Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sheldon Hackney on C. Vann Woodward as Dissenter

Randall Stephens

Today is the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington "For Jobs and Freedom." So, to continue with the theme of Monday's post--concerning history/historians, activism, and civil rights--I excerpt below part of Sheldon Hackney's 2009 essay in Historically Speaking, "C. Vann Woodward, Dissenter."

Here Hackney discusses C. Vann Woodward's political outlook, civil rights work, and the parameters of dissent in the 1960s.

Hackney is the Boies Professor of U.S. History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the former president of the University of Pennsylvania (1981-1993) and the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (1993-1997). He is the author of a variety of books and articles, including Populism to Progressivism in Alabama (Princeton University Press, 1969) and Magnolias without Moonlight: The American South from Regional Confederacy to National Integration (Transaction Publishers, 2005):

One of the most striking things about the young C. Vann Woodward was his affinity with dissent. It was not just his authorship of Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel, the book that launched his academic career in 1938, nor the fact that he approached W. E. B. DuBois earlier with hopes of writing about him, nor his toying with the notion of following his biography of Watson with one of Eugene Debs. Those are important indicators, but it is even more interesting that in every situation he found himself in during his early years, he gravitated toward the most progressive people and places–exploring Harlem when he was a Masters student at Columbia in 1931-32, getting involved in the Angelo Herndon Defense Committee when he was back in Atlanta teaching at Georgia Tech, hanging out at that den of left-wing conspirators, Ab's Book Store in Chapel Hill, when he was working on his Ph.D. and the Watson biography. He was sympathetic to the union organizing movement among cotton mill workers in North Carolina and met Glenn McLeod, who became his wife, because of those pro-union activities. As a young man, he made two trips to Europe, visiting the Soviet Union on both of them, revealing at least a curiosity about communism. When he was teaching at Scripps College, 1940-43, he helped defend a faculty colleague who was under attack for suspected fascist sympathies, an early indication of his devotion to free speech on campus. He was always where the political action was. . . .

As chairman of the program committee of the Southern Historical Association in 1949, he enlisted John Hope Franklin in a successful plot to integrate the program of the Southern Historical Association meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. Then, in 1952, when Woodward was the president of the SHA, he went to great lengths to integrate the meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee. Franklin reports that Woodward did not seem worried or nervous about these radical departures from past practices; he handled all questions and challenges with humor. He seemed to enjoy it. (John Hope Franklin interview with Sheldon Hackney, August 27, 2006. Audiotape in author's possession.)

Shortly after those signal events, Woodward and Franklin were enlisted to provide historical advice and tutoring for Thurgood Marshall and his team of lawyers who were bringing the school desegregation cases to the Supreme Court. The revolutionary result, the Brown decision, was announced May 17, 1954. That fall, Woodward gave the Richards Lectures at the University of Virginia, which in 1955 became the book,
The Selma to Montgomery march,
Life magazine, March 19, 1965.
The Strange Career of Jim Crow. With Professor Woodward standing prominently in the audience at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., from the steps of the Alabama Capitol, described The Strange Career of Jim Crow as "the historical bible of the Civil Rights Movement." (C. Vann Woodward, Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History [Louisiana State University Press, 1986], 92.) This was hyperbole, to be sure, but Woodward was there, where every good radical belonged.

That was the apogee of the civil rights movement, and of New Deal liberalism in general. The next year, Stokely Carmichael replaced John Lewis as Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and then announced the new slogan of "Black Power" on the continuation of James Meredith's "March Against Fear" through Mississippi in 1966. The antiwar movement soon shifted from "protest to resistance." The New Left dreamed aloud of revolution. All of these leftward lurches were met with disapproval among the public, easing the way for the rise of the New Right, whose organizational and intellectual infrastructure had been growing for more than a decade. Everything changed.

We see this shift dramatically in the life of C. Vann Woodward. When SNCC approached him in August 1966 to join a distinguished group of intellectuals in sponsoring the SNCC Faculty Fund, he demurred:

If I sponsor the SNCC Faculty Fund, I shall be sponsoring a split in the Civil Rights Movement, a split not only between organizations and leaders, but between races within the movement. You force me to choose between Stokely Carmichael on the one hand and A. Philip Randolph and Martin King on the other. By taking one side I oppose the other. I cannot consistently support both. If I let you use my name in this drive, I should have to resign a board of Randolph's and one of King's on which I serve. I cannot do that. I respect both men and their work too much and would not do anything to embarrass or discredit their leadership. If you compel me to choose, I will have to choose their way instead of Carmichael's. I would prefer not to turn my back on any part of the movement, but you leave me no choice. (C. Vann Woodward to Miss Linda Moses of SNCC, August 10, 1966. C. Vann Woodward Papers, Box 52, Folder 623, Yale University Library, Manuscripts and Archives. Hereafter cited as CVW Papers.)

When Staughton Lynd accused Yale of firing him because of his antiwar activities and his trip in December 1965 and January 1966 to Hanoi with Tom Hayden, a trip organized through the good offices of the American communist, Herbert Aptheker, Woodward defended Yale. . . . (Read more at Project Muse.)

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