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Review: _Black Workers' Struggle for Equality in Birmingham_

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  • Amos J Wright
    ... From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@H-NET.MSU.EDU] On Behalf Of Ian Binnington Sent: Wednesday, June 14, 2006 3:02 PM To:
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 15, 2006
      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@...] On
      Behalf Of Ian Binnington
      Sent: Wednesday, June 14, 2006 3:02 PM
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Subject: H-South Review: Stone on Huntley and Montgomery, eds., _Black
      Workers' Struggle for Equality in Birmingham_

      Published by H-South@... (June 2006)

      Horace Huntley and David Montgomery, eds. _Black Workers' Struggle for
      Equality in Birmingham_. Afterword by Odessa Woolfolk. The Working Class

      in American History Series. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois
      Press, 2004. xi + 244 pp. Notes, index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN

      Reviewed for H-South by R. Phillip Stone, Archivist, Wofford College

      Union Activists and Civil Rights in Birmingham

      Horace Huntley and David Montgomery have produced a volume that
      documents the efforts of labor activists and ordinary working women and
      men during the civil rights movement in Birmingham. Instead of trying
      to treat these stories as a single narrative, the volume consists of
      seventeen stories, based on oral history interviews and edited,
      annotated, and abridged by members of the Birmingham Civil Rights
      Institute's staff.

      An introductory essay by David Montgomery about union activism in the
      Birmingham area begins the book and places the interviews in a larger
      context. He argues that "unions were theaters of conflict and of
      mobilization against racial discrimination every bit as significant as
      were churches, schools, and public spaces" (p. 1). Labor unions
      pre-dated groups such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's Alabama Christian
      Movement for Human Rights, and permitted African-American workers to
      form networks and groups that they could later use to support the
      movement. As Birmingham grew in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth

      centuries, black workers, drawn by higher wages, flocked to the city.
      While their chances to earn higher wages were greater than they found in

      rural areas, they did not find much else in the way of opportunities for

      blacks. Over time, the steel mills hired a greater percentage of white
      workers. The World War II-era surge of rural Southerners into
      Birmingham, searching for industrial jobs, allowed industries to
      exercise great selectivity in the people they hired. Some of the
      observations tend to affirm expectations. For example, in the steel
      mills and in other industries, black men held the most dangerous jobs,
      and black women found their options limited to domestic service.

      The presence and influence of labor unions made Birmingham different
      from other southern cities. Each individual whose oral history
      narrative appears in this volume came to the civil rights movement from
      their involvement in labor activities at work. Unionism appeared strong

      in Birmingham throughout the middle years of the twentieth century,
      though it would be helpful to know what percentage of the area's
      industries were unionized or how many of the area's workers were in
      unions at different times. Many unions were biracial, but not
      necessarily equal in the treatment of their members. Other unions were
      segregated, and those members tried to keep any black workers away from
      their "white" jobs. African-American workers had to struggle to gain
      company recognition of their unions, though New Deal legislation proved
      helpful in these efforts. Interestingly, some biracial unions aided
      blacks in registering to vote. The strength of labor activists became
      evident in politics in the late 1930s, when they mounted a successful
      challenge to Alabama's "Big Mules," the coalition of black belt
      landowners and industrialists who had dominated state politics. Perhaps

      the evidence of this interracial cooperation gave hope to the southern
      liberals who envisioned forming a great biracial liberal coalition in
      the years after World War II.[1] Labor's successes certainly did cause
      a reaction among the industrial leaders, landowners, and other
      conservatives in Alabama. These elements tried, with some success, to
      link labor with communism.

      Using the interviews, Montgomery concludes that most union activists did

      not take a public role in civil rights protests, although most became
      active to some extent behind the scenes. More importantly, he argues
      that the movement's labor connections opened doors to national
      Democratic Party leaders, union officials, and others that would have
      otherwise remained closed to civil rights leaders. He also argues that
      many of the working men and women took the lessons they learned in the
      civil rights movement back into continuing struggles for equal rights
      within their unions.

      The seventeen interviews vary in length from four to twenty-four pages.

      Thirteen of the interviewees are men, while four are women, and they
      represent varying occupations and experiences. Reuben Davis, a union
      activist turned politician, became a Jefferson County commission
      member. Most of the interviewees are African Americans, though it
      appears that two are white. Jerome "Buddy" Cooper was a white labor
      lawyer with extensive connections in the national labor movement. Eula
      McGill was a textile worker who was involved in organizing over 23,000
      workers in North Alabama as part of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of
      America. She was fired from her job when pictures of her visiting
      Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House were published in Alabama

      Most of the narratives follow a similar format. They begin with
      information about their childhood and family life. Most of the
      interviewees were born in rural areas. Nearly all devote some attention

      to their education, describing the school system in Birmingham or
      wherever they were educated. They talk about the kind of employment
      they took, and some of the men talk about their military service. As
      has been argued in other works, the military experiences of black men in

      a segregated army led many of them to question living in a segregated
      society after the war.

      The greater part of each interview describes the individual's
      involvement with the labor movement. Most describe situations where
      management was indifferent or hostile to them, white union members were
      looking out for themselves, and union rules discriminated against black
      workers. Several describe tactics used by management and white workers
      to have black activists fired. Because they had jobs but feared losing
      their livelihood, many union activists took subordinate, though
      significant, roles in the civil rights campaign. An arrest at a protest

      would likely cost them their job. Many of the men worked in security,
      guarding churches and movement meetings. One interviewee, Elias
      Hendricks, noted that "the civil rights movement would have not been
      able to do a lot of the things that they were able to do had it not been

      for the labor movement, because they [unions] could get in some doors
      that black people just couldn't get in" (p. 66). Hendricks saw his role

      as negotiating rather than marching.

      Summarizing the varied experiences of these interviewees is difficult,
      and except for the introduction, Huntley and Montgomery do not attempt
      it. Several themes emerge, however. The racism of Birmingham's police
      force appears in many of the narratives. Some specific examples of
      mistreatment or violence appear in more than one narrative, suggesting
      that they were common practices of the department. The resistance of
      management and of white workers to the changes brought about by the
      movement is another theme.

      This volume will be of interest to anyone working in the history of the
      civil rights movement and in the history of labor in the South. Though
      scholars undertaking research in Birmingham, civil rights, or labor
      history would certainly want to consult the full transcripts of the
      interviews, these narratives would be a useful resource for students
      engaged in smaller research projects. Faculty members might mine the
      narratives for lecture examples or for classroom discussions. The
      publication of collections of oral histories such as these will
      undoubtedly help move the practice of oral history out of the archives
      and further into the mainstream of historical scholarship.


      [1]. See, for example, Patricia Sullivan, _Days of Home: Race and
      Democracy in the New Deal Era_ (Chapel Hill: University of North
      Carolina Press, 1996); and Numan V. Bartley, _The New South, 1945-1980_
      (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995), especially chap.

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      H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses
      contact the Reviews editorial staff: hbooks@mail.h-net.msu.edu.
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