Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South / Edition 1

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Drawing on scores of interviews with black and white tobacco workers in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Robert Korstad brings to life the forgotten heroes of Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America-CIO. These workers confronted a system of racial capitalism that consigned African Americans to the basest jobs in the industry, perpetuated low wages for all southerners, and shored up white supremacy.

Galvanized by the emergence of the CIO, African Americans took the lead in a campaign that saw a strong labor movement and the reenfranchisement of the southern poor as keys to reforming the South—and a reformed South as central to the survival and expansion of the New Deal. In the window of opportunity opened by World War II, they blurred the boundaries between home and work as they linked civil rights and labor rights in a bid for justice at work and in the public sphere.

But civil rights unionism foundered in the maelstrom of the Cold War. Its defeat undermined later efforts by civil rights activists to raise issues of economic equality to the moral high ground occupied by the fight against legalized segregation and, Korstad contends, constrains the prospects for justice and democracy today.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"To take the measure of Robert Korstad's arguments in Civil Rights Unionism is to cast the civil rights movement in this bright new light."—Industrial and Labor Relations Review

"Well-researched and well-written . . . A major contribution to the current scholarship on labor history."—American Communist History

"Korstad's book sheds light on the decline of New Deal liberalism, the origins of the Civil Rights Movement, the development of interracial labor unions, and the coalescence of the Cold War consensus. . . . Leaves us with a richer understanding of how southern liberals fought back in the face of oppression and poverty. "—Southern Historian

"An exceptionally rich work of scholarship."—Journal of American History

"Piece[s] together a story that is at once compelling and powerful."—North Carolina Historical Review

"A vitally important contribution to the fields of labor and African American history."—New Labor Forum

"The breadth of Korstad's work is impressive and so is his ability to incorporate the broader historical context into the narrative of the Local [22]. . . . One of the many significant aspects of Korstad's book is that he gives voice to the neglected hist

"At the center of Korstad's expansive but tightly knit narrative is the argument that unions represented the best hope for carrying the New Deal's vision of economic democracy and social justice into the postwar period. The liberal, reformist atmosphere of the New Deal years provided the climate not only for the working-class activism but also for African American civil rights. . . . Provides readers [with] a solid sense of the political and economic exigencies that made African American unionization possible in the Solid South. . . . Korstad is to be applauded for illuminating the struggle of working-class African Americans to build a union movement that expressed their ambitions for so much more than a wage increase."—Reviews in American History

"[This] well-researched analysis paints a rich portrait of the struggles of black working-class Americans for respect on and off the job."—Winston-Salem Journal

"This book is exemplary. . . . Korstad's research and writing exhibits all the standards of rigorous scholarship."—Political Affairs

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807854549
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 5/26/2003
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 576
  • Sales rank: 811,919
  • Product dimensions: 9.20 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Rodgers Korstad is associate professor of public policy studies and history at Duke University. He is a coauthor of Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World and a coeditor of Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Talk about Life in the Segregated South.

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Read an Excerpt

Civil Rights Unionism

Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South
By Robert Rodgers Korstad

The University of North Carolina Press

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

ISBN: 978-0-8078-2781-9


Civil Rights Unionism tells the story of a working-class-led, union-based civil rights movement that tried to change the arc of American history in the years surrounding World War II. Its protagonists consist of roughly 10,000 tobacco manufacturing workers, mostly African Americans but including several hundred whites, who through Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers-Congress of Industrial Organizations (FTA-CIO) initiated and sustained a broad-based challenge to economic exploitation, political disfranchisement, and racial discrimination in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, throughout the decade of the 1940s. Arrayed against them were the managers of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and an industrial oligarchy that wielded enormous power in the city, the region, and the nation. This social drama mobilized a supporting cast that was national and even international in scope: it included officers and staff from FTA; a group of mostly white workers who opposed unionization; sectors of the black middle class; officials from various branches of the federal government; and Communist Party activists, many of whom were native North Carolinians. Political, labor, civil rights, and religious leaders from across the political spectrum made cameo appearances. Among them were Henry Wallace, Mary McLeod Bethune, Philip Murray, Richard Nixon, Paul Robeson, Norman Vincent Peale, Lucy Randolph Mason, and Woody Guthrie, all of whom were critical players in the larger struggle of which Local 22 was a part. At its heart, however, this was a local movement mounted by local people with leaders whose names, until now, have been largely lost to history: Robert Black, Viola Brown, Willie Grier, Etta Hobson, Velma Hopkins, Ruby Jones, Robert Lathan, Clark Sheppard, Theodosia Simpson, Moranda Smith, and others.

