The Color of Work: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Southern Paper Industry, 1945-1980by Timothy J. Minchin
Histories of the civil rights movement have generally overlooked the battle to integrate the South's major industries. The paper industry, which has played an important role in the southern economy since the 1930s, has been particularly neglected. Using previously untapped legal records and oral history interviews, Timothy Minchin provides the first in-depth account… See more details below
Histories of the civil rights movement have generally overlooked the battle to integrate the South's major industries. The paper industry, which has played an important role in the southern economy since the 1930s, has been particularly neglected. Using previously untapped legal records and oral history interviews, Timothy Minchin provides the first in-depth account of the struggle to integrate southern paper mills.
Minchin describes how jobs in the southern paper industry were strictly segregated prior to the 1960s, with black workers confined to low-paying, menial positions. All work literally had a color: every job was racially designated and workers were represented by segregated local unions. Though black workers tried to protest workplace inequities through their unions, their efforts were largely ineffective until passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act opened the way for scores of antidiscrimination lawsuits. Even then, however, resistance from executives and white workers ensured that the fight to integrate the paper industry was a long and difficult one.
This book and Minchin's earlier Hiring the Black Worker together make a powerful duet that plays out the story of southern desegregation with all its uncertainties. (James A. Hodges, College of Wooster)
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The Color of WorkThe Struggle for Civil Rights in the Southern Paper Industry, 1945-1980
By Timothy J. Minchin
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2001 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionShortly after 4 o'clock on the afternoon of May 19, 1977, Henry Armistead Jr. rose to take the stand at Washington County courthouse in Plymouth, North Carolina. A fifty-one-year-old black worker, Armistead had come to testify about the racial discrimination he had experienced in the twenty-five years he had worked at the Weyerhauser Company, the paper mill that dominated Plymouth's economy. Armistead related that jobs at the mill had been strictly segregated, with blacks forbidden from operating positions: "They had a black and white job, that's just the way it was.... Very definitely back in the years when I was a crane helper there was very much discrimination-There was discrimination on the parts that we couldn't go up for operators ... you very definitely couldn't go up for an operator." Armistead remembered that he trained whites for the crane even though he was not allowed to become an operator: "I trained several white operators out there myself. I could train them and teach them to run the cranes, but I very definitely couldn't run them myself." He asserted that his experience was typical of the problems faced by black workers at the mill: "Well, it's not only the way I've been discriminated against, it's against every black that's ever worked out there. Every black that's ever worked on that yard can tell you there is discrimination there. You don't have to look for it to see it. It was all right in front of you. You just didn't get it because they didn't let you have it."
Armistead's testimony epitomized that given by many other black paper workers in lawsuits brought under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He highlighted the extent of discrimination that prevailed across the southern paper industry in the 1940s and 1950s. Jobs were assigned as "white" or "black," with white jobs invariably being well-paid operating positions and black jobs, lower-paid laboring jobs. These jobs were represented by segregated unions, a system that existed across the southern paper industry until the mid-1960s. Thus, it was agreed by both sides in a major case against one of the largest paper companies that "racial segregation of jobs and local unions was characteristic of the pulp and paper industry throughout the South." This system of strict segregation produced a rash of lawsuits when the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination in employment.
Thousands of African Americans worked in paper mills under the strict system of segregation that Armistead outlined. Many of them gave similar testimony in the scores of lawsuits that took place in the South between 1964 and 1980. In recent years, there has been an upsurge of studies of southern workers, and southern labor history has emerged as an important and growing field. Influential studies have appeared on southern workers in industries as diverse as textiles, coal mining, and longshoring. Despite the growing number of studies being published on southern workers, very little attention has been focused on the paper industry.
One of the most notable trends of the recent scholarship is its concentration upon race. In particular, a number of studies have explored the possibilities for interracial unionism in the South. A "new southern labor history" has argued persuasively that interracial unionism was possible where union leadership confronted the race issue and utilized black militancy. Writers who have explored interracial unionism, however, have paid no attention to the paper industry. It is vital to reverse this neglect, especially given the major role that the paper industry has played in the southern economy.
Focusing on the paper industry offers an excellent opportunity to extend our knowledge of southern workers and to contribute to the interracial unionism debate. Prior to the 1960s, the industry was one of the largest employers of black labor in the South. Unlike leading southern industries such as textiles, the paper industry did not exclude blacks but instead restricted them to a defined number of undesirable jobs. The paper industry was also unusual in that it was solidly unionized. In fact, from the time that paper mills first located in the South in the 1920s and 1930s, companies recognized unions and the industry had an almost 100 percent unionization rate. These two factors meant that the issue of interracial unionism was always of vital importance in the paper industry. The fact that African Americans have always been hired in the paper industry, in particular, ensured that unions were pushed to confront the race issue early on.
The response of unions was to organize on a segregated basis. As the paper industry developed in the South on a large-scale basis, it became the norm to organize segregated local unions. Over sixty separate black locals were in existence by the end of the 1950s, operating alongside an even greater number of all-white locals. Segregated unions were commonplace in the region, especially in unions such as the Tobacco Workers' International Union, the International Longshoremen's Association, and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen of America. The "new southern labor history," however, has generally concentrated on progressive unions that often were under a significant communist influence. In contrast, very little is known about the large number of unions that failed to confront the black question fully, hence the experience of workers who belonged to segregated locals remains unexamined.
A study of the paper industry also allows us to explore the crucial question of whether black workers tried to use unions to fight racial discrimination. As Alan Draper has noted in a recent study, the question of whether southern black trade unionists saw their unions as a "legitimate or relevant conduit for their civil rights demands" has yet to be explored by historians. The paper industry, with its tradition of black employment and high rate of unionization, offers an excellent opportunity to answer this question.
