The Black Working Class and the Early Civil Rights Movement

Devon Douglas-Bowers

 

This is part two of a larger series on AHTribune.com on the history of black people in the US. In this article I examine the working-class’s relation to the early civil rights movement and how the workplace in both factories and schools was used as a means to fight against discrimination and racism.

The Civil Rights Movement isn’t just viewed as a struggle that was overall peaceful, with the emphasis being generally put on non-violent actions and figures such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., but also a movement that was organized mainly by middle-class individuals and focuses on the large struggles of the 1960s. In promoting this narrative, it ignores the working-class and how much of their struggles formed the beginning of what would become the Civil Rights Movement. Two examples can be found in labor and in teaching.

The civil rights era began in “the early 1940s when the social structure of black America took on an increasingly urban, proletarian character.” [1] While major organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League began to work more with labor organizations at that time, their legal and social focus didn’t allow them to have a strategy that worked in the workplaces and neighborhoods of working-class black Americans. However, this gave space for union organizing to take center stage. This was noted at the time as “a Rosenwald Fund study concluded, not without misgivings, that ‘the characteristic movements among Negroes are now for the first time becoming proletarian;’ while a Crisis reporter found the CIO a ‘lamp of democracy’ throughout the old Confederate states.”[2] Thus, we see that working-class people were taking center stage.

In 1943, a major organizing effort was underway as the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America, in conjunction with the Congress of Industrial union federation, led a new union drive at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston-Salem, NC. The two year organizing campaign which began in 1941 came to an apex when black women working at the plant stopped laboring on June 17th. The women were able to do this due to a severe chronic labor shortage as many men were at war, there were also long-term wage grievances that had yet to be settled and the strike soon went plant-wide.

This strike brought up a massive debate about exactly who constituted the leadership of the black community. Members of the small black middle class of Winston-Salem wrote a letter in the Winston-Salem Journal urging the workers to end their strikes, arguing that the campaign for collective bargaining rights “had to remain secondary to the more important goal of racial betterment, which could only be achieved by ‘goodwill, friendly understanding, and mutual respect and co-operation between the races.'”[3] The workers didn’t take too kindly to this, with one worker, W. L. Griffin, stating:

I have attended church regularly for the past thirty years [and] unity and co-operation [has] been taught and preached from the pulpits of the various Negro churches. Now that the laboring class of people are about to unite and co-operate on a wholesale scale for the purpose of collective bargaining, these same leaders seem to disagree with that which they have taught their people. [4]

We can see from this that there were major differences depending on one’s class background and, in a sense, the betrayal of the black working-class. Instead of supporting the workers, the town’s black middle class effectively sided with the white owning class, leaving the workers out to dry.

While the management did attempt to derail the action by a number of methods, such as supporting a anti-union movement by the white workers and the white business community organizing an emergency meeting to stop the movement, in December 1943, the black workers at the plant prevailed as the National Labor Review Board election saw the dream of collective bargaining come to fruition.

However, this wasn’t the end of the situation as the worker organizations began to have a major impact on the politics of the Winston-Salem black working-class community. By mid 1944, the “Local 22 of the reorganized and renamed Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers (FTA) had become the center of an alternative social world that linked black workers together regardless of job, neighborhood, or church affiliation.” [5] A major player in the politics of the FTA and in Local 22 was the Communist Party, with FTA president Donald Henderson having been a long time associate of the party. By 1947, the party had inducted nearly 150 Winston-Salem blacks, virtually all tobacco workers. The majority of these workers viewed the party as “both a militant civil rights organization, which in the 1930s had defended such black victims of white southern racism as the Scottsboro boy sand Angelo Hearndon, and as a cosmopolitan group, introducing members to the larger world of politics and ideas.”[6]

The tobacco trade unionism revived a large amount of black political activism in the town as while the NAACP did attack racial discrimination before the arrival of the CIO, many didn’t join due to the fear of associated risks being affiliated with the organization and this the majority of the new membership came from the traditional black middle class. Yet, the local NAACP grew after the Local 22 started its own campaign to recruit members for them, resulting in their membership exploding to nearly 2,000 in 1946, making it the largest NAACP chapter in North Carolina. Furthermore, the CIO engaged in a number of other political activities such as voter registration and mobilization, “challenged the power of registrars to judge the qualifications of black applicants and insisted that black veterans vote without further tests,” and generally “activists encouraged the city’s blacks to participate in electoral politics,” with the slogan being “Politics IS food, clothes, and housing.”[7]

