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Greenwald on Letwin, _The Challenge of Interracial Unionism_

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    fyi--aj wright [alabamahistory moderator] ... H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-SHGAPE@msu.edu (December, 1998) Daniel Letwin. _The Challenge of Interracial
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 3, 1998
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      fyi--aj wright [alabamahistory moderator]

      ----------------------------Original message----------------------------
      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-SHGAPE@... (December, 1998)

      Daniel Letwin. _The Challenge of Interracial Unionism: Alabama
      Coal Miners, 1878-1921_. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
      Press, 1998. xii + 289 pp. Tables, notes, bibliography, and index.
      $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8078-2377-5; $19.95 (paper), ISBN
      0-8078-4678-3.

      Reviewed for H-SHGAPE by Richard Greenwald
      <greenwra@...>, State University of New York, College at
      Morrisville

      Race and Class in the Alabama Coal Fields

      Daniel Letwin's new book, _The Challenge of Interracial Unionism_,
      joins a growing list of recent works which address in new and
      sophisticated ways the issues of race and class consciousness in
      American labor history.[1] Letwin tackles a venerable subject in
      American labor history: mining. The debates surrounding race and
      the United Mine Workers were stimulated by Herbert Gutman's noted
      1968 essay. Gutman argued that the United Mine Workers Union was a
      beacon of hope in the rough sea of racism that was America in the
      Gilded Age. The union developed an interracial philosophy that
      privileged class consciousness over race consciousness. The core of
      his argument concerned the career of one black UMW official, Richard
      Davis.[2]

      Twenty years after Gutman's essay first appeared, and three years
      after his death, Herbert Hill wrote a scathing rejoinder. Claiming
      that Gutman had romanticized the UMW, Hill argued that it was
      fundamentally racist, accepting black members but doing little for
      them.[3]

      Letwin's book is a full and careful study of this significant and
      contested subject. Rather than simply re-evaluating the source
      which both Gutman and Hill relied upon, Letwin examined the lives,
      communities, and culture of black and white miners in the Southern
      fields. As a result, Letwin rejects the views of both Gutman and
      Hill, and instead offers a third way to view the complex
      relationship between race and class in Gilded Age and Progressive
      Era America.

      The central question for Letwin is "what was the degree of
      cooperation and mutual respect between black and white miners" (p.
      3)? He sees three interrelated themes in the experiences of Alabama
      miners: an awareness that racial division worked against miners of
      both races in dealing with mine operators; black and white miners
      shared a common work culture and class identity; and lastly, the
      unions and community organizations held onto certain key aspects of
      white supremacy as a means to inoculate themselves against the
      attacks of white supremists.

      The book can be neatly divided into three parts\eras, each with its
      own unique focus: Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and World War I.
      Politics played an important part for miners in the Gilded Age. Here
      we are treated to a discussion of the history of greenbackism,
      populism, the Knights of Labor, and the National Labor Union in the
      coal camps of Alabama. In this section of the book, Letwin connects
      politics and work culture much like Leon Fink did in his work on the
      Knights. All of these political\labor groups shared one key factor:
      they "kept alive an ethos of labor mutuality that tested the dual
      traditions of employer paternalism and white supremacy" (p. 67).
      Like many other unions, the Knights died because it failed to stay
      connected to the needs of rank-and-file workers. It became too much
      of a political party and functioned less and less as a union.

      With the hardening of the Jim Crow system of segregation after 1900,
      politics would provide less and less of a solution. Prudently, the
      newly-formed UMW focused almost entirely on work-related solutions.
      In an effort to hold together their fragile union, mine union
      officials resisted efforts to use race against them by denying that
      they sought social equality for blacks. Letwin argues that the UMW
      used white supremacy as a way to deflect criticism of the unions
      interracialism. Thus, both Hill and Gutman were correct: the union
      was both racist and supported interracialism. The UMW-led strikes
      in 1903 and again in 1908 demonstrate two things. One was the
      strength of the operators to break the union. Even more significant,
      miners held onto their interracial strategies even at the expense of
      losing the strike. Miners were somehow different. Unlike other
      white workers, white miners did not abandon their black brothers for
      higher wages. Miners did not accept a two-tier, racially divided
      work force.

      World War I brought yet another change. Two significant groups
      outside of the workplace entered into the miners' world:
      middle-class black "up-lifters" and the federal government. On the
      role of government intervention, Letwin's work reinforces the work
      of Joseph McCartin, focusing on how government intervention both
      limited and empowered workers during the war. On the role of the
      black middle-class, Letwin might have over reached. He presents a
      static, unified black middle class which followed the teaching of
      Booker T. Washington and therefore opposed unions and supported the
      paternalism of the companies. Recent work on the role of black
      middle-class reformers in the Progressive Era tells a much more
      complicated story. It is possible that all of Birmingham's black
      middle class spoke with one unified voice, but it is unlikely.[4]

      The core argument is simply that interracialism survived. It
      certainly did not triumph, but neither did it fully die. And that
      is remarkable, considering the array of powerful forces against it
      in the era of Jim Crow. Miners' interracialism was "uneven" (p.
      94). Its unevenness, a subject that Letwin exhausts with a mountain
      of evidence, lays to rest the Gutman-Hill debate. The UMW held
      neither the racial high or low ground, but positioned itself between
      the two polls, never reaching either extreme. Letwin develops the
      fitting metaphor of "an ongoing project" (p. 130) to understand the
      "collaboration between the races" (p. 134). The miners'
      interracialism was always in the state of becoming.

      But considering the forces against interracialism, one must ask how
      it survived as long as it did. The answer, according to Letwin, is
      that a "common class experience among black and white miners
      provided the impetus to interracialism" (p. 192). Letwin argues
      that workers could share a similar class experience while at the
      same time holding divergent racial outlooks.

      Each section of this book presents remarkable detail. In this
      regard, Letwin has certainly followed Gutmans style in telling
      little stories, the small details that make social history come
      alive. The result is a well-told, complex history that deserves a
      wide reading.

      Notes

      [1]. The list is quite large and growing. See Roger Horowitz,
      _"Negro and White, Unite and Fight": A Social History of Industrial
      Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930-1990_ (Urbana: University of Illinois
      Press, 1997); and Judith Stein, _Running Steel, Running American:
      Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism_ (Chapel Hill:
      University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

      [2]. Herbert G. Gutman, "The Negro and the United Mine Workers of
      America, the Career and Letters of Richard L. Davis and Something of
      Their Meaning: 1890-1900," in _The Negro and the American Labor
      Movement_, edited by Julius Jacobson (New York: Anchor Books,
      1968), 49-127.

      [3]. Herbert Hill, "Myth-Making as Labor History: Herbert Gutman
      and the United Mine Workers of America," _Politics, Culture and
      Society_ 2:2 (Winter 1988), 132-200.

      [4]. On labor and World War I see Joseph McCartin, _Labor's Great
      War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of
      Modern American Labor Relations, 1912-1921_ (Chapel Hill: University
      of north Carolina Press, 1997). On the role of black middle-class
      professionals during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth
      centuries, see the work of Stephanie J. Shaw, _What a Woman Ought to
      Be and to Do: Black Professional Women Workers During the Jim Crow
      Era_ (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996) and Elizabeth
      Lasch-Quinn, Black Neighbors: Race and the Limits of Reform in the
      American Settlement House Movement, 1890-1945_ (Chapel Hill:
      University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

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