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Review of _Black Workers' Struggle...in Birmingham_

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  • Amos J Wright
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      From: H-Net Review Project Distribution List
      [mailto:H-REVIEW@...] On Behalf Of H-Net Reviews
      Sent: Wednesday, October 04, 2006 2:34 PM
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      Subject: Stone on Huntley and Montgomery, eds., _Black Workers'
      Struggle_

      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      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
      0-252-02952-6.

      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, search!
      ing 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 i!
      n 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 newspapers.

      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 negotiati!
      ng 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.

      Note

      [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.
      2.


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