Monday, January 30, 2012

Books You Might Have Missed: A Review of "Mean Things Happening in this Land: The Life and Times of H. L. Mitchell, Co-founder of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union"

Mean Things Happening in this Land: The Life and Times of H. L. Mitchell, Co-founder of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. By H. L. Mitchell (1979; rev. ed., Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008. Pp. xviii, 403. Index. $19.95 paper)

A gossipy but compelling autobiography, Mean Things first saw light in a 1979 edition, an era in which historians uncovered the South’s rich and extensive radical past.   Together with James R. Green’s Grassroots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943 (Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press) and Lawrence Goodwyn’s The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (New York: Oxford University Press), this trio of works revealed that socialists and other leftwing factions enjoyed surprisingly wide support in the former Confederacy from the Populist era through the Great Depression.  The University of Oklahoma Press has issued a 30th anniversary edition of Mitchell’s memoirs, which reveal how willing white sharecroppers and farm tenants in Dixie were to struggle alongside African Americans to overturn the political and economic oppression engineered by large landholders in the first half of the twentieth century.

Mitchell provides an insider’s perspective on the dangers of labor activism in Arkansas, Louisiana, and the rest of the former Confederate states.  His memoir opens with gripping, gruesome account of Scott Lignon’s lynching in Dyersburg, Tennessee in 1917 and never slows down.  Mitchell’s busy life takes him across the Southwest and the Deep South, with sojourns in California, New York and Washington, D.C.  His experiences intersects with a number of celebrities who are colorfully portrayed, including future President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew, labor leaders John L. Lewis and George Meany, and activists like Norman Thomas and Martin Luther King, Jr.  

Throughout, Mitchell maintains a chatty tone and a dry sense of wit, such as when he writes of two friends who maneuvered to be named election clerks during a 1920s campaign in Truman, Arkansas, in which a Klansman ran as a mayoral candidate.  “ . . . [W]hile  Moody cut off the electricity [at the polling location], Charlie switched the ballot box (which had been stuffed by the socialists),” Mitchell writes. “  . . . Later there were accusations, but there was no proof.  The winning mayor gratefully saw to it that Charlie got the night sanitation job.” (p. 40.)

The main contribution of Mitchell’s union may not have been in labor relations.  Too many historians have marked the start of the civil rights movement as the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision in 1954, the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56, or the wave of student-led sit-ins across the South in 1960.  The post-World War II movement, however, owes much to the actions of activists in the 1930s and 1940s.  Mitchell makes a convincing case that biracial unions like the STFU laid the groundwork for the later black freedom campaign.  In fact, Mitchell argues that the STFU, with its emphasis on racial cooperation and its representation of the poorest black and white farmers, made a more direct assault on the Southern power structure than did groups like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Council.  Mitchell’s highly readable autobiography should be of strong interest not just for students and scholars of the labor movement or radical politics but also those concerned with the white and black resistance to Jim Crow in the pre-Brown South. 

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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