Unions also had a major impact in Detroit, specifically involving black auto workers and the Union of Auto Workers in the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex. The Ford complex attempted to control the black workers by creating what was essentially a separate hiring process for blacks in which workers were hired on the recommendation of an influential black minister, which “strengthened the pro-company, anti-union attitude of most churchmen and reinforced the hostility shown the early CIO by leaders of the Detroit Urban League and the local NAACP branch.” [8] This indoctrination of sorts had a serious effect as during the 1940-1941 UAW Ford organizing drive, many black workers were hesitant to join and then in April 1941, when many workers went on strike, several hundred black workers scabbed in the plant. Due to this, the UAW made a concerted effort to win over members of the local black middle class who were independent of the Ford patronage network.

When the NAACP voted to support the UAW, black workers soon began to flood the union’s ranks and due to the plant having a considerable size of blacks, many black officers and staffers were in leadership positions within the union. Due to the unionization process, the political consciousness of workers awakened and they engaged in a number of activities, from intimidating foremen to challenging top management to breaking the company spy system. This also extended into the field of civil rights, with black workers organizing and demanding the hiring and promotion of black workers and defending “black occupancy of the Sojourner Truth Homes, a federally funded project that became a violent center of conflict between white neighborhood groups and the housing starved black community.”[9]

The use of the workplace as a location of awakening political consciousness and action worked not only in the factories, but also in the schoolhouses, with Milwaukee being a prime example. In the context of the public school, “civil rights were defined as winning jobs for Black teachers, who in turn would support Black youth trapped in the city’s racialized and economically depressed labor market.”[10] During the late 1930s, the black community began a new strategy for racial progress in education: direct lobbying of the school board to hire black teachers. Executive director of the Milwaukee Urban League, William Kelly, argued “that jobs for Black teachers would motivate Black high school students to value hard work, since their current job prospects were bleak and did not reward academic effort” and “that, at minimum, the school board should replace white teachers who feel they are ‘wasting their efforts on the colored children,’ thus opening up jobs for Black teachers who could reach out to students and families of their own race.”[11] One school board member proposed having the Ninth Street School be a training grounds for black teachers, done in the same fashion of other Northern cities where black teachers were assigned to black schools, however this received considerable backlash as other board members worried that Italians, Irish, and other ethnic groups would demand the same treatment. A compromise was brokered that would last until the 1950s: the school system would hire a small amount of black teachers to teach at predominately black schools, but under the guise of an unbiased hiring policy to avoid legal and ethnic disputes.

Yet during the 1950s, the situation changed as due to the increased black population more and more black teachers were assigned to mainly black schools, which raised criticism from a number of school board members and effectively imperiling the terms of the agreement. The agreement was saved via the Brown v. Board decision which ended school segregation, but the black community of Milwaukee used the decision in a rather unusual way: rather than leaving the situation as it was, instead they used it as a weapon in the fight to get black teachers jobs.

Kelly, along with local attorney James Dorsey, harnessed the judicial victory and political momentum to engage in two days of hearings in from of Chicago’s newly created Fair Employment Practices Committee which led to a dramatic increase in employment for black Milwaukeeans in the school system.

No matter the location, the workplace and unions were utilized by working and middle class black people as tools in their battle to gain fair access into the labor market and awakened the political consciousness of many individuals.

While the early Civil Rights Movement was organized around the workplace and unions, later groups would actively be co-opted by larger organizations with their own agendas for the black community.

Notes

[1] Robert Korstad, Nelson Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” The Journal of American History 75:3 (December 1988), pg 786

[2] Korstad, Lichtenstein, pg 787

[3] Korstad, Lichtenstein, pg 789

[4] Ibid

[5] Korstad, Lichtenstein, pg 791

[6] Korstad, Lichtenstein, pg 792

[7] Korstad, Lichtenstein, pg 793

[8] Korstad, Lichtenstein, pg 794

[9] Korstad, Lichtenstein, pg 797

[10] Jack Dougherty, “‘That’s When We Were Marching For Jobs:’ Black Teachers and the Early Civil Rights Movement in Milwaukee,” History of Education Quarterly 38:2 (Summer, 1998), pg 123

[11] Dougherty, pg 126

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