Behind the Backlash: White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore, 1940-1980 / Edition 1

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In this nuanced look at white working-class life and politics in twentieth-century America, Kenneth Durr takes readers into the neighborhoods, workplaces, and community institutions of blue-collar Baltimore in the decades after World War II.

Challenging notions that the "white backlash" of the 1960s and 1970s was driven by increasing race resentment, Durr details the rise of a working-class populism shaped by mistrust of the means and ends of postwar liberalism in the face of urban decline. Exploring the effects of desegregation, deindustrialization, recession, and the rise of urban crime, Durr shows how legitimate economic, social, and political grievances convinced white working-class Baltimoreans that they were threatened more by the actions of liberal policymakers than by the incursions of urban blacks.

While acknowledging the parochialism and racial exclusivity of white working-class life, Durr adopts an empathetic view of workers and their institutions. Behind the Backlash melds ethnic, labor, and political history to paint a rich portrait of urban life—and the sweeping social and economic changes that reshaped America's cities and politics in the late twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A substantial addition to the literature on working-class politics, the white backlash, the decline of the New Deal coalition, and the Democratic Party's loss of connection with working-class, urban, ethnic voters in the period from 1940 to 1980.
(Ronald P. Formisano, author of Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s)"
From the Publisher
"A substantial addition to the literature on working-class politics, the white backlash, the decline of the New Deal coalition, and the Democratic Party's loss of connection with working-class, urban, ethnic voters in the period from 1940 to 1980.
(Ronald P. Formisano, author of Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s)"
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807854334
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 3/24/2003
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,517,639
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Kenneth D. Durr is director of the History Division at History Associates Incorporated in Rockville, Maryland.

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Read an Excerpt

Behind the Backlash

White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore, 1940-1980
By Kenneth D. Durr

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2003 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-2764-2

Chapter One

A Contentious Coalition

In early 1944 John Cater submitted some verse written by coworkers at Baltimore's booming Westinghouse defense plant to the Baltimore Evening Sun. The paper published the piece, even though Cater disavowed authorship. It was a good thing he did. "Beloved Baltimore, Maryland," written from the point of view of the thousands of migrant defense workers who had flocked to the city for the duration, was a vitriolic attack on everything Baltimorean from its architecture-"your brick row houses should all be torn down"-to its economy. "You make us pay double for all you can sell," the piece concluded, "but after the war you can all go to hell." The Evening Sun received more than a thousand angry refutations. A postal worker dragged two bulging bags full of letters into the Sun Building's lobby, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a contribution of his own. Weeks later "Beloved Baltimore" was still the most popular topic of conversation around town.

This incident, characterized by Life magazine as "The Battle of Baltimore," was less a fight between enemies than a quarrel between partners in a strained, but strong relationship. The coalescence of the New Deal coalition at large, a process also achieved amid the tumult of wartime, was equally contentious. Natives and newcomers, old-world ethnics and southern Protestants, all came into conflict but ultimately formed a political alliance under the Democratic umbrella. This rift between the New Deal coalition's white working-class constituents was fleeting, but there was a much deeper divide between them and the blacks and middle-class liberals who were also integral to the New Deal Democratic coalition, one that was temporarily bridged but never closed during the war years and the four decades afterward.

The Great Depression laid the groundwork for the New Deal order, based on agreement among urban and rural working whites, blacks, and middle-class liberals that grassroots political activity and an activist state could create a more economically equitable society. But in Baltimore, it was not until World War II that a viable coalition came together. Among the uproar, overcrowding, inflation, and anger, key institutions took shape and fragile alliances were formed. Machine politicians began to respond more to ethnic and working-class concerns and less to old-stock business leaders, liberal political groups-chief among them the NAACP-flourished, and industrial unionism became entrenched in Baltimore's workplaces.

