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Simon on Minchin, _Hiring the Black Worker_

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  • Gene B. Preuss
    fyi..aj wright ... H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-South@mail.h-net.msu (July, 1999) Timothy J. Minchin. _Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 4, 1999
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      fyi..aj wright

      ----------------------------Original message----------------------------
      Published by H-South@mail.h-net.msu (July, 1999)

      Timothy J. Minchin. _Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration
      of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960-1980_. Chapel Hill: University
      of North Carolina Press, 1999. xii + 342. Tables, illustrations,
      bibliography, and index. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 08-078477-12, $49.94
      (cloth), ISBN 08-078247-04.

      Reviewed for H-South by Bryant Simon <bsimon@...>, Department
      of History, University of Georgia

      Who Integrated the Textile Mills?

      "Textile mills built the New South." This line opens the award-winning
      study of southern laborers, _Like a Family_. The mills, these authors
      understood, did more than create a new physical world; they also built
      a new social world. New South women and men tied their fortunes and
      dreams to the whirring and churning of the spindles and looms.
      Hundreds of towns and cities across the region after 1890 organized
      themselves around three-story redbrick mills. As they did, factories
      became the economic centers of the lives of mill owners and millhands,
      lawyers and physicians, salesmen and bookkeepers.

      At the same time, the textile mills helped to shape, and maybe even
      fashion, the racial ordering of the New South. As a more industrial
      South emerged after Reconstruction, Jim Crow took over. Not only was
      access to the ballot restricted along racial lines, but so too was
      employment. For the most part, mill owners hired only whites to work
      inside the mills. On the rare occasion that textile managers did try
      to hire black laborers to run the machines, whites resisted, often by
      striking in protest. Some African-American men did receive paychecks
      from the mills, but typically, they worked outside in the yards
      cleaning up and lifting heavy bales of cotton; if they got a position
      inside the plant it was almost always as a janitor or sweeper. Black
      women rarely worked for the mills, although a few got jobs in the
      villages cooking and cleaning for white textile laborers and other
      company officials. The dividends of the region's post-Civil War
      industrial expansion, therefore, went to whites because they were white
      and because whites told each other African Americans were unable to run
      the machines. Whiteness determined opportunity in the New South made
      by the textile mills--that was a given for nearly seventy years.

      Timothy Minchin's extremely valuable new book, _Hiring the Black
      Worker_, chronicles perhaps the most decisive shift in the southern
      cotton mill world since the turn of the century. Between 1960 and
      1980, he explains, mill owners finally started to hire significant
      numbers of African Americans. By any measure, the jump in black
      employment was quite extraordinary. Whereas in 1960 African-Americans
      made up a mere 3.3 percent of the southern textile labor force, two
      decades later they totaled a quarter of all millhands. Most students
      of the New South are well aware of this dramatic shift. But no one,
      that is until Minchin, has systematically examined this striking change
      in this most crucial of southern industries. This alone makes
      Minchin's book an significant contribution to southern studies.

      The only other detailed examination of the "hiring of the black
      worker"--Richard Rowan's work--attributed the critical change in
      employment patterns to a postwar regional labor shortage. Rowan and
      others have argued that mill managers turned to African American
      laborers as the southern economy, fueled by defense spending, highway
      construction, changes in labor law, and air conditioning, expanded
      after World War II. Expansion meant jobs, lots of them, and generally
      whites, who had benefited for decades from racial privileges, better
      schools and better social services, got the best of these new
      positions. With whites moving into the higher-paying sectors of the
      growing economy, economically rational--that is, profit-driven--mill
      owners, the story goes, abandoned the economics of white supremacy and
      started in the 1960s to hire African-American women and men to weave
      and spin. Again, the labor shortage was the determining factor.

