Civil Rights Unionism
Reviewed by Leslie Marie Harris
Vol. 22, No. 2, 2000 pp. 18-19
Michael Keith Honey, Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Mention Memphis, labor, and the Civil Rights Movement and most people will immediately think of Marlin Luther King, Jr.’s, ill-fated visit to the city to support striking sanitation workers, and his assassination in April 1968. King’s visit was part of the late-1960’s turn from a focus on legal rights to economic equality. But as Michael Honey’s Black Workers Remember demonstrates, black workers themselves had long struggled to overcome economic and occupational hardships, without the help of high-profile civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, SNCC, or CORE. Honey’s work continues a trend in Civil Rights history that examines the struggles of southern blacks against Jim Crow racism before the 1954 Brown decision and the sit-ins and boycotts of the 1950s and 1960s. Through the voices of black men and women, Honey convincingly argues that the history of civil rights activism in the South should begin in part with the struggles of black workers as early as the 1930s to break through occupational color bars in industrialized urban areas.
In a less well-known aspect of the Great Migration of southern blacks to the north, blacks also moved from the countryside to southern cities, and from the plantation to southern factories in search of better wages and greater freedom in urban areas. In Memphis, however, such hopes were only partially fulfilled. Black workers earned better wages in the city at the Firestone Tire Factory, Federal Compress Company, and Memphis Furniture Company than they had in rural areas, and factory work was sometimes easier than farm labor. Blacks were less isolated in Memphis than in rural areas, with greater opportunities for collective social and political lives. But the majority of black men and women who journeyed to the city still faced Jim Crow conditions on the job and off and limited opportunities for political and economic advancement From the 1910s until his death in 1954, the political machine of Mississippi-born white supremacist Edward Crump controlled the city. Crump bought the votes of blacks and whites, while incorporating Ku Klux Klan members into his political machine and the police department. Middle- and working-class blacks feared Crump’s machine, with good reason: Crump’s control of the police meant that any talk of civil rights or unionizing resulted in violence. In the late
1930s, several blacks who spoke up against Crump’s machine were run out of town. As the police commissioner explained, the purpose of the Memphis police force was to keep Memphis “a white man’s country.. . any negro who doesn’t agree to this better move on.”
Northern companies that operated in Memphis quickly acquiesced to the Jim Crow system. Black workers were paid less than whites, and given the hardest jobs. Jim Crow dictated segregated lunchrooms and bathrooms; in factories, for blacks that sometimes meant no lunchrooms and outdoor bathrooms that were little better than holes in the ground. Men’s factory wages were so low that sometimes their wives returned to rural areas around Memphis to pick cotton. Black men and women often worked two or more jobs in order to make ends meet For thirty years, Ida Branch, a widow raising two sons, worked two jobs, seven days a week: she worked as a domestic for a white family from 9:00 a.m.to 4:00 p.m., and at Firestone from 10:00 p.m. to 7:15 am.
Black workers joined unions to fight for better working conditions and racial equality. Their “civil rights unionism” first challenged the Jim Crow occupational structure in factories. With “ambiguous” help from national and local unions, black workers forced are-assessment of their wages and their abilities in factories. Black workers in Memphis also used unions as a basis of support for broader civil rights concerns, as when members of Local 19 travelled to Jackson, Mississippi, to protest the 1951 execution of black truck driver Willie McGee, who was charged with raping a white woman. In Jackson, the police rounded up members of Local 19 and threatened to “march [them] right on down to the river” and kill them before ordering them out of town “at their earliest convenience.” Mississippi U.S. Senator James Eastland’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, partner to the House Un-American Activities Committee, called Local 19’s vice president Earl Fisher to a hearing about the union’s alleged communist influences. Although Fisher’s responses to the Committee’s questions led Eastland to say that “the Negro officials here are dumb …they have simply been used by designing people,” Fisher won the larger battle by getting through the hearing without implicating himself or anyone connected with the union as a communist, and thus avoiding arrest.
Such small victories chipped away at the edifice of Jim Crow in Memphis. By the 1970s, wages were equalized between blacks and whites, and a variety of factory jobs (skilled, unskilled, and supervisory) were integrated, as were restrooms and cafeterias. Unfortunately, such integration occurred as industrial occupations declined in number. Mechanization in factories, as well as movement of factories out of the country, pushed both blacks and whites out of industrial jobs. But while many whites had enough education to move into non-manual labor jobs, black men did not. The income gap between black and white men widened again. Black women fared slightly better, many had more education on average than black men, and were able to enter teaching and “pink collar” clerical jobs. As a result, the income gap between black and white women narrowed between 1950 and 1990. Despite black women’s better-paying jobs, black men’s under- and unemployment continued to negatively impact the black family as men worked two or more jobs and were still eligible for welfare because of the low wages. And whites, even those who faced unemployment problems similar to blacks in an era of de-industrialization, continued to rely on the wages of whiteness to place themselves above blacks and avoid uniting with them in struggles for equity for all workers.
Honey’s book brings together many compelling stories of life and labor in Memphis. Black men and women tell in their own voices of their pride in their work and their anguish at the struggles they endured during and after Jim Crow. Honey has provided a valuable service in bringing to a wider public these less well-known voices of the civil rights struggle that demonstrate a person’s ability to contribute to the creation of a more equitable society.
Leslie Marie Harris is an assistant professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.