This political transition was driven by three broader shifts. First, working-class Baltimore's "new immigrants" of Eastern and Southern European heritage gained political influence that began to rival that exerted by German and Irish ethnics and native-stock whites. Second, Baltimore's black working people, long restricted to unskilled, low-paid work, began to get better jobs-with and without government help. Finally, although many of the southern migrants who worked in Baltimore's war plants returned home as quickly as possible, many more did not. Instead, southern whites stayed to become members of Baltimore's postwar white working class.

The wartime boom made Baltimore, a relatively placid and culturally southern city, look more like a smoky, congested northern industrial city. Its politics also came to resemble that of other post-New Deal industrial cities. In presidential, state, and local politics a "New Deal" coalition of working-white, black, and liberal voters emerged, although each group understood the legacy of the New Deal differently. The most vocal of Baltimore's grassroots New Deal activists, urban progressives, CIO-affiliated laborites, and black civil rights leaders considered the war a political opportunity. Their conception of "New Deal Democracy" included not only the extension of blue-collar workplace rights but also the expansion of rights for blacks in the community and on the job. For Baltimore's white working people, however, the tumult of wartime was fraught with hazards. They welcomed the economic security that industrial unionism and wartime wages brought but resisted social initiatives that seemed to threaten the blue-collar community.

Economy and Society

Baltimore's roots were in commerce rather than industry; as late as 1881 there were still only thirty-nine manufacturers in the city. By the turn of the century there were two hundred, but within a few years, as the nationwide tide of mergers swept the city, outside corporations bought up local firms and Baltimore became known as a "branch plant city." Nevertheless, by the late 1930s municipal leaders touted an "industrial community" closely resembling its northern counterparts. Iron and steel dominated the economy. Sparrows Point, owned by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, was the city's largest single employer, sprawling over two thousand acres where the Patapsco River met the Chesapeake Bay. Although the garment industry sweatshops downtown were closing fast, the textile industry remained Baltimore's second largest employer in the 1930s. Mills built in Hampden, north of the city center, still produced cotton duck as they had for a century.

The transportation equipment industry was more robust. Bethlehem Steel had shipyards at Sparrows Point and along Key Highway in South Baltimore. Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock was on the southern edge of the harbor. Glenn Martin, built in 1928 at Middle River, eleven miles northeast of downtown Baltimore, was quickly becoming the largest single airplane factory in the world. General Motors (GM) opened plants in Southeast Baltimore in 1934. Electrical equipment manufacturers like Westinghouse and Locke Insulator contributed to the city's industrial diversity. The largest of these was Western Electric, built in 1929 at Point Breeze, just inside the city limits on the northern edge of the bay.

Baltimore's population was as diverse as its industry. A leading destination for nineteenth-century German immigrants, the city more closely resembled Cincinnati and St. Louis than predominantly Irish Boston or New York. These old-stock immigrants had to compete for jobs with blacks much earlier and on a greater scale than those in northern cities where the black populations were smaller. Dependence on the port for employment made these unskilled laborers especially vulnerable to market fluctuations, and in hard times native and immigrant workers exploited racial tensions to force blacks out of work and to protect their jobs.

Baltimore had a southern segregationist inheritance that was, if anything, heightened by what one historian has called the "assertive self-consciousness" of its black populace, 90 percent of which was free before the Civil War. As Jim Crow descended on the border city, skirmishes between white and black labor heightened its effects, so that by the 1910s segregation was more pronounced in Maryland than in any other border state. Up to the 1890s, when an influx of black southern migrants began, there had been few exclusively black neighborhoods in the city. After the turn of the century blacks began leaving overcrowded and disease-infested alleys, displacing whites in upper west central Baltimore, and by 1910 half of the city's blacks lived there. Whites petitioned the mayor to "take some measures to restrain the colored people from locating in a white community"; this resulted in a 1913 ordinance that made segregated housing legal in Baltimore. So effective was white Baltimore's effort that it set precedent for legislation in other cities. This sanctioned black area, twenty-six blocks centered on Pennsylvania Avenue, became a booming black metropolis by the 1930s.

