Bryant Simon. A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands 1910-1948. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. xiv + 345 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-4704-6; $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2401-6.
Reviewed by Randall L. Patton (Department of History and Philosophy, Kennesaw State University)
Published on H-South (March, 1999)
Southern History as Tragedy
Bryant Simon has crafted a fine narrative of the political fortunes of South Carolina mill workers. Avoiding traditional stereotypes, Simon presents South Carolina's textile mill laborers as "everyday working people, capable of love and hate, racism and heroism." These workers "understood the world they lived in." This is a tragic story, according to the author, played out in the careers of two tribunes of the mill village masses, Cole Blease and Olin Johnston. By detailing and analyzing the roots of the appeal of these popular South Carolina politicians, Simon provides an enlightening (if depressing, at least to this reviewer) glimpse of the world view of southern mill workers in a crucial period. That world view was shaped by race, class, and gender identities which helped forge a sense of common purpose among mill workers. Both Blease and Johnston provided victories of sorts for the millhands. In the end, however, textile workers wove a fabric of defeat, able to understand their world but ultimately "unable to change it" (p. 239).
Simon's narrative is structured like a play in three acts. Act One "moves around the figure of Coleman Livingston Blease." Blease represented all three of the sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary identities of race, gender, and class. Blease offered a defense of white patriarchy, defending the male mill worker's social autonomy. In an age when traditional notions of economic independence were rapidly being lost in the transition from farm to mill village life, Blease accurately represented the anxieties of first generation white millhands. Blease led the opposition to progressive era reforms such as restrictions on voting by "the propertyless and illiterate," compulsory school attendance laws, medical inspections for mill girls, and other elitist intrusions into the prerogatives of white males. "Laws that dictated who could vote and who could not and told mill parents when their children had to go to school and when they must stay at home," according to Simon, "violated the principles of independence, white equality, and patriarchal authority" (p. 30). Blease also defended lynching as a proper tool for maintaining white supremacy and discouraging sexual misconduct among African-Americans, and he advocated strict regulation of black behavior. Blease opposed state action, in essence, in an attempt to preserve the shrunken privileges of white working-class men. Blease's opposition to state action functioned a class argument, allowing the demagogue to skewer middle-class reformers who threatened the remaining field of independence for South Carolina's millhands. Simon thus rejects W.J. Cash's familiar charge that demagogues like Blease offered nothing of substance to their followers.
Economic good times during World War I set in motion a shift away from Bleasism. Real wages for textile mill workers rose substantially , and mills competed vigorously with one another for workers. Anecdotal evidence supported Simon's contention about labor market competition: the Taylor family moved sixteen times in the years 1916-1925, going from mill village to mill village in Georgia and the Carolinas, and workers often kept "moving money" on hand. Villagers moved in search of higher wages, bigger company houses, electricity, indoor plumbing, and "sometimes they moved just because" (p. 41). Mill workers began to participate in a meaningful way in the consumer economy. After World War I, mill owners tried to scale back wages and increase workloads, but South Carolina mill hands fought back with a series of relatively successful strikes, and they generally maintained the gains of the war years.
The expansion of World War I and the early 1920s, fueled by northern capital and new plant and firm creation, ran out by 1925. Years before the stock market crash, a crisis atmosphere settled over the American textile industry (this pervasive sense of an industry in crisis, shared by most observers, became a recurring theme in discussions of U.S. textiles through the 1970s, and perhaps beyond). Southern textile mill owners pursued a cost-cutting strategy, trying to squeeze out every potential ounce of fat in their operations in order to remain competitive in a saturated, overpopulated marketplace. Southern mill workers had a name for the most frequently used cost-cutting scheme: the stretchout. Mills increased the number of looms supervised by each employee and brought in efficiency experts to suggest other changes in work styles and routines to promote greater productivity. One mill worker bitterly recalled tending looms "by the acre" by the end of the 1920s, with no time for a break. The collapse of cotton agriculture also hastened the flight of rural South Carolinians from the farm, creating a labor surplus which further threatened mill hands. Worker turnover rates declined in the face of the labor surplus; millhands stayed in one village longer. According to Simon, this made collective protest more likely.
