Filming ‘The Uprising of ’34’
By George Stoney
Vol. 16, No. 3, 1994, pp. 20-24
Social class is something few Southerners are comfortable talking about, though it preoccupies us more than we’d like to admit. For the last five years, off and on, I have been gathering material for a film about textile workers, an undertaking that has turned into a voyage of selfdiscovery I never intended to take.
Co-director Judith Helfand has been my constant traveling companion. A native of suburban Long Island, Judy was having her first extended encounter with my home territory. I was born and raised in Winston-Salem. Although most of my years since have been spent outside the South, I have written about it, and made documentary films about it, ever since I graduated from Chapel Hill in 1937.
Our film was to deal with the textile workers’ attempts to better their working conditions, using the general strike of 1934 as the dramatic core. This, the largest strike in U. S. history in a single industry, involved more than half a million Southern workers, the majority of them women.
Our assignment was set by The Research Consortium for the Southwide Textile Strike of 1934, an unusual assemblage in this day and age, and one that established the importance of this project. Organized in 1985 by Professor Vera Rony, the Consortium comprises academics, community activists, labor leaders, and textile workers – all concerned that the participants in this vast uprising would soon be gone and their momentous experiences lost forever. Consortium founders included Professors James Crawford, Dan T. Carter, Harvey Klehr, Solomon Barkin, and Les Hough as well as labor leaders Sol Stetin, Larry Rogin, Bruce Raynor, and KeirJorgenson. They were soon joined by Uprising veterans Eula McGill, Lloyd David and Lloyd Gossett, and scholars Jacquelyn Hall, Janet Irons, Tom Terrill, Gretchen MacLachlan, John Gaventa, Cliff Kuhn, Robert McMath, and J. Wayne Flynt. They and the forty additional scholars and activists who have joined the Consortium through the years have provided indispensable advice and support to the film project.
The assembled scholars asked themselves if, by exhuming and examining the history of this event, they might cast a more revealing light on the pervasive notion that Southern workers will never organize for their own protection, a belief that is touted by Chambers of Commerce and industrial development commissions across the South. So they would write books, produce monographs and articles and, to reach a wider audience, they thought a film should be made.
Subsequently several Southern State Humanities Councils agreed to support the effort. Additional funding has come from foundations, mostly Southern-based, and
a small amount from unions and individuals. Completion funds have been provided by the Independent Television Service which will sponsor the film’s broadcast early in 1995.
Documentary records of some aspects of the strike abound. The extensive violence is headlined in every Southern paper of the period. The University of South Carolina’s newsreel collection has scenes of national guardsmen plunging through mill villages with fixed bayonets and lines of civilian vigilantes standing proudly with their hunting rifles. There is full newsreel coverage of the events of September 15, 1934, when Governor Eugene Talmadge dispatched Georgia’s National Guard to Newnan. Here they rounded up 128 pickets, both men and women, and carted them off to Ft. McPherson where they were kept for a week behind barbed wire without legal procedures or redress.
In the National Archives there are thousands of letters from textile workers (women seem to have done most of the writing) addressed to President Roosevelt and to his wife Eleanor, to Frances Perkins, first woman Secretary of Labor, and to administrators of the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The letters describe in vivid detail the misery of the workers’ lives and the frustrations and dangers they encountered as they tried to form the unions which the textile code said they had a right to organize, but which few Southern textile employers would tolerate.
What we lacked to tell our story were accounts of just how this mammoth and unique effort was organized. Surely, we thought, out of the thousands of those who dared be officials and picket line captains in ’34 there would be plenty of survivors proud to tell what they did. To get their names we turned to the archives of the NRA in Washington, where we found hundreds of protests filed by union locals after the strike, listing members who were blacklisted and, frequently, evicted from companyowned houses as well-actions expressly forbidden in the agreement which Roosevelt drew up to end the three week strike but which most employers ignored.
