of ludicrousness." Called "the reddest of the blacks," Fort-Whiteman "took enormous risks that promised little in return," Gilmore writes. "White Southerners would have called him one of the crazy ones."

* Frank Porter Graham, president of the University of North Carolina from 1930 to 1949, upheld his state's go-slow policy of gradualism by keeping qualified black applicants out of the public university -- against his own better judgment.

By far the most intriguing character is Pauli Murray, a young black woman who applied in 1938 to Graham's university to do graduate work in sociology at Chapel Hill. Despite Murray's direct letter-writing campaign to Graham, her application was rejected. Undeterred, she saw herself as a perfect plaintiff for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, which was seeking people to sue for admission to Southern graduate schools to bolster its legal campaign against segregation.

In many ways, Murray was an ideal plaintiff: She'd received her undergraduate degree from Hunter College in New York but had been raised in nearby Durham, N.C. Yet the NAACP wouldn't take her case, because, as attorney Thurgood Marshall told her, she was "too maverick." The problem was Murray's sexuality. She often dressed as a man and lived with women, and she'd once been taken to a mental hospital after police found her hysterical on the streets of New York after a lover's quarrel with a woman.

Murray came to terms with her sexuality and moved past the NAACP's rebuff to fashion a distinguished and varied career for herself -- as a brash challenger and, eventually, friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; as valedictorian of her law school class at the historically black Howard University; as holder of a master's degree in law from UC Berkeley; as an organizer of sit-ins, marches and other protests in the 1940s that would foreshadow every major advance of the modern civil rights movement.

Murray's story serves as the backbone of this fascinating book, which some readers might feel derails the narrative, turning it into a mini-biography. At the same time, the narrative is overpopulated with names and groups that the author sometimes fails to fully identify. Yet these are small complaints about a project of such large ambition and scope.

Painstakingly researched and vividly told, "Defying Dixie" is, by any standard, a formidable achievement. Gilmore forces us to rethink the history of the civil rights movement and the people, often unheralded at the margins, who made it.

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