Claude Ramsay-A Life for Mississippi workers
By Steve Riley
Vol. 8, No. 2, 1986, pp. 19, 21
When Claude Ramsay retired late last year, the longtime Mississippi labor chief started shopping for a shotgun. After twenty-six turbulent years of fighting racism and anti-union sentiment in a state steeped in conservative traditions, Ramsay said he was ready for the serenity of the piney woods and the open water.
“I’m getting ready to do some fishing and hunting,” Ramsay told an interviewer in September.
Ramsay’s hunting season was short-lived, however. He died in his sleep at his home in west Jackson January 18, barely a month after stepping down as director of Mississippi’s AFL-CIO. While Ramsay, who was sixty-nine, had talked a good game about relaxing in retirement, few who knew him believe he would have strayed far from his primary passion: assisting the less fortunate, particularly through politics.
“He was always pulling for the underdog,” said Wayne Dowdy of McComb, Mississippi’s Fourth District congressman, whose shocking 1981 election was made possible by Ramsay’s endorsement. “He was going to stay right in the middle of politics. He gave me every assurance he would be active. That was Claude’s way. He wasn’t one to sit on the sidelines.”
Sitting on the sidelines would have been safer during the turbulent 1960s. While Mississippi boiled with racial turmoil, Ramsay took perhaps the two most risky positions for a white Mississippian still living in his home state: he tried to build a base of organized labor and supported-no, campaigned for-equal rights for blacks.
“He was really in double jeopardy,” said Norman Hill, a former civil-rights worker and now president of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute. “He showed tremendous courage.”
Herb Mabry, head of the Georgia AFL-CIO, summed up Ramsay’s positions succinctly. “He had guts when it took guts to have guts,” Mabry said. Ramsay also had something to back up his guts – a double barreled shotgun he carried on the front seat of his car during his travels across Mississippi. That gun was stolen after the civil-rights battles died down, and Ramsay never had it replaced. But he never regretted arming himself. “In November 1975, I went to a victory party for (former Governor) Cliff Finch,” Ramsay said in September. “A little sawed-off bastard came up to me and said, ‘Claude Ramsay, you’re about the ugliest SOB I’ve ever seen.’ He said he was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and that he had an assignment to bump me off one time. I said, ‘I’m glad you never got around to it. It may have been that you were scared you might get your ass blown off.’
“I didn’t come back from World War II to run from some SOB with a sheet over his head.”
As Ramsay told that story, he chuckled with a degree of self-satisfaction. His always raspy voice had grown gruffer, his prominent nose looked larger and redder than in years past. A bout with throat cancer had forever extinguished what had been an ever-present cigar. But as he approached retirement, Ramsay appeared content–not that he had accomplished everything he had wanted, but that he had given it his best arm-twisting effort.
It was never easy for labor and Claude Ramsay. In 1959, when he was elected to his first term as president of the state organization, Mississippi labor unions counted 35,000 members. Ramsay’s work boosted membership to 50,000 in 1960; it peaked in 1980 at slightly above 100,000. Membership since then slipped to about 80,000 which Ramsay, a hard-line Democrat, attributed to anti-labor actions by the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan.
Even as the labor ranks swelled during the 1970s, Ramsay’s influence on state government was never overpowering. Though he influenced a sizeable chunk of votes, his bouts in the Legislature often ended in disappointment. Mississippi’s workers’ compensation laws remain among the nation’s weakest, and Ramsay’s ultimate goal, a state Department of Labor, remains a dream.
But Ramsay is given credit for effective voter-registration drives in the 60s, which syndicated columnist and veteran political observer Bill Minor said “helped blacks more than they will ever know.” And his coalition of labor and blacks also was a positive factor in
the landmark education reform legislation in 1982.
Ramsay backed his share of political losers, going it alone in 1972 for George McGovern, a most unpopular politician in the Deep South. He also campaigned hard in 1964 for Lyndon Johnson, a national winner who was swamped by Barry Goldwater in Mississippi.
Ramsay often said his political “high-water mark” came with Dowdy’s election in 1981. In a special election to replace the resigning Jon Hinson, Dowdy stunned Republican Liles Williams in the GOP-dominated Fourth District. Dowdy had emerged from a crowded Democratic field after he endorsed extension of the Voting Rights and Ramsay rallied the labor troops.
That victory was heady stuff for the Ocean Springs, Mississippi, native, who got his first involvement in union organizing in 1939 when he went to work for International Paper Company in Moss Point, Mississippi. That job had come about after Ramsay’s fiery personality had helped ease him out of higher education. He briefly attended Gulf Coast Junior College, where he had a job milking cows.
“I got into a cuss fight with the guy who was in charge,” Ramsay recalled.
He then left school and went to work at the paper company, where he helped organize one of the state’s first industrial unions. He served in Europe in World War II and later returned to his Moss Point job as a shop steward. In 1950, he was elected president of his union local and in 1959 he was asked to direct the AFL-CIO.
It was in the Army that Ramsay met a soldier who would strengthen his already growing resistance to racial hatred. He said a black French Moroccan joined his unit and “became a favorite of everybody in the company. And all of them were Southern boys. I was never taught to hate black people. But it set me to thinking.”
Those thoughts started to crystallize in the early 1960s, when Ramsay faced some tough choices. Ramsay said he worked and spoke out for civil rights because racial tensions were chasing away industry and because he thought segregation was wrong.
A speech in 1962 to the Metal Trades Council in his native Jackson County thrust him into the civil-rights spotlight. In the speech, Ramsay spoke out against racism, saying violence could prompt the federal government to take contracts away from Ingalls Shipbuilding, a major defense contractor. And he came to the defense of a Pascagoula newspaper editor Ira B. Harkey, Jr., who had written that a group of local citizens were “goons” after they traveled to Oxford to support segregation at the University of Mississippi.
Harkey won a Pulitzer Prize for his civil rights editorials and later wrote a book, The Smell of Burning Crosses. He credited Ramsay with turning the tide in Jackson County. “It was a helluva gutsy thing to do,” Harkey said. “Without him, God knows what would have happened.”
At the time of his retirement, Ramsay took the title president emeritus and turned over his authority to Thomas Knight, who had served under Ramsay as secretary-treasurer since 1960, and Neal Fowler, took Knight’s old job. Fowler said Ramsay wanted to stay involved.
“Just the other day he and I were sitting and talking about plans,” Fowler said. “I think it really struck him that day. He realized he was going to retire. I can remember seeing tears in his eyes. It’s a shame that he didn’t get to enjoy his retirement.”
Others said Ramsay just wasn’t the type to sit around. “The kind of life he lived made up for not getting a long retirement,” said Robert Walker of Vicksburg, a Warren County supervisor and former field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi. “He didn’t work for that.”
Steve Riley is a staff writer for the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.