      Minchin, however, points to a different, less neo-classical economic
      engine of change. Using a remarkable number of interviews, most he
      himself contacted, and a slew of until now largely unexamined legal
      cases, Minchin boldly, and repeatedly, asserts that previous scholars
      have overemphasized the labor shortage as spur to black employment. He
      argues instead that the federal government, African-American laborers,
      and civil rights activists were the prime movers behind the sharp shift
      in textile employment. "The Government Brought the Real Change," he
      titles one of book's early chapters (p. 43). Encouraged by the heroism
      of Birmingham and Selma protesters and even more importantly by the
      passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, African-Americans
      wrote countless, detailed letters to the Equal Employment Opportunity
      Commission (EEOC) documenting discrimination in the mills. These
      anguished notes led to lawsuit after lawsuit against all the nation's
      major textile firms: Cone Mills, Burlington Industries, and Cannon
      Mills, among others. The legal action worked. Whether they were
      forced to do so by the courts or acted to avoid a lawsuit, mill
      managers from Alabama to Virginia started to hire African-American
      workers. According to Minchin, then, it was the potent combination of
      government action and African-American agency, with the labor shortage
      operating somewhere in the background, that opened up the mills. With
      its "the government brought the change" thesis, Minchin's book stands
      out in these startlingly apolitical days. As more and more people give
      up on the system, shaking their heads in resignation, he shows how
      governmental action can foster history-making social gains--in this
      case integrating job opportunities.

      Yet integration did not come smoothly or easily to the mills. Taking
      issue with Mary Frederickson, among others, who suggested that textile
      executives readily complied with federal civil rights initiatives
      because of their desperate need for labor, Minchin argues that most
      mill men tried to block civil rights gains. Many, he insists, deeply
      resented government intrusion into hiring decisions. Their
      intransigence made it easy for Jim Crow to still rule the mills in the
      1960s. Companies integrated with deliberate speed, saying that
      African-Americans were "happy where they were" or were not "qualified"
      for mill work. Firms bluntly told black laborers and their supporters,
      "We don't hire niggers." When they eventually did take on black
      laborers, many mills stuck them in the dirtiest, hardest, lowest-paying
      positions. Bathrooms, lunchrooms, water fountains and entire sections
      of factories remained strictly segregated. Few if any African-American
      workers had African-American supervisors. Virtually none of these new
      black workers gained promotions. Repeatedly, companies passed over
      well-qualified African-Americans in favor of inexperienced whites.
      Unfortunately, unions, in Minchin's words, amounted to little more than
      a "mixed blessing." Few southern millhands, for starters, belonged to
      unions, and the unions that did exist in the region did not
      automatically favor integration. Some, as Minchin points out, defended
      white supremacy, using their power to keep blacks out of the factories.

      Racial ideology did not just keep African-Americans out of the mills;
      it also played a central role in the choice of the first black workers.
      In the book's most riveting passages, Minchin tells the remarkable
      stories of those he calls the "textile pioneers." Local white leaders,
      often in cooperation with mill managers, carefully chose the initial
      African-American production workers. Typically they picked
      well-known, respected, seemingly conservative members of the black
      community to break the color barrier in the mills. Sometimes these men
      had worked in the mills for years in "colored jobs." During their
      tenures, many had learned to run the machines, regularly filling in for
      white millhands on break or absent. Most African-American women worked
      for a long, hard time in the homes of white supervisors or managers as
      "trusty" maids before getting a job in the mills (Black women, Minchin
      explains in a intriguing chapter devoted to their experiences, had a
      harder time finding work in the mills than did black men). Many of the
      first African-American production workers were noticeably
      light-skinned. A social worker in the region remembered that mill
      companies inundated her office with requests for "'light-skinned'
      Negroes" (p. 124). The pioneers themselves felt that they had to live
      up to the part of the "Super Negro." One mistake, they feared, and
      they would discredit the race and push the clock back to when
      African-Americans were barred from the mills.

      Integration, if this is the right word for what Minchin has described
      here, certainly represented progress. For many African-Americans, it
      meant a steady and bigger paycheck. For women, in particular, higher
      pay meant freedom from the drudgery and humiliations of domestic
      service. And, as Minchin suggests, mill jobs seem to have halted the
      flow of African-Americans north in search of opportunity and a better
      life. But the hiring of black workers, as he makes clear, did not
      transform the southern textile belt into the long-hoped for promised
      land. Without explicitly saying so, Minchin has written a book about
      the New South, that is the second or third--depending on those
      counting--of the New Souths. In the old South, there was slavery. In
      the first New South, there was Jim Crow. In the post-Civil Rights New
      South, the signs over the water fountains came down and
      African-Americans returned to the polling station in the droves, but
      race still mattered. Sure, there were more opportunities for
      African-Americans in the 1960s than in the 1920s, but there remained
      even more opportunities for whites. Integration--integration of
      schools, hospitals, playgrounds, and factories--did not bring an end
      to racism or to segregation. If anything, federally aided
      suburbanization created a more "modern," and maybe even more
      intractable,form of segregation in the latest version of the New South
      taking shape in the 1960s. This is the painful story that lurks
      between the lines of Minchin's more uplifting account of government