One of the South's first truly modern businesses, the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company revolutionized the tobacco industry in the years after World War I, when its Camel cigarette campaign made smoking a wildly popular American pastime. Through brand-name advertising, integrated manufacturing and distribution systems, and the cultivation of global markets, Reynolds helped to generate a landscape of modernity, even as it based its profits on the super-exploitation of black labor and concentrated its operations in a tightly controlled southern town. By 1940 the company operated the largest tobacco manufacturing facility in the world, and its approximately 12,000 employees (plus the several thousand seasonal workers in the city's independent leaf houses) represented one of the largest concentrations of industrial workers in the region. Two-thirds of the workers were African American, and over one-half of them were women.

FTA drew on the solidarities created by this dense concentration of African American workers. It also built on a long process of social learning that began with the mass migration of rural southerners to the city in the early 1920s. Taking advantage of the window of opportunity that opened during World War II, the union won collective bargaining rights at Reynolds and three smaller independent leaf houses in 1943. Men and women who had been disfranchised and discounted as backward, uneducated tobacco "mules" found themselves negotiating head to head with the state's most powerful men as they hammered out contracts that brought major improvements in wages, benefits, and working conditions. Equally important, they replaced an arbitrary, personalistic, and often abusive system of labor-management relations-which harked back to the nineteenth century and stood in sharp contrast to the company's modern, sophisticated public face-with one based on a workplace bill of rights and implemented by militant shop floor stewards. Women such as Moranda Smith, a sharecropper's daughter who became the first black woman to serve on the executive board of an international union, took the lead in this process of movement and institution building, and their actions proved especially subversive of existing social relations.

Local 22 rekindled the political activism among African Americans that had been smoldering since the turn-of-the-century white supremacy campaign. From the outset, the union blurred the boundaries between home and work, sacred and secular, play and politics, consumption and production. In a society in which the exploitation of black laborers went hand in hand with their exclusion from politics and most social services, black unionists could hardly avoid linking workplace issues to community concerns. Local 22's brand of race-inflected "civic unionism" thus expressed the experience and perspective of its African American workers, who combined class consciousness with race solidarity and looked to cross-class institutions such as the black church as a key base of support, as well as the outlook of progressive-minded unionists generally, who saw trade unions not just as a means of advancing the interests of their members but as the generative force in a larger struggle for economic democracy.

Women's leadership forwarded this dual emphasis as well. Winston-Salem was not only a city of blue-collar workers, it was a city of women workers. Men led the World War I-era exodus to the North, but women fled to southern cities in numbers that equaled or exceeded those of men. At a time when the vast majority of urban black women workers in this country had no choice but to labor in white homes, more than half of Winston-Salem's gainfully employed women found work in the tobacco factories. Working women did double duty as workers and household managers, and their complex consciousness as proletarians, consumers, women, and African Americans helped to reinforce the connections between the community and the shop floor.

Local 22 registered thousands of black voters, revitalized the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and spearheaded the election of a black minister to the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen, the first African American to defeat a white opponent in the South since the turn of the century. During the CIO's postwar southern organizing drive, dubbed "Operation Dixie," Local 22 carried the union message to the poorest, most repressive area of the state, stimulating the organization of an additional 10,000 workers in the leaf houses of eastern North Carolina. Activists also demanded a greater voice for citizens in the day-to-day operations of city government and the enactment of civil rights legislation. Their consumerist, social welfare agenda included calls for low-income housing, price controls, unemployment compensation, and equalization of educational opportunities. In 1948 FTA and Local 22 threw their energies into the Progressive Party and the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace, a last-ditch attempt to extend the social democratic impulses of the New Deal into the postwar world.