Study of the paper industry also takes us into an area of the South that has been overlooked by other historiography. Paper mills were generally located in remote, rural areas away from major towns. They were often the largest industrial employer for a large geographical area and thus possessed considerable economic, cultural, and political influence. Yet perhaps because of their remote location, little has been written about the Deep South areas dominated by the paper industry, such as small towns in Panhandle Florida and eastern North Carolina. It was often in small, isolated communities that white resistance to job integration was strongest. The strength of opposition to integration is explored in this book through a case study of Port St. Joe, Florida, a small paper mill community that witnessed one of the largest and longest-lasting Title VII cases in the paper industry.
Armistead's testimony highlights the fact that rich and often neglected sources exist for scholars to explore black employment in the southern paper industry. In the 1960s and 1970s, virtually every southern paper mill was engaged in a class action racial discrimination lawsuit brought under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title VII of the act outlawed discrimination in employment, making it an unlawful practice "to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." The Civil Rights Act created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to monitor and enforce compliance with the act. The commission was authorized to solve job discrimination complaints through "conference, conciliation, and persuasion." If the EEOC failed to achieve voluntary compliance within sixty days, however, it was required to notify the complainants that they were permitted, within the next thirty days, to bring civil action.
The records of lawsuits brought under Title VII are voluminous and valuable. The depositions and trial testimony of African American plaintiffs, in particular, give voice to blue-collar workers, allowing them to describe in detail the conditions that they faced in their working lives. Claim forms and letters written by black workers also highlight their motives for protesting against the industry's racial practices. Legal records allow us to examine closely the efforts that black workers often made to tackle discrimination through their unions before they turned to federal agencies. These records are also valuable because they contain a great deal of information that might otherwise be shielded from the historian, including material reproduced directly from company records. In particular, court testimony often pushed company officials to explain the reasons for the industry's historic practices of racial segregation.
These legal records are supplemented by a large body of oral history interviews, including many with African Americans who were members of segregated unions. Their memories offer valuable insights into the black experience in the paper industry, calling attention to the way that separate black locals pushed repeatedly to end racially discriminatory job assignments. The paper industry, however, was characterized by determined white resistance to integration, and interviews with retired white workers offer valuable insights into the strength of this resistance. These interviews highlight a hidden history of integration that was characterized by harassment, violence, and boycotts of integrated facilities. Job integration represented only part of the major adjustment that white workers were forced to make as segregation was broken down simultaneously in schools, in public accommodation, and at the ballot box. In the paper mill community of Bogalusa, Louisiana, for example, major civil rights protests occurred in the town at the same time that these rapid changes were taking place, exacerbating white resistance and anger.
The struggle for civil rights in the southern paper industry uncovers a number of other important untold stories. As in the textile industry, federal intervention was key in pushing companies to curtail discrimination. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC) was especially influential because it negotiated an agreement with International Paper Company in 1968 that was copied by paper mills across the South. The Jackson Memorandum, so called because the negotiations were conducted in the Mississippi state capitol, is well known in the paper industry and widely acknowledged as a vital part of the struggle for civil rights in the industry. Despite its importance, this landmark agreement has yet to be explored in detail.
The federal government also had a considerable impact on southern paper workers themselves. Its Civil Rights Act of 1964 was critical in stimulating protest among black paper workers. Recognizing that nondiscrimination was now a federal law, black paper workers were encouraged to protest against segregation and were determined to make the act's mandate a reality. Since historians usually view the act as a culmination of civil rights protest rather than the cause of it, the fact that the act stimulated a new round of black protest is significant.
The Civil Rights Act, however, was far more effective as a weapon of protest than as a weapon of change. It provided the machinery for African American workers to fight discrimination, but because of resistance from companies and white workers, the battle to secure integrated jobs and facilities was long and difficult. Efforts to integrate the industry were hampered by lingering ideas of segregated job assignments and white resistance to blacks gaining access to white jobs. The color of work was the central theme of the struggle for civil rights in the paper industry between World War II through to the 1980s. Thus, in the late 1960s and 1970s, the EEOC and federal courts repeatedly found that historic patterns of job segregation remained intact in many mills. In a typical decision in 1968, for example, the EEOC found that black workers at International Paper Company in Moss Point, Mississippi, were still frozen in "all-Negro and low-paid job classifications in all-Negro lines of progression" that had changed little since the early 1950s.
Many of those who worked in the pulp and paper industry during the era of segregated locals are conscious of the fact that the story of the industry's integration has been left untold. This feeling is shared by white union leaders who now acknowledge that unions failed to confront the race issue. "This is a story that needs to be told," declared United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU) president Boyd Young in 1997. "This is part of our history, whether its uncomfortable or not, it happened, we've got to talk about it."
Excerpted from The Color of Work by Timothy J. Minchin Copyright © 2001 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
The Color of Work never loses its focus on the southern paper mill. . . . Minchin's book invites other historians to follow his footsteps by tracing the desegregation of other southern industries. The Color of Work will set a high standard to meet when they do so.--Industrial and Labor Relations Review
An important contribution to the growing body of literature examining the experiences of black workers in southern industries.--Choice
[The Color of Work: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Southern Paper Industry] deftly combines labor and civil rights history, showing the reader the close connections between the two. Deeply researched and clearly written, Minchin's study gives us a clearer appreciation for the color of work in the modern South.--Gulf South Historical Review
Demonstrates the importance of federal intervention for ending segregation in southern industry.--Journal of American History
A welter of information and testimonies of how segregation was enforced in the paper mills, and how black workers and their local leaders took on such barriers and eventually triumphed. The book is sure to join other standard texts on how African-American workers challenged their second-class status in the workplace.--American Historical Review
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