Valuable new look at race and history; The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South, by Joel Williamson. New York: Oxford University Press. 1984. 561 pp.$25.

At the 1890 Chicago World's Fair, one of the representatives on the board of ''Lady Managers'' was disturbed by a display honoring ''Uncle Tom's Cabin.'' Rebecca Latimer Felton - journalist, prohibitionist, feminist, and United States senator - offered her own exhibit entitled ''The Actual Life of the Slave,'' to counter Mrs. Stowe's ''Yankee Propaganda.'' In an unpleasant reminder that feminism can also be bigoted, Mrs. Felton professed that ''lynching a thousand (Negroes) a week'' was ''necessary'' if it saved ''women's dearest possession.''

In ''The Crucible of Race,'' Joel Williamson focuses on Southern history from 1850 to 1915 and in so doing shatters illusions about feminism, ''redneck'' violence, the liberal elite, and the black community. He concludes with additional observations on the black-power movement of the 1960s and '70s and its effect on today's society. In the course of his account, many unfamiliar characters emerge alongside such well-known personae as W.E.B. DuBois, whom he treats from a slightly new perspective. DuBois's regard for Africa and his perception of blackness as more a culture than a color are shown by Williamson to have set the tone for both the Harlem Renaissance and the black-power movement.

''Crucible'' examines several varieties of Southern thought: ''conservative, '' which regarded various groups of people as each ''having a place''; ''liberal ,'' a small minority which believed in the potential of blacks; and ''radical,'' which regarded the Negro as a beast to be educated through riots and the rope.

Williamson demonstrates how blacks were influenced by the white Victorian society in which they lived and how the schizophrenic closeness between slave owner and slave created a cultural bond which contributed to a mutual corruption. Williamson concludes that Southern whites sincerely believed in the fictions about blacks that served their own aristocratic ends.

Williamson's massive but readable book is reminiscent of a tragic epic, foreshadowing present-day trends toward population shifts, industrial relocation to the Sunbelt, and the gradual erosion of the impact of the civil rights movement. Williamson presents a grim, fatalistic portrait of an America that is in continual retreat from a Jeffersonian sense of equality.

Perhaps the only shortcoming of ''Crucible'' is in its overwhelming scope, which occasionally results in a slighting of some figures crucial to both black and white history. Nevertheless, Professor Williamson covers such diverse persons as Rosa Parks, Woodrow Wilson, novelist Thomas Nelson Page, Charles Chestnutt, Robert Charles, and H. Rap Brown. His book is an engrossing, uncompromised reading experience and an important work on history and race.

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