These actions placed Winston-Salem unionists on the front lines of efforts to advance the boundaries of democratic culture in the workplace, in civil society, and in personal relationships. Local 22 was the prize local in what was arguably the most diverse left-led union in the country. If FTA could, in one unionist's words, "bring that big giant," R. J. Reynolds, "down to earth," there was hope for a new kind of labor movement, one built around women, blacks, Hispanics, and other vulnerable workers and committed to civil rights and a broad social welfare agenda.

By the 1940s, moreover, the South had emerged as the critical battleground in the efforts of liberals and leftists to maintain the momentum of the New Deal. The region was home to the country's largest bloc of unorganized workers, and the long-term success of the CIO depended on its ability to bring southern workers into the house of labor. Likewise, two out of three African Americans lived below the Mason-Dixon line, and the vast majority of these were working class. To succeed, the emerging struggle for civil rights had to mobilize the millions of black workers who labored in the region's factories, farms, households, mines, and lumber camps. To survive and expand, New Dealers had to break the stranglehold of conservative southern Democrats, who owed their seniority and thus their domination of congressional committees to the South's constricted electorate and one-party rule.

Local 22 thus stood at the nexus of at least half a dozen interrelated democratic projects that emerged in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. First and foremost, its members were in the vanguard of efforts to transform midcentury race relations. World War II was a major watershed in the development of the modern civil rights movement. The number of black voters doubled in the North between 1940 and 1948, and in the eleven states of the former Confederacy black registration more than quadrupled. Likewise, membership in the NAACP soared. The half-million black workers who joined unions affiliated with the CIO put themselves in the front ranks of this movement, as civil rights advocates increasingly looked to mass unionization as the best hope for overcoming the tangle of oppressions that excluded blacks from full participation in American life. The wartime rhetoric of democracy, the imprimatur of the federal government, and the booming economy generated a rights consciousness that gave working-class black militancy a moral justification similar to that evoked by Afro-Christianity a generation later. In the automobile factories of Detroit, the cotton presses of Memphis, the steel mills of Pittsburgh and Birmingham, the stockyards of Chicago and Louisville, the shipyards of Baltimore and Oakland, and the tobacco factories of Richmond, Charleston, and Winston-Salem, the mobilization of black workers made civil rights an issue that could not be ignored by union officers, white executives, or government officials.

Civil rights unionism, in turn, represented the finest flowering of the industrial union project initiated in the 1930s by the CIO, which sought to extend trade unionism beyond the skilled trades and bring industrial democracy to the mass-production industries. It was also central to what may be called the "Southern Front," a loose coalition of labor unionists, civil rights activists, and southern New Dealers that saw a strong labor movement and the reenfranchisement of the southern poor as the keys to reforming the South and a reformed South as central to the survival and expansion of the New Deal. The linkage between race and class that animated this phase of the black freedom struggle also drew black activists into the Communist orbit. The Communist Party, in turn, helped to tie the movement to liberation struggles around the world. Local 22 drew strategically on ideas and resources from all of these streams. At the same time, events in Winston-Salem shaped the trajectories of these larger movements, and all are illuminated by a fine-grained study at the local level.

* * *

The key events in this history of working-class insurgency took place between 1942 and 1950, and their telling forms the heart of this book. But the institutions and processes that influenced that mobilization have a much longer history. Structured as a narrative of a local workers' movement, Civil Rights Unionism moves back and forth between the action on the ground and the larger forces at play. It begins by cutting directly to the 1943 strike that sparked the formation of Local 22. It then moves back in time to examine the late-nineteenth-century coup d'état in which North Carolina industrialists and planters snatched power from a coalition of workers, African Americans, Populist farmers, and Republicans. These Bourbon Democrats, so called by their Populist opponents because of their elitist base and goals, established a system of racial capitalism that they called "white supremacy," a term that helped to obscure the class presumptions of their undemocratic project. Racial subordination lay at the heart of white supremacy, but it encompassed class and gender inequalities as well. In fact, it was the interpenetration of gender, race, and class hierarchies that was the defining feature of this social formation.