When Eastern and Southern European immigrants arrived at the turn of the century, ethnic working-class neighborhoods coalesced around the harbor. Outlying industrial suburbs included Brooklyn, on the southern edge of the harbor, and Sparrows Point, far to the east. Fells Point, Baltimore's eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century shipping and shipbuilding center, occupied the northeastern edge of the harbor along with Canton. Up a gentle hill to the east was Highlandtown, a largely German community. Pigtown, in the near southwest, was named for its early packing houses. South Baltimore lay just below the city center, and to its east Locust Point jutted into the harbor. Only Hampden, home to Protestant textile millworkers, was largely untouched by the new immigration.

It was at Locust Point that the new immigrants disembarked. Some boarded the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and headed west. Others, especially the Poles, ferried across the Inner Harbor to Fells Point. A few got off the boat at the foot of Hull Street, walked a few blocks, and spent the rest of their lives in Locust Point. Over the next fifty years many of the Poles moved farther east into Canton and Highlandtown; others resettled in South Baltimore and Brooklyn. Italian immigrants gathered in a neighborhood on the near east side that became Baltimore's "Little Italy" before gravitating west in later years. Czech, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Greek enclaves also took shape in South and East Baltimore.

The Catholic Church lay at the heart of these ethnic enclaves. The oldest parishes were Irish and German. A few remained that way, but others, like St. Leo's, which became the center of Little Italy, adopted the nationality of its new congregation. The church served as a bulwark for both the existing social structure and the immigrant community. As these immigrants arrived, Baltimore's James Cardinal Gibbons lauded Catholicism's "tremendous power for conservatism, virtue and industry" among working people. In the 1920s and 1930s Baltimore's Catholics shared Archbishop Michael Curley's faith in the "Catholic Ghetto," emphasizing self-sufficiency and disdaining secular individualism. Curley encouraged them to maintain their ethnic traditions and resist "forceful, improper Americanization."

A building boom accompanied this influx of white ethnics, helped along by the institution of ground rent. Under this system, homes were bought and sold but landowners kept the "ground" and charged rent. This cut initial purchase costs, making housing more affordable for working-class people: Canton resident Bronislaw Wesolowski paid a mere $750 for his four-room row house in 1910. Of the forty thousand homes built in the 1880s and 1890s, most were the two-story, narrow red brick row houses that came to typify Baltimore's working-class neighborhoods. White working-class Baltimore prospered in the 1920s. Home ownership rates rose, families bought radios, and a few could even afford cars. Social and political clubs multiplied and ethnic institutions flourished as working people enjoyed rising living standards.

But trouble began near the end of the twenties. Unemployment increased, the economy slipped, and by late 1930 the full effects of the Great Depression had set in. As the number of unemployed grew, private relief agencies joined church and community organizations to meet the needs of the jobless. By the end of 1933 their efforts had failed: one in six Baltimore families was on public relief. Blacks suffered the most, but ethnic Baltimoreans were also hard-hit. Nine percent of the city's population, foreign-born whites received 19 percent of the relief, and the insensitivity of city fathers was instructive. Baltimore's conservative, business-oriented Democrats had long cultivated the ethnic vote with little difficulty. But the depression, the New Deal, and World War II hastened the decline of that system.

The Machine, Labor, and the New Deal

Maryland, like its border counterparts, has been called a "three party state" in which a weak Republican Party vied with two wings of a sharply divided Democratic Party. Up to the 1930s these two wings included Protestant "Bourbon" Democrats in the eastern and southern parts of the state and business-led machine politicians in Baltimore. Customarily, according to one historian, the latter bought the votes of ethnic and working-class citizens "with a drink or a dollar bill." The Democratic machine controlled both city and state politics from the 1870s to the 1910s, dispensing patronage and making policy in conjunction with civic and business leaders. An interparty quarrel in 1919 let a Republican into the mayor's seat, but a two-party system never took hold because in segregationist Maryland the Republican Party was widely considered the party of blacks.

