American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta.
After investigating the massacre of hundreds of African Americans in Elaine, Arkansas in 1921, William Pickens, a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), dubbed the Mississippi River Valley, which included the town of Elaine, the "Congo of America." Pickens recognized that the brutal treatment that African American laborers suffered at the hands of whites in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta was on par with the ruthless treatment Congolese laborers endured under Belgian King Leopold II in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Historian Nan Woodruff uses this observation as her entry point into the world of labor and race relations in the Delta during the first half of the twentieth century. For Woodruff, however, the comparison between the Delta and the Congo extends beyond violence against people of color. The Delta and the Congo warrant close association, she argues, because colonial economic systems and political structures shaped labor and race relations in both places. Thus, while her primary aim is to shine new light on the depth and breadth of planter control in the Delta, and on the nature of African American resistance to it, she also seeks to locate the Delta in a broader colonial context.
Woodruff begins her study by exploring the origin of the alluvial empire, which is the name turn-of-the-century capitalists gave the Mississippi River Valley. She points out that the same formula that enabled western colonial expansion--foreign capital plus extractive agricultural industries plus coerced labor--gave rise in the Delta to a totalitarian regime controlled by a handful of wealthy hardwood and cotton plantation businessmen. As a result, the alluvial empire, by World War I, mirrored western colonial empires.
It is widely known that America's entry into the First World War exacerbated tension between labor and capital in the South. Woodruff adds to this understanding with an insightful analysis of the ways African Americans in the Delta took advantage of war related economic opportunities to increase their quality of life. She includes in this analysis a noteworthy treatment of African American resistance that makes clear how newly established branches of the NAACP provided African Americans in the Delta with alternative sources of political information that enabled them to escape isolation; NAACP branches also provided local people with new weapons with which to challenge white power.
African American resistance to white power prompted plantation owners to resort to extreme violence to preserve the status quo. In Woodruff's look at the Elaine Massacre, one of the country's worst episodes of post war racial terrorism, she ably demonstrates how deeply whites feared African American prosperity and how little they feared federal intervention. Also, in discussing the spark that ignited the massacre, she makes the important point that understanding the form and function of early black political activism requires careful consideration of African American social institutions, particularly Masonic orders. In addition, she draws much needed attention to the deeply rooted tradition of African American armed self-defense.
In her chapter on rural black political culture during the 1920s Woodruff does a terrific job of using letters sent by local people to the NAACP to show the extent of black political awareness in the Delta. At the same time, she makes clear that everyday beatings, humiliations, and murders had a greater impact on African American political behavior than incidents like the Elaine Massacre. Her observation is an important reminder that historians have to look beyond the dramatic and sensational to the routine and seemingly mundane if they want to understand the political behavior of ordinary people.
In examining the Delta during the Depression, Woodruff notes that New Deal agricultural policies not only saved the plantation economy, but also allowed planters to legitimize their exploitative labor practices. In weighing the African American response to the discriminatory administration of New Deal programs, Woodruff focuses on the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (STFU). She includes here an important discussion of the ways African Americans relied on community institutions, such as the church, for organizational structure, and their own radical traditions, such as Garveyism, for inspiration. Acknowledging the influence of community on black political behavior complicates in a much needed way black participation in white organizations. It also reinforces her point that the activities of the STFU were "simply another stage in the ongoing struggle that black people had been waging against the alluvial empire since its inception" (189).
During World War II, African Americans continued to fight planter control through union organizing. Woodruff notes, however, that in the wake of new political space created by, among other things, the elimination of the all white Democratic primary, Delta blacks began to push aggressively for the vote. Unfortunately, at the same time, planters waged a successful campaign against the federal government over price controls, wages, and labor supply. Their success extended the life of the alluvial empire, but the war, concludes Woodruff, set in motion a series of internal and external challenges that precipitated the regime's collapse, a fate not unlike that of the colonial empires of Western Europe.
Woodruff's perceptive dissection of the origin, evolution, and operation of plantation power in the Delta renders the colonial characteristics of the alluvial empire unmistakable. The book's greatest strength, however, is tied more closely to African American resistance. Woodruff's explication of five decades of black activism in the Delta not only reveals the connections between black protest and the World Wars, but also demonstrates that black activism in the first half of the twentieth century was more than simply a preface to the protests of the 1950s and 1960s. American Congo, therefore, is a necessary read not only for scholars interested in the underpinnings and operation of the plantation South, but also in the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries
The Ohio State University
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|Author:||Jeffries, Hasan Kwame|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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