With these lists we returned to the mill towns of their origin only to discover that, for a great many families, black-listing had meant banishment, sometimes to another state, some-times out of the South altogether. It was a veritable hemorrhage of local leaders, often the best educated and most civically motivated, in a segment of the population that could ill afford to lose them. For a very long time most of those we did find would be reluctant to talk. On the phone they would say, for example:
“You sound like a very nice man and I’d like to help you. But, you know, I’ve got a granddaughter in the mill yet, and it would be held against her if I talked.”
Almost no one on first encounter spoke proudly of what she or he had done in ’34, even though we had clear documentary evidence of their leadership. It would seem that for more than half a century making a living in their town had required them to keep silent; admitting their part in organizing a union so long ago was close to confessing a secret sin.
Very quickly we found it best to approach the matter indirectly, beginning our recording with their account of how their family came to the mill village from the country or from the mountains, then proceeding to their teenage years and struggle to get an education. Finally there would be talk about the Depression which led into tentative remarks about “that mess” in ’34. Often it was only after they got assurances from old comrades-in-arms who had been willing to share recollections with us that they felt free to add their own stories. Some of our most helpful and knowledgeable witnesses agreed to talk only after repeated visits made months or years apart, with contact maintained in the meantime by exchanges of letters and snapshots.
Rejection of any kind usually leads to self-examination. “Is there something about me,” I asked myself, “that makes these people reluctant to talk?” Soon I had to accept the fact that many people, especially the women, were more at ease talking with Judy than with me. The fact that she was a non-Southern who was young and pretty and enthusiastic and who, they assumed, knew absolutely nothing about the kind of life they were describing, seemed to give them assurance. On the other hand, I was a past-middle-aged professor whose inescapable class identification as a middle-class Southerner must have reminded them of the straw boss they once feared or the shoe salesmen in town whose contemptuous remarks made half a century ago stuck in their minds and still stung.
For gaining interviews with spokespeople for the textile industry management (and they have their full say in our film), my class and regional identifications were clearly an advantage. Some of the other males seemed reassured that “this pretty young yankee girl you’ve got there” was accompanied by a fatherly authority figure who could vouch for her.
But, by and large, Judy was taken at face value. I had to sell myself. . . by dressing with deliberate informality; by sitting on the floor during interviews; by singing the old songs they loved (and proving I could recall all the words); by offering my own recollections of hard times as a child that made them more comfortable in talking about their own; and, finally, before the next meeting and the next, sending them notes written from New York on University stationary.
Judy’s experiences as ajew in these circumstances is a story she should tell. Sufficient to say, with the mostly born- again Evangelicals it was a distinct advantage, especially when they found out she had actually been to Israel and bathed in the Jordan.
Once we began making our approach on a broader front than the events of ’34 and began talking with these retired workers, their children and grandchildren about the complete fabric of their lives, the extent and bitterness of their own class resentments became manifest. A mere mention of “lint heads”, the pejorative commonly used to describe all folks from mill hill communities even today, would trigger recollections of insults old as childhood. A careless remark spoken by a teacher had caused one women to quit high school after walking for a year “three miles across town to go, and make it back in time to work on second shift.”
As we recorded many such examples of class attitudes, with corroborating evidence from middleclass people who, while usually excepting themselves, agreed that sharp class divisions always existed in these communities, I was forced to think of my own childhood in WinstonSalem. Children from the Arista mill village were almost automatically channeled into one section of a class and the rest of us in another. At R. J. Reynolds Central High “they” disappeared into the shop classes or motor maintenance until they quit to go to work. Few graduated and I never wondered why.
I recalled my father’s often expressed loathing for the sounds of hillbilly music that came echoing from the windows of the Odd Fellow’s Hall sixty yards from my bedroom, a loathing which extended to those “mountain whites” who attended the dances. Seeds of snobbery were planted in me as a very young child that it has taken decades of intellectual effort to overcome. Even now the music best loved by our old textile workers—not the tin pan alley tunes we do both share an affection for but the string band and gospel classics—can make me wince.