Act Two of Simon's tragedy begins with this deterioration in the daily lives of mill workers. "Before 1925," he observes, "millworker politics stressed race and gender concerns ahead of economic issues." This changed with the onset of hard times in the late 1920s as workers began a "retreat away from the politics of Bleasism." Workers launched a series of bitterly-contested strikes in 1929 in an effort to eliminate the stretchout. The strikes failed, but politicians took note of the number of mill workers who participated.
Both millhands and mill owners hailed Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act as a turning point. To owners, the NRA promised a chance at (to put it bluntly) collusion to reduce what John D. Rockefeller would have called the "ruinous competition" which characterized the textile trade. To workers, the NRA seemed to promise better working conditions, an end to the stretchout, and a minimum wage. As owners widely ignored the labor-oriented provisions of the textile code and the NRA (especially section 7a, which supposedly protected the workers' right to organize), mill hands became increasingly restive. Finally, mill workers openly rebelled against the mill owners and their repeated refusals to abide by the terms of the cotton textile code. Millhands were convinced, as one of them remarked, that FDR was "the first man in the White House to understand that my boss is a son of a bitch," and they blamed the failure of NRA on management resistance rather than on the President's unwillingness to enforce the labor provisions of the code (pp. 82-89).
The growing frustrations of millhands led to the General Strike of 1934 and the rise of Olin Johnston. In early September, a nationwide textile strike idled almost two-thirds of South Carolina's millhands (some 43,000 workers), and more than 400,000 nationally. This searing event in southern labor history formed the backdrop for Johnston's gubernatorial campaign of 1934 (the bloody violence at Honea Path, for example, in which six strikers were killed and a dozen wounded, preceded the September 12 primary election by less than a week). Johnston, a former millhand, won the governorship in 1934, largely because of overwhelming support from the mill village districts. In the process, he defeated Cole Blease, the former favorite on the mill hills. Johnston represented New Deal liberalism, avoided the race issue, and appealed to the economic interests of the millhands. Johnston, in speeches to mill audiences, stressed his support for state legislation to limit hours, set a minimum wage, and limit the number of looms a weaver could be required to tend. Johnston promised, like FDR, positive state action to improve the lives of millhands. Johnston's election in many ways represented the high tide of the mill workers' New deal-oriented retreat away from Bleasism.
Once in office, however, Johnston ran afoul of a malapportioned state legislature and organized mill owner opposition. In Act Three of Simon's tragedy, Johnston failed again and again to deliver on state legislation favorable to mill workers. Johnston also tried and mostly failed to defend the rights of workers in the Palmetto State to organize and strike.
Johnston's one legislative success on behalf of workers--a workers' compensation bill--was so watered down by mill owner representatives in the legislature that within a year of its passage millhands favored its repeal. In all of these bitter conflicts, the race issue was notably absent. In other words, employers and lowland conservatives successfully fought the millhand-made-good Johnston by organizing themselves along class lines against the class interests of workers. Employers effectively resisted union organization by simply massively ignoring the spirit (and often the letter) of New Deal labor laws. Mill owners successfully developed their own version of massive resistance. Federal authorities were reluctant to intervene, and Johnston was unable to protect workers' right to organize, whether he used state power to try and aid striking workers or not (an inelegant summary of details in Simon's Chapter Nine, on Johnston's responses to strikes at Tucapau and Pelzer, among others). New Deal liberalism failed in South Carolina, but "not because of the southernness of the workers or because they lacked class consciousness or because they pursued a racially exclusive organizing strategy." Rather, "it was the structure of power in the state that doomed workers' challenges" (p. 166).
