Greenwald on Letwin, _The Challenge of Interracial Unionism_
- fyi--aj wright [alabamahistory moderator]
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
Reviewed for H-SHGAPE by Richard Greenwald
<greenwra@...>, State University of New York, College at
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. 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
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
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
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
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.
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
. 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).
. 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,
. 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.
. 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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