For two years of my childhood from seven to nine, after the death of my mother, my three sisters and I were cared for by a farm family in a village some distance from Winston Salem. Here I learned to know, and again to loathe, almost every aspect of the kind of country life and culture that forms the happy nostalgia of most of the textile workers we interviewed. Every other Sunday my father would visit to read to us from the classics and chastise us for picking up countrified pronunciations. Again, further life experience and intellectual effort have given me an appreciation of the strengths of this country culture. Yet the tell-tale signs of my own class prejudices can sneak up on me. How many of all those “vibes” feelings were being picked up by the people whose stories I was trying to record?
Perhaps I exaggerate. Judy thinks I do. But of this I
am positive: these early class influences are pervasive still in the textile South, outlasting in many places the mills themselves, making cooperation for civic and political action among white people who otherwise share concerns quite as difficult as we have known when breaching separation by race.
One of the things we hope our film will do is serve as a vehicle for promoting dialogue about race and class. A series of community screenings has been scheduled in public settings sponsored by libraries, museums, schools, universities, and community action groups at which such dialogue can take place. The ninety-minute film has been edited to be shown in sections, each of which will serve as a stimulus for talk about local history, community development, political activism, and race and class relations. We are very much pleased that several Southern state Humanities Councils and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation have granted us funds designed for support of such screening and discussions. These will be conducted by humanities scholars with the cooperation of local organizations.
Because our work has been so dependent on Humanities Councils and associated scholars we have been faithful in our resolve to honor the witnesses by transcribing their testimony and logging and cataloguing their tapes. This has produced an archive that will be useful to, and made available to, others who want to tell the many stories which can be found in this treasure trove of life experience. An appropriate archive, located in the South, is being chosen.
Thinking back on our five years of work together, Judy and I can see how, on many occasions, our differences in backgrounds and approaches probably worked in our favor. One of our most effective witnesses kept us waiting for more than two years. Judy found her through several documents in the NRA files in Washington, all neatly typed and signed in her clear hand. She had been the secretary of a local union where her father was president. After the strike she also served as secretary for one of the district organizers, all the while working as a weaver in the mill.
Although we had only her maiden name on the documents it was fairly simple to find her through others who had been in the same union local. Rumor had it that she and her husband, also a former “linthead,” had become millionaires. Certainly their address and the outward appearance of their estate suggested as much.
In a series of phone calls Judy learned that this woman had been a delegate to the New York convention where plans for the strike had been made in mid-August of ’34. She was one of the committee arranging visits by national leaders before and during the strike. Here was exactly the kind of detailed information about organization we so desperately needed to fill out our story. But she refused to be recorded, or even have us visit, explaining that her friends, who knew nothing of her involvement in 1934, would not understand why she would boast of them.
A year went by. There were more long chats by phone and more details revealed to fill in our story. But she would not see us.
“0. K. Judy, but we aren’t writing a book! “I remember bursting out in frustration over breakfast in a Waffle House. More calls were made. At some point Judy mentioned that I was a graduate of Chapel Hill.
“My husband went to Chapel Hill, too,” she said. He must have been listening. We were invited over so her husband could “meet the professor.” But no recording!
It was a long, frustrating, fascinating afternoon. While my son, James, the cameraman, sat with his equipment in the van (sometimes people do change their minds) we listened to our hostess describe in detail what our film desperately needed for someone to recount on camera. Her husband cross-examined me about Chapel Hill. What fraternity was Tin? The fact that I was not a fraternity man and, in fact, had worked my way through, seemed to modify his antagonism. He, it turned out, had been forced to drop out after two years, pulled back to the mill by family demands.