By 1938, the New Deal had run its course at the national level, foundering against the determined opposition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. FDR launched his ill-fated attempt to purge the Democratic Party of obstinate southerners in 1938. "Cotton Ed" Smith was FDR's chief nemesis in South Carolina. A bitter racist and successor to the legacy of Blease, Smith used the race issue as an excuse for opposing almost any positive action by the federal government aimed at the South. Smith was a dedicated champion of southern distinctiveness and isolation. Johnston challenged Smith for a U.S. Senate seat in 1938, with FDR's implicit backing. Johnston defended the concept of state action to improve labor's lot, but he refused to defend black rights, consistently contended that the race question had been settled at the end of the nineteenth century in South Carolina, and used racially offensive terms to describe African-Americans to millhand audiences. Nevertheless, Cotton Ed managed to defeat Johnston with a race-baiting campaign. By the end of the 1930s, given their experiences with FDR and Johnston, workers were beginning to question their faith in state action. While some succumbed to Smith's arguments, most millhands stood by Johnston in 1938. Smith's tirades against New Deal programs that promoted advancement for blacks (in most cases as a by-product) struck a responsive chord among voters who had supported Blease in earlier times. Johnston's campaign for the senate, like his governorship, galvanized the wealthy in the state into concerted action. Fearing for their economic and social positions, middle-class proponents of economic development, lowland conservatives, and mill owners and management personnel rallied against Johnston's labor-oriented program, fearing it as a threat to what would come to be called in later years the favorable business climate in South Carolina. Johnston lost in 1938 not because millhands abandoned him, but because many of the middle-class folk who supported his gubernatorial campaigns crossed over to Cotton Ed, swayed by the demagogue's opposition to further federal intrusions into the southern regional economy. Workers refused to be swayed by Smith's racial appeals, and voted their class interests. South Carolina's millhands "continued to try to use their access to the ballot to redistribute power on the shop floor, not to cut down African-Americans." Unfortunately for Johnston and his followers, "the votes of millworkers were not enough" (p. 218) in the face of increasing middle-class anxiety about labor as a threat to economic growth.
Johnston ran for the Senate against Smith again in 1944. The demise of the state's white primary at the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court in April 1944 gave Johnston a symbolic chance to stake out a position on the race question. In a wonderful turn of phrase, Simon notes that "Olin Johnston was not the kind of man who swam against history." Days after the Supreme Court's decision had been announced, Governor Johnston addressed a special session of the legislature and delivered a speech that would have made Pitchfork Ben Tillman and Cole Blease proud. Johnston conjured images of the horrors of Radical Reconstruction and the carpetbaggers who had tried to exploit the South. Johnston urged the legislature to repeal all state laws regarding the Democratic primary, making it a purely private affair (and therefore, supposedly, not subject to the dictates of the Constitution). Johnston moved toward the reactionary racial politics which characterized the South in the post-war years. He rode the race issue into the U.S. Senate, out race-baiting Cotton Ed himself, in 1944. He remained in the Senate until his death in 1965, a staunch opponent of integration and racial equality. Johnston increasingly came to oppose the state activism he had once championed, a stance that mirrored the politics of the millhands who helped make his career.
Simon makes it clear that the race issue did not sink the labor-liberalism of Olin Johnston. Johnston's program had failed already at the state level by the time he challenged Cotton Ed in 1938. The main obstacle to the success of mill worker political action was organized class power. The mill owners in South Carolina made common cause with lowland conservatives in the malapportioned state legislature to stymie Johnston at every turn. Near the end, Simon also alludes to the increasing material standard of living for millhands which came during and after World War II. Mills sold off village housing to workers and granted wage increases in an effort to counter the threat of union organization among white mill workers. At the same time, the national Democratic party moved away from its earlier emphasis on economic issues toward a sharper focus on the moral issue of racial justice. By the early 1960s, white millhands had come to see state action as almost universally negative, threatening to destroy the meager benefits offered by white supremacy but offering nothing in return.
Other historians have discussed the relationship between race and class in the defeat of labor-oriented liberalism (or New Deal liberalism or Popular Front liberalism; the terms are used loosely and sometimes interchangeably in the literature). Recently, numerous scholars have identified this shift in focus among American liberals as a turning point for labor and the cause of liberal reform in the South, and Simon's narrative buttresses these arguments. Numan V. Bartley, for example, has written that the new liberalism of the postwar years "offered white workers little aside from contempt and the right to compete for scarce jobs with black workers." The emerging rights-based liberalism of the "vital center" (to borrow Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s characterization) defined the reform agenda "not in terms of the redistribution of wealth, power, and privilege, but as an issue of individual morality," thus "sharply narrow[ing] the liberal agenda." Bartley saw class as the enduring true division among southerners; race was a false issue used to mask the true interests of black and white common folk throughout the region.
