The Unemployed People’s Movement
Leftists, Liberals, and Labor in Georgia, 1929–1941

James J. Lorence

Ordinary southerners battle the horrors of economic collapse


"James J. Lorence has scoured numerous archives and mined myriad sources to unearth the history of the unemployed movement in Georgia. Well written and deeply researched, The Unemployed People's Movement makes a significant contribution to the growing literature on the 'Southern Front' of social activism and radical political culture during the New Deal years."
—Alex Lichtenstein, author of Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South

"While this text contributes to an important national story, it also highlights the importance of local and regional factors and variations. It adds to the growing, albeit piecemeal, literature on the pre–World War II southern labor movement by demonstrating not only its existence and modest successes but also its indigenous origin...Given current U.S. unemployment rates, the story of this book could speak to the growing number of organizers and policy makers looking to again harness the grassroots."
American Historical Review

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In Georgia during the Great Depression, jobless workers united with the urban poor, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers. In a collective effort that cut across race and class boundaries, they confronted an unresponsive political and social system and helped shape government policies. James J. Lorence adds significantly to our understanding of this movement, which took place far from the northeastern and midwestern sites we commonly associate with Depression-era labor struggles.

Drawing on extensive archival research, including newly accessible records of the Communist Party of the United States, Lorence details interactions between various institutional and grassroots players, including organized labor, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, liberal activists, and officials at every level of government. He shows, for example, how the Communist Party played a more central role than previously understood in the organization of the unemployed and the advancement of labor and working-class interests in Georgia. Communists gained respect among the jobless, especially African Americans, for their willingness to challenge officials, help negotiate the welfare bureaucracy, and gain access to New Deal social programs.

Lorence enhances our understanding of the struggles of the poor and unemployed in a Depression-era southern state. At the same time, we are reminded of their movement's lasting legacy: the shift in popular consciousness that took place as Georgians, "influenced by a new sense of entitlement fostered by the unemployed organizations," began to conceive of new, more-equal relations with the state.

Politics and Culture in the Twentieth-Century South

Page count: 328 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9

Read more about the Great Depression in Georgia at the New Georgia Encyclopedia.


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James J. Lorence is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County. From 2001 to 2005 he served as Eminent Scholar of History at Gainesville State College. His books include A Hard Journey, Screening America, and The Suppression of "Salt of the Earth."