Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950

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Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950

By Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore
Norton, 2008
640 pp. $39.95
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Gilmore is a historian of formidable accomplishment and talent. A combination of patient and thorough research and a clear-sighted understanding of the culture and values of both the black and the white South in the twentieth century enables her to bring a range of fascinating characters to life and set them in the context of their times. Although a major accomplishment in its own right, this book reads less like a magnum opus than like a preliminary study for what, one hopes, will eventually be a magisterial and definitive historical account of the decline and fall of Jim Crow. Gilmore's gift for characterization, shown most clearly in her dazzling and convincing portraits of two early radical civil rights activists, Lovett Fort-Whiteman and Pauli Murray, is breathtaking. Her treatment of the international implications of the racial struggle is less deft, particularly when it comes to her analysis of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. And although Gilmore suggests a number of political and cultural explanations for the fall of Jim Crow, one is often left feeling that the author has not resolved these questions to her own satisfaction. The reader sometimes struggles to follow what seems to be a shifting and uncertain political perspective in the course of what nonetheless remains a valuable, engaging, and important study from one of the most talented and accomplished historians of the American South.