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A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910-1948.

A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910-1948. By Bryant Simon (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998. xiv plus 345pp.).

Perceptive in analysis and engaging in style, Bryant Simon's impressive volume provides a masterly investigation of the political life of white South Carolina millhands during the first half of the twentieth century. The author has an exceedingly clear idea about his approach to the subject. "Whereas other scholars have focused on the shop floor and the community lives of southern mill people, on union organizing and cultures of resistance in the region," states Simon, "this account examines the politics of mill people from World War I to World War II." (pp.3-4). This innovative method plainly breaks new ground.

This stimulating book is especially effective in exploring the political mind and behavior of the millhands who toiled in South Carolina's textile industry. The author fills every chapter with remarkable detail of the "lintheads'" (a pejorative term resented by these southern workers) political vigor at the ballot box, at kitchen tables, in the neighborhoods, and on the job. Simon carefully and artfully depicts the political world of mill workers as they exercised the franchise, conducted demonstrations, corresponded with legislators, and picketed the mills. The pages give voice to the millhands, revealing the content of their class consciousness, and explore the phenomenon of working class self-expression and identity. Accordingly, then, the evolving political ideas, attitudes, and calculations of these particular southern laborers regarding class, race, and gender come front and center.

In this penetrating case study of working class politics in the New South, Simon skillfully shows that these three crucrially important issues--class, race, and gender--were socially constructed in ways that changed through time and place. In this way the author aims to transcend old stereotypes of white mill workers as merely narrow-minded bigots, unwavering patriarchs, and violent rednecks who, without exception, put race prejudice and a commitment to gender inequality ahead of class interests. Simon does not trot out the old typecast southern workers, but offers a more accurate reckoning of how the forces of modernization that transformed the South also modified the thinking of the region's working class.

He fills out a complex, nuanced portrait of southern workmen whose political identity changed in meaningful ways before, during, and after Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, the pivotal political development in their lives. Further, Simon advances an especially enlightening analysis of the class dynamics behind the political turmoil motivated by the red-baiting that accompanied the CIO's southern organizing campaign in the 1930's. To be sure, these people fully comprehended the social and governmental forces that fashioned their existence. Moreover, they collectively acted in response to these pressures by creating and implementing complicated political maneuvers and techniques.

Simon's research efforts are indeed formidable. He has conducted exhaustive investigations into essential manuscripts, the newspapers and periodicals of the day, as well as the pertinent secondary literature. The latter represents the strongest attribute of his highly useful bibliography. In fact, it should be the starting point for any scholar who is researching and writing about southern textile workers in the twentiteth century. Additionally, well-placed photographs and illustrations certainly enhance the quality of the book. This deeply researched and well-written volume stands as a rigorous study that fills a real need--a major exploration of the working class politics of southern millhands in the modern period. This is a significant effort.

This is a publication that any number of specialists will welcome, including historians who study and write about social history, the New South, labor history, and southern political history among others.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Howard, Walter T.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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