As the citywide Democratic machine deteriorated, district bosses became increasingly powerful. William Curran, who grew up in Southeast Baltimore, ran what has been described as an "all-weather constantly functioning organization" in the 1920s. But when he abandoned Southeast Baltimore for upper-class Roland Park, it signaled trouble for the Democrats. Curran was a Catholic, but he was also a well-known and well-compensated criminal lawyer at home with the old immigrant and native-stock businessmen who dominated Baltimore's Democratic Party. He deeply disliked organized labor. In the 1930s Curran shared power with district boss Howard Jackson, who fit the pro-business, southern segregationist mold even more closely.

As the depression set in, the outlines of the national New Deal coalition began to be discernible in Baltimore, but because the business-allied Democrats had a lock on city politics, the pattern first appeared in Republican votes. In 1934 gubernatorial candidate Harry Nice, despite his Republican affiliation, exploited the popularity of the New Deal by promising a "New and Square Deal for All" and campaigned against the machine rather than the Democratic Party as a whole. Nice cut substantially into the incumbent's Baltimore margins and took office to the strains of "Happy Days Are Here Again." The Republican got crucial support from ethnic defectors in the city's eastern working-class wards.

In the presidential races, Baltimore's move to New Deal Democracy was clear. In 1928 the most heavily Catholic wards backed Al Smith, but Protestant working whites supported Herbert Hoover and gave him a slight edge. In 1932, however, Franklin Roosevelt carried Baltimore's white working-class wards by comfortable margins. Four years later the city gave Roosevelt a more decisive victory: turnout was heavy and his margins exceeded even those in other industrial cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. Most important, in 1936 FDR got the black vote in one city ward and did very well in others that had always voted Republican. Overall, from 1930 to 1936 the nature of Baltimore's electorate changed. Working-class ethnics and black voters who had often stayed home were now turning out for "New Deal" candidates, be they Democrat or Republican.

In 1938 Thomas D'Alesandro, a former Curranite with his base in ethnic East Baltimore's Little Italy, broke with the old guard to run for a congressional seat. Distancing himself from the district bosses and their business allies, D'Alesandro waged a pro-labor, pro-New Deal campaign and won. By the 1940 presidential election the shape of the city's New Deal coalition was clear. FDR got 65 percent of the black vote, 96 percent of the ethnic vote, and 97 percent of the vote from people living in substandard housing. A year earlier, conservative Democrat Howard Jackson had retained the mayor's seat by a slim margin. But World War II provided the opportunity, and organized labor the effort, that broke the conservative hold on Baltimore Democratic politics.

In 1939, despite three years of CIO activism, the Baltimore Association of Commerce continued to boast that the city's "labor was notably conservative in its relations with industrial management." In a sense, Baltimore combined the best of two worlds: the heavy industry of the North and the low wages of the South. Since the late nineteenth century the city had been home to dozens of AFL craft union locals, but the Red Scare and the open-shop drive of the early twenties sent them all into sharp decline.

During the 1930s organized labor's dominant institution was the conservative, AFL-affiliated Baltimore Federation of Labor (BFL). There were some outposts of labor militancy, particularly in the garment and maritime trades, but the BFL generally took an accommodating approach toward labor-management relations. Few of the "new immigrants" and even fewer blacks found acceptance in the ranks of its affiliated unions. Organizers who began working in the steel, shipbuilding, automobile, and electrical industries after the founding of the CIO in 1936 met with stiff employer resistance. Some Baltimore employers, such as Bethlehem Steel and Western Electric, were anti-union stalwarts nationwide. But even General Motors, which recognized its Michigan workers after the Flint Strike, held out against the Baltimore Autoworkers until 1940.


Excerpted from Behind the Backlash by Kenneth D. Durr Copyright © 2003 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 A Contentious Coalition 6
2 Reds and Blue Bloods 32
3 You Make Your Own Heaven 53
4 The Right to Live in the Manner We Choose 83
5 Spiro Agnew Country 112
6 The Not-So-Silent Majority 150
7 Making the Reagan Democrat 177
Conclusion 204
Notes 207
Bibliography 253
Index 273
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