The power of radicals

My wife is friendly with quite a few radical types -- not exactly aging hippies; just veteran social activists with lots of gray in their hair -- and while all of these folks are African-American, not one of them thinks of Barack Obama as an especially big deal.

I confess to being surprised. I know, of course, that supporting a black candidate is hardly a racial imperative. But I assumed these folks would regard this moment in history as a signal of true, progressive change.

In reality, though, they're more inclined to view this moment as merely a small step in an ongoing struggle.

Racism, they tell me, along with gender bias, still hovers over the country like a bright and brilliant moon. So they have no particular affection for one candidate or another; instead, their allegiance is to the unsung individuals of long ago who started us on the difficult road toward true social change.

These same individuals, overlooked by history, are the subject of "Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights: 1919-1950" by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore.

A professor of history at Yale, Gil-more refers to her book as a "collective biography of activist black and white Southerners" whose determination to resist racial oppression in the South began long before the magnificent (and well-documented) era of the civil rights movement.

In this way the book is a reminder that all great movements start modestly, and often move slowly, gaining in momentum over a period of years, decades, or even generations.

Our failure as a nation has been to look for quick fixes to our most pressing social dilemmas, or to assume that a single antidote can remedy the problem in an instant. Gilmore reminds us in "Defying Dixie" that racism -- along with other social ills -- is deeply embedded in our national fabric, and countless individuals have sacrificed their lives over the years simply to loosen the threads.

"In the three decades that followed World War I," writes Gilmore, "black Southerners and their allies relentlessly battled Jim Crow, the South's system of racial hierarchy." The author adds, with considerable pride, that the site of many of these legal, legislative and moral battles was Greensboro, her hometown.

Indeed, this quality of personal investment -- for lack of a better term -- is what distinguishes "Defying Dixie." As a woman and as a Southerner whose fond memories of North Carolina reside just below the surface, Gilmore infuses her book with a personal quality that adds emotional resonance to the difficult history she uncovers.

Starting in the immediate aftermath of World War I allows Gilmore to give the story enormous breadth. While the results can be unwieldy -- certainly the book seems overlong and can border on redundant -- the landscape she examines is full of social complexities that can't be easily untangled.

Moving slowly, she does what every good historian does: She finds the individuals who put a human face on dry facts.

The first and most prominent of these individuals is Lovett Fort-Whiteman, a Texas-born journeyman who in 1919 became "the first American-born black Communist."

By spending considerable time on Fort-Whiteman and other "fellow travelers," Gilmore is able to demonstrate the leading role taken by the Communists throughout the '20s and '30s to address the issue of racial equality. The irony here is that for a time at least, Communists were the only ones trying to enact the social ideals on which the country was founded.

As any reader of Richard Wright knows, however, the Communists failed to live up to their highest ideals -- Fort-Whiteman, for example, was exiled to a Siberian prison camp in the late '30s -- but their role in organizing and galvanizing African-Americans in the South to strive for equality is significant.

From there, Gilmore considers a number of other men and women who, either as individuals or as members of a group, established the tenuous road map that led to the civil rights movement.

Many of the most significant figures had to flee to the North because, as Gilmore reminds us, "the South could remain the South only by chasing out some of its brightest minds and most bountiful spirits, generation after generation. 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."

Gilmore's greatest admiration is for those expatriate "insurgents," whose stories she recounts in vivid detail, often excluding "the local people who lived in the South and who started the civil rights movement in the 1950s."

The author admits that such exclusion is hardly willful, but rather necessary to her central objective -- which is to show the larger, global environment in which the civil rights movement quite naturally took shape.

In the process, she achieves something I've never seen before: She universalizes the impulses and actions that define the struggle for racial equality in America.

Reminding us, for example, that some of the most forceful opponents of Jim Crow likened its cruel tactics to those of the Nazis, Gilmore shows that "making connections between foreign affairs and domestic racial struggles" allowed African-Americans in the '30s and '40s to all but embarrass whites who defended racial discrimination.

Specifically, the comparison of Jim Crow to fascism (and the racist ideas of the Führer) represented a critique that "left white Southerners defending the sort of racial order they were enlisting to fight against, and the contradictions undercut Jim Crow's apologists during World War II."

Gilmore finds the devil in the details: She dramatizes in emotionally poignant ways the relationship between racism and other forms of oppression -- from Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia to apartheid in South Africa -- and forces us to realize that evil takes many shapes.

"Defying Dixie" makes plain that racial progress comes slowly, and at great personal expense. But in broadening the lens by which we measure that progress, Gilmore, like my wife's "radical" friends, encourages us to remember those who brought us this far, and to continue their work. In doing so, we can achieve what they were after: an enduring peace among the races that extends beyond our own personal or geographic borders.