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The Gospel of the Working Class

The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor's Southern Prophets in New Deal America

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Gospel of the Working Class
    Book Description:

    In this exceptional dual biography and cultural history, Erik S. Gellman and Jarod Roll trace the influence of two southern activist preachers, one black and one white, who used their ministry to organize the working class in the 1930s and 1940s across lines of gender, race, and geography. Owen Whitfield and Claude Williams, along with their wives, Zella Whitfield and Joyce Williams, drew on their bedrock religious beliefs to stir ordinary men and women to demand social and economic justice in the eras of the Great Depression, New Deal, and Second World War._x000B__x000B_Williams and Whitfield preached a working-class gospel rooted in the American creed that hard, productive work entitled people to a decent standard of living. Gellman and Roll detail how the two preachers galvanized thousands of farm and industrial workers for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. They also link the activism of the 1930s and 1940s to that of the 1960s and emphasize the central role of the ministers' wives, with whom they established the People's Institute for Applied Religion._x000B__x000B_This detailed narrative illuminates a cast of characters who became the two couples' closest allies in coordinating a complex network of activists that transcended Jim Crow racial divisions, blurring conventional categories and boundaries to help black and white workers make better lives. In chronicling the shifting contexts of the actions of Whitfield and Williams, The Gospel of the Working Class situates Christian theology within the struggles of some of America's most downtrodden workers, transforming the dominant narratives of the era and offering a fresh view of the promise and instability of religion and civil rights unionism.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09333-3
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Principal Characters
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  7. Introduction: Brothers in the Fight for Freedom
    (pp. 1-6)

    In late 1934 Claude Williams, a white preacher in Paris, Arkansas, was asked by his neighbors to preside over the funeral of a ten-month-old baby. Williams, who was struggling to raise three small children with his wife, Joyce, agreed to perform the hardest task required of any preacher or of any father. But rather than quote a few words from scripture to calm the grieved souls in the pews, Williams said this tragic event was “not the will of God.” Instead, he charged that the baby’s unnecessary death from malnourishment was “an outright case of murder by our economic system."¹...

  8. 1. Southern Strivings
    (pp. 7-40)

    This story begins in Egypt, a tiny trading town in northeast Mississippi. There, in the heart of Dixie, Owen Whitfield often spent his summer nights in 1910. Sitting at a makeshift poker table in the back room of a pool hall, Whitfield, although not yet twenty years old, possessed a sharp mind, quick wit, and cockiness beyond his racial station. Like other African Americans in the South in the early twentieth century, he felt the influence of Jim Crow in nearly every aspect of his life.¹ What Whitfield, the son of sharecroppers, remembered most from these years was his parents’...

  9. 2. Seeking the Kingdom of God
    (pp. 41-72)

    In June 1930 Claude and Joyce Williams and their two daughters moved to Paris, Arkansas. The family drove west from Nashville across the Arkansas– Tennessee border and the plantation lowlands bordering the Mississippi River, through Little Rock, and then up into the Ozark hills to their new mountain home. Founded in the 1870s as the seat of Logan County and originally a cotton market town, Paris became the mining capital of Arkansas in the 1920s. By the time the Williamses arrived, a dozen mines produced 400,000 tons (6,500 train-car loads) of coal annually. Of its 3,500 people, a third worked...

  10. 3. Prophets in the Storm
    (pp. 73-112)

    In the weeks that followed his Missouri meeting with Williams, Whitfield worked as a part-time organizer alongside John Handcox, the STFU representative already in Mississippi County. Inspired by Williams, Whitfield brought the working-class gospel into his churches, where most people had heard of the STFU and some were already members. Whitfield’s rapid conversion turned sporadic interest into communal support. Although his ministry had suffered in recent years, Whitfield was a well-respected leader in a mainstream denomination. His awakening to the union gospel, rooted in the potential of poor people to deliver themselves of oppression, renewed his confidence.

    Just as Williams...

  11. 4. Religion Applied
    (pp. 113-150)

    Williams relished the chance to apply the ancient definition of religion, “to bind you to something,” to Memphis workers. Through the revolutionary gospel, he hoped to stitch factory workers into CIO unions and achieve power through unity, the promise of Pentecost. Over the summer of 1940, Williams conferred with allies Harry Koger and Myles Horton about strategies for educating urban workers. In the final plan he sent to UCAPAWA head Donald Henderson, Williams recommended four staff members to run the sessions: Owen Whitfield, Zella Whitfield (to do important “womens work”), Harry Koger, and Winifred Chappell, the former faculty chair at...

  12. Conclusion: Clods of Southern Earth
    (pp. 151-170)

    PIAR leaders believed democracy could flourish in postwar America now that working people had defeated fascism abroad. At the board meeting in New York in late 1945, they discussed how to make this vision a reality. After discussing Whitfield’s report, Williams ceded the floor to Don West, the Georgian poet. West congratulated the group on its northern wartime achievements but pointed out that the South was the true “seat of world reaction” where forces “are doing more to stymie the progress of the world than any other part of the world today since we defeated fascism.” The southern activist, West...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 171-200)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 201-210)
  15. Index
    (pp. 211-222)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 223-230)