More than four decades elapsed between the turn-of-the-century "reactionary revolution" and the rise of the workers' movement in Winston-Salem. The consolidation of racial capitalism created a separate low-wage labor market in the South that depended on the exploitation of black labor, served as a magnet for runaway northern industries, undercut the labor movement, and pulled national wage standards down. This economic structure so circumscribed consumer buying power that by 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the South "the Nation's No. 1 economic problem." The region's political system also underwrote the power of conservative Democrats who allied with Republicans in Congress to block or dilute social welfare measures and progressive labor laws. Racial capitalism thus became at the same time the context, the subject, and the object of Winston-Salem workers' democratic endeavors.

The roots of Local 22's struggle lie deep in the past in another way as well. Lawrence Goodwyn has warned historians not to truncate their search for the origins of social movements, reminding us that a long process of social learning and movement building precedes what seem to be spontaneous uprisings. The involvement of working men and women in the rich associational life of Winston-Salem's black community gave them self-confidence and organizational and leadership skills. In the 1920s and 1930s, a cohort of aspiring workers, confined by discrimination and economic structures to the tobacco plants, used the local efforts of the American Federation of Labor's Tobacco Workers International Union, the Communist Party, and the FTA to transform themselves into the organic intellectuals, astute leaders, and institution builders of the 1940s. Accordingly, this study looks carefully at the quarter century preceding the explosion of the workers' movement, first outlining the spatial and material processes of urbanization and proletarianization, then tracing the social learning that took place during earlier efforts at unionization and political participation, and finally documenting the building of Local 22 and its ultimate defeat in the midst of the postwar red scare.

At times I doubted that I could capture the movement in full bloom, much less find its deeper roots. Most local union documents ended up in trash barrels, and a flood destroyed FTA records. Company lawyers, bent on concealing evidence that could be used against them in antitobacco lawsuits, refused to give me access to their archives. For twenty years, Reynolds officials even held up the publication of a laudatory history of the company by the historian Nannie Mae Tilley. The repression surrounding Local 22's defeat muzzled former union members, and black and white citizens alike tried to forget the intense discrimination that prevailed in the years before the advent of the union.

In part because of the city's tight control by corporate interests, Winston-Salem experienced neither the full brunt of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s nor the magnifying glass of civil rights historiography. Accordingly, much of the experience of the city's black community still remained, as C. Vann Woodward has put it, "in the twilight zone between living memory and written history." In order to overcome those silences, probe the dynamics of life under Jim Crow, and trace the legacy of the "great fear," I looked to the only first-person sources available to me: more than one hundred oral history interviews, most of which I conducted myself. I also drew on newspaper accounts, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) records, government documents, and the like, reading those contemporary sources against retrospective interviews with an eye to the competing narratives they contain as well as to what they can tell us about the texture of everyday life and the substance of workers' politics and practices.


Excerpted from Civil Rights Unionism by Robert Rodgers Korstad 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 Those Who Were Not Afraid 13
2 Industrial and Political Revolutions 41
3 Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Country Small Town Grown Big Town Rich - and Poor 61
4 R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company: A Moneymaking Place 93
5 Social Learning 120
6 Talking Union 142
7 A Dream Come True 167
8 Like Being Reconstructed 201
9 In Dreams Begin Responsibilities 225
10 There Was Nothing in the City That Didn't Concern the Tobacco Union 251
11 It Wasn't Just Wages We Wanted, but Freedom 276
12 Fighting the Fire 301
13 Jim Crow Must Go 334
14 If You Beat the White Man at One Trick, He Will Try Another 368
15 Trust the Bridge That Carried Us Over 393
Epilogue 413
Notes 421
Bibliography 475
Acknowledgements 523
Index 531
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