While not agreeing with Bartley's emphasis on class cohesion in the 1930s, David Carlton and Peter Coclanis have recently argued along somewhat similar lines. Carlton and Coclanis emphasized the regionalism of Howard Odum and other southern moderate liberals in the depression decade. For Bartley, the Cold War helped undermine radical economic critiques of the South's colonial economy and fit with the emerging concern with the race issue in national liberal circles. Southern New Deal liberalism collapsed as the race issue came to the fore and submerged other concerns (much as it had during the Populist campaigns of the 1890s). For Carlton and Coclanis, class was never the defining element in the vision of mainstream southern reformers. The regionalism of Howard Odum, however, while not emphasizing class, did project a cooperative view of the South's future. Odum and the regionalists envisioned the South as a coherent community (broadly conceived) with unique problems and opportunities to be shared by southerners of both races. The emergence of the race issue also doomed the regional vision, recasting the debate over the South's future in explicitly racial terms.
Whether the intellectual and political "migration" (to borrow Carlton and Coclanis's metaphor) was from class to race (as Bartley suggests) or from region to race, the end result was the same: economic injustice received much less attention from the late 1940s on, as the race issue took center stage. The South had gone from being the nation's number one economic problem to being its number one moral problem. In this scenario, as Bartley and Bryant Simon point out, the white mill worker was left out. For poor white mill hands in South Carolina, whiteness had carried real social benefits and privileges. When liberalism abandoned its economic critique of working conditions and the inequitable distribution of power in southern industry in favor of a frontal assault on segregation, white workers feared that they would lose those privileges and gain nothing in return: it appeared to be a zero-sum game.
Simon's work is important because it shows that race was not universally a factor in the defeat of labor-oriented reform movements in the South. In other words, conservatives were not able to use the race issue to divide and conquer the working class in South Carolina. Employers and landlords scrambled to find other avenues of maintaining their own class power. Simon's narrative implies that even when a working class party achieves state power in a capitalist society, true reform is difficult to achieve. Private power in the form of accumulated wealth effectively countered democratic power in South Carolina.
A Fabric of Defeat is a very good book. Some readers might wish for a few more comparisons to other southern states. In Georgia, for example, the end of the white primary signaled the end of New Deal liberalism as well, opening the door for the return of Eugene Talmadge and the defeat of the gubernatorial candidate favored by that state's liberal governor, Ellis Arnall. (Arnall's forces lost in 1946 because they refused to follow what widely became known as the South Carolina option; in the Palmetto State, New Deal liberal Johnston simply transformed himself into a caricature of his former enemy, Cotton Ed Smith. The end result was the same.) Others might wish for some discussion of the Popular Front and its representative organizations (such as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare). A study of South Carolina's millhands and their politics surely can tell us something about the broader fate of southern liberalism. Simon alludes to this issue at the end, and perhaps this is asking too much. Simon's story is a compelling one, and too many diversions into the related historiography simply may not have fit into this tragedy.
Simon's artful rendering of this story reinforces and adds important detail to the story of the rise and fall of southern New Deal liberalism, and the fall and rise of the race issue as the defining feature of southern politics. He also adds to our understanding of the complex attitudes expressed by southern workers about state power and the paths that led from enthusiastic support for the New Deal to bitter opposition to anything emanating from Washington. This story is indeed a tragedy. South Carolina millhands resembled, as Simon notes at the end of his book, characters in a Eugene O'Neill play: they were "on stage, facing life, fighting against odds, not conquering, but perhaps inevitably being conquered" (p. 239).
. See Philip Scranton, "'Have a Heart for the Manufacturers': Production, Distribution, and the Decline of American Textile Manufacturing," in Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin, eds., World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization (Cambridge, 1977), 310-343.
. Numan V. Bartley, The New South, 1945-1980 (Baton Rouge, 1995), 38-73; David Carlton and Peter Coclanis, "Another Great Migration? From Region to Race in Southern Liberalism" (Fall 1997): 37-62.
. For a discussion of the Popular Front approach in the South, a good starting point would be Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1997).
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Randall L. Patton. Review of Simon, Bryant, A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands 1910-1948.
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