It was World War II that enabled this couple to escape from the mills, as it did so many others. He returned with a nest egg that financed a contracting business. She worked as his bookkeeper and partner, meanwhile raising a family. Their present splendor (“a hell of a long way from a shotgun house,” as another former mill worker described it) had not come easy.
Fortunately I had handy a copy of Like A Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, by the group of scholars from Chapel Hill headed by Jacquelyn Hall. For two hours, while we talked with his wife, he disappeared to read it. (This book, incidentally, has been of enormous help in our work both as a source of facts and a treasured gift for dozens of witnesses who are touchingly moved to know lives like theirs have been recorded with such accuracy and thoughtfulness.)
Finally, as we were leaving with no pictures taken, he reappeared to return the book and said:
“Honey, you can do what you want to. “But it was two weeks more before she finally agreed to the first of two long and most fruitful recording sessions. What occasioned such a complete change of heart? In truth she was not a vainglorious person. I think she genuinely meant it when she told us, early on, that her friends might not understand if they thought her boasting of her early
exploits. No, I think what persuaded her in the end was a chance remark I made:
“Your father sacrificed a great deal to make that union local a success. Now that we are doing is honoring him and his work.”
Our recording with her began with a description of what her father did, then went back to her own struggle to get an education so she could help him a secretary. Gradually she was able to admit that she, too, was important in the work, that she, too, was-for example-responsible for getting back pay for workers by repeated appeals to the Labor Board.
“Yes, I did that, didn’t I?” she smiled as she held the documents from the National Archives that told of her work. At eighty-two with the effects of recent illnesses evident and more to come, this woman was defining herself anew. It was a wonderful moment for all of us. One of the rewards of making documentaries is the recording of moments like this that can be shared repeatedly thereafter with thousands.
The suppression of civil liberties, the suppression of human potential that accompanied the ending of the textile strike in 1934 created a social climate that clouds efforts to organize unions even today. In Kannapolis we recorded with workers involved in a massive drive in 1991 for union recognition who told us of being required by Fieldcrest/Cannon to attend meetings where they were shown videotapes “of strikes and violence and troops marching… We knew they were old films but they seemed to have a message in them: this is what joining a union means. . . “Would these workers respond differently had they known in advance the full story of those events?
Near Honea Path, South Carolina where seven strikers were killed in 1934 we were told by workers struggling to hold a union together that they had grown up with whisperings about how Honea Path’s “saddest day” had come. They believed it was strikers themselves who had fired the guns. Would they feel differently had they been shown the coroner’s report and court testimony by eye witnesses that made clear all seven who died were shot in the back as they fled from bullets coming out of the mill fired by guns in the hands of deputies under the command of the superintendent himself.
In larger perspective, had the thousands of local leaders who created “The Uprising of ’34” been allowed to continue as spokespersons for change in their communities instead of being blacklisted or forced to exchange silence and anti-unionism for a chance to make a living, would outrages like the chicken fire at Hamlet, North Carolina which killed because workers were afraid to report safety violations continue to happen?
All these are questions we hope the showing of our film will stimulate. We are half a century late; no doubt about that!
At this writing we have had a number of community screenings in the Carolinas and Georgia. Responses have been largely what we had hoped for. When the lights go up people are eager to talk about their family links to the heritage of the textile workers they have been listening to for 90 minutes. The elderly testify; their children and grandchildren ask more questions. At least for the time being “union” is not “a dirty word around here” as one of the film’s participants describes it.
“So that’s why my neighbors look at me sideways when I tell them I’m a union man,” said one viewer at the Asheville screening who had moved South from New England a decade earlier.
Opposition has also come, most distressingly, from well- heeled contributors to public television who have already caused one statewide network to reconsider its agreement to air the work. Fortunately, Southern scholars, community activists, Humanities Councils, librarians and foundations continue to support us after seeing the film. One way or another they—and we—are determined to see that the memories of the people who speak so eloquently in “The Uprising of ’34” are made available to everyone in the South.
George Stoney is Professor of Film/TV at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.