      Quite rightly, Minchin has grounded his narrative in civil rights
      historiography. His words probably say it best. "Although a vast
      amount of historical literature on the civil rights movement has been
      written in the last twenty years," Minchin declares in the book's
      opening line, "very little attention has been focused on economic
      aspects of the civil rights upsurge, especially the impact that the
      movement had upon southern workers" (p. 10). Minchin's book certainly
      stands as an important corrective to the History Channel,
      protest-centered version of the Second Reconstruction. He deftly
      moves the struggle for jobs from the margins of the story to the
      center. By shifting the focus, Minchin introduces us to a whole new
      cast of movement characters--the lawyers, ministers, and working men
      and women determined to give concrete meaning the legal gains of the

      This emphasis on civil rights is crucial, but perhaps Minchin should
      not have been so quick to dismiss the economic side of the equation.
      Maybe the "labor shortage," which is not a thing, but the product of
      complex and ever-changing historical forces, warrants more attention.
      It is not that Minchin's governmental and civil rights perspectives
      are off the mark, but maybe the alternative explanation deserves
      further consideration. Perhaps he could tell us more about what kinds
      of jobs former white textile workers took after they left the mills and
      the mill villages. Did they leave for higher paying jobs? When did
      this happen? What would have happened if the southern economy had not
      been growing so rapidly in the 1960s? Would the mills still have been
      able--socially, politically, and economically--to absorb thousands of
      African American workers? Did the size and shape of the labor market
      change over time? Were labor markets the same across the textile
      South? Did African-Americans find it easier to enter the larger mills
      along the booming Sunbelt economic corridors of I-85 and I-75, or in
      the smaller out-of-the way mills? Did the location of the mill and
      local labor markets make a difference? Minchin says little, moreover,
      about the kinds of companies that integrated. Did all firms hire black
      workers at the same time? Was managerial culture a factor? Did a
      company's relationship with national or even international markets
      shape hiring decisions? Were these factors more or less important than
      civil rights networks? And, again, did these factors change over time?

      Talking about the timing of change points to another dimension of
      Minchin's work. While _Hiring the Black Worker_ is bound by dates--it
      begins roughly in 1960 and ends in 1980--it eschews the
      change-over-time narrative model used by so many other labor
      historians. Minchin declares right up front that a significant change
      aided by government action took place, and then he spends the rest of
      the book looking at this change from the perspectives of white
      laborers, textile executives, African-American men and women, civil
      rights activists and trade unionists. Still, he might have said more
      about the shifts within his story. How, for example, did the
      experiences of black workers change over time? How did the
      government's role change? What about white workers and white managers?
      Did the integration of the mills fuel white racism? Can this hiring of
      the black worker be linked to the move of many millhands away from the
      national Democratic Party, first to the cause of George Wallace, and,
      later, to the side of conservative Republicans? Who can forget the
      image, featured in a Jesse Helms 1988 campaign commercial, of the
      bitter and angry white worker--perhaps a white millhand--crumbling a
      piece of paper that told him he lost his job because of an affirmative
      action statute? And didn't Helms win the "mill vote" in that election?
      Is this an awful epilogue to Minchin's story, or is it a different
      story altogether?

      Good history books raise hard questions. That is exactly what
      Minchin's book has done. He raises important questions that should
      engage us all. Thinking about his story makes us confront the biggest,
      most vexing issues in American life--race and democracy, political
      change and economic opportunity. These are things we can never know
      too much about, or think about too much. And finally, we owe it to
      Minchin for reminding us that change--progressive change--is possible,
      even if it did not turn the Newest of the New Souths into everything we
      want it to be.

      Copyright (c) 1999 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work
      may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit
      is given to the author and the list. For other permission,
      please contact H-Net@....
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