Now in paper, this volume is the first set of annotated oral interviews from the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement to be undertaken by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Interviewees recount their struggles against discrimination both in and outside of the workplace, showing how collective action, whether through unions, the Movement, or networks of workplace activists, sought to gain access to better jobs, municipal services, housing, and less restrictive voter registration.
This is a powerful work that reconsiders the links of the labor movement to the struggle for civil rights.
About the Author
Horace Huntley is a professor of history at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, the director of the Oral History Project and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. David Montgomery (1927–2011) was a professor emeritus of history at Yale and the author of The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 and other books.
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Black Workers' Struggle for Equality in Birmingham
University of Illinois PressCopyright © 2004 Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
All right reserved.
IntroductionUnion Activists in Industry and in the Community
"Birmingham wasn't nothing but a smoke stack" when Mattie Collins Haywood arrived there in 1939. She had moved there from the countryside, as had many thousands of other people, because the Birmingham-Bessemer region had a voracious appetite for workers. Steel mills and pipe foundries dominated the horizon, while hillsides in the vicinity were pocked with coal and iron mines. But that was not all. As Reuben Davis remembers the Collegeville neighborhood, "in the mornings about 6:30 you could see men going to work in different directions. L&N was to the east, U.S. Pipe and ACIPCO was to the west, Sayreton Mines was to the north, and then you see ladies going to Norwood, which was where the ladies worked as maids and cooks.... They would put [baskets of clothes] on their head and walk to Norwood to their jobs."
It was in these mines, mills, and neighborhoods that black working people struggled individually and collectively to improve their conditions of life. Even under the harsh oppression of legal segregation they organized into labor unions of many different types, and they discretely formed study groups and networks of known and trusted activists, which linked together members of different unions. Their unions were theaters of conflict and of mobilization against racial discrimination every bit as significant as were churches, schools, and public spaces. Networks of union activists proved to be of decisive importance in creating, sustaining, and protecting the organizations of the civil rights movement that historians have made better known, especially the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), led by the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Organized black workers gave the civil rights movement in industrial Birmingham its distinctive character and tenacity. Those qualities enabled African American workers, together with students, clergy, professionals, and white allies, to win their historic victories over segregation between 1961 and 1963. But as these recollections also make clear, the struggles of Birmingham's black working people for equality and justice had begun many decades before the 1960s, and they have continued to the present day.
Off the Land
Most of the African Americans whose recollections appear in these interviews had come to Birmingham from the farmland of Alabama's Black Belt and from as far off as Mississippi (while other migrants came from even farther afield). They hoped to earn a better living than farm work allowed and to escape abusive landlords. Even Jimmie Louis Warren, who gave everyone the benefit of the doubt and initially described farm life in benign terms, saw his father swindled of his share of the crop and later had to hustle a friend off to safety in the North when that friend seized a wrench with which the landlord was threatening to beat him. The women among the interviewees were especially likely to stress the brutality of rural life, as did Rosa P. Washington and Ludie Mae Martin, though Mattie Collins Haywood also remembers with nostalgia the pleasure of producing her own pork, milk, and butter and the sense of sharing that pervaded life on the farm. But she adds that, looking back, "I hated working for nothing"-getting paid only when the crop was in, if then. She first drew regular wages when she filled in on the job of her sick sister in Forestdale. All those in search of income learned, as Colonel Stone Johnson puts it, that "the closer you get to Birmingham, the more money you can make."
Johnson also remembers, however, that white workers arrived "by the truckload ... from Cullman or Huntsville, somewhere up in North Alabama," during World War II. In fact, the proportion of Jefferson County's steel workers and miners who were white grew steadily from 46 percent in 1930 to 67 percent in 1970, with important consequences for the nature and outcome of civil rights struggles. At the turn of the century, however, 10 to 15 percent of the white population had been born in the North, and a quarter of the adult white males were of immigrant stock. Even though many of the European immigrants quickly turned around and left the region, almost half of the white iron and steel workers at that time were of foreign birth or parentage (in the nineteenth century predominantly British and Irish, but increasingly from southern and eastern Europe). Many of these oral histories note the importance of Italian neighbors in everyday encounters and in the city's political life.
All the interviewees agree that the jobs open to African American men in the Birmingham region's mines, mills, railroad yards, and construction sites were confined to heavy and often dangerous manual labor, while black women earned money through scrubbing clothes or floors or by caring for white households. While black workers found their earnings in Birmingham more promising than the living they could eke out of the land, the city's industrial development had been based from the start on wage scales well below those paid by northern factories. During the late 1930s and the 1940s, when thousands of black workers built unions to improve their earnings, New Deal legislation on wages, hours, education, and social security, augmented by huge wartime procurement orders, also raised local industrial standards. Moreover, new technology sharply reduced the steel industry's need for unskilled labor. In Alabama, as elsewhere in the South, industrial firms found many applicants for most jobs, so they could be highly selective. They hired white workers in ever larger numbers, just as Colonel Stone Johnson observed. The production force in new southern auto and aircraft factories that sprang up during the 1940s and 1950s was almost entirely white, just as had been the case in both old and new textile mills. In South Carolina, whites were hired for more than 90 percent of the newly created manufacturing jobs. Even in Jefferson County's steel and coal production, whites had become a majority of the workers by 1950. By the 1950s, therefore, workplace struggles of African Americans focused not only on improving wages and working conditions but especially on breaking down the racial barriers to promotion into the more skilled categories of labor. These interviews richly document that aspect of the struggle for civil rights, which has been overshadowed by the battle to desegregate public accommodations in most historians' accounts.
Starting in the 1920s and increasing during and after World War II, most dramatically in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the region's iron mines had been closed down and its increasingly automated steel mills laid off thousands, many black and white residents sought to improve their fortunes in Detroit, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, or Cleveland (whose black inhabitants called it "Alabama North"). The total population of Birmingham declined by over twenty-one thousand between 1950 and 1960. Ludie Mae Martin, David P. Earle, Rosa P. Washington, and Asbury Howard Jr. had been among those who ventured north, though they subsequently had reasons to return to Birmingham.
Reuben Davis comments on this transformation, observing that when he had come back from the navy at the end of 1945, "it was common that practically everyone who wanted a job could get a job." But, he adds, "the thing about it [was], all the jobs available were lower end and the most difficult of working." During the massive exodus from southern farmland brought about by the increasing mechanization of agriculture after the war, however, black newcomers to Birmingham found even the "lower end" of industrial jobs steadily harder to find. By the spring of 1963, when civil rights demonstrators clashed daily with Bull Connor's police, dogs, and fire hoses, Davis's description of abundant but low-paid jobs no longer fit Birmingham's industry. Modernization of sheet and tin mills, larger open hearths, and what the historian Judith Stein has called "a virtual revolution in the handling of material" had sharply reduced the need for unskilled laborers in steel. Machine mining and pit closings had cut the number of Alabama's coal miners in half between 1940 and 1960, while the 3,026 remaining black miners represented only 25 percent of the total force. Imported iron ore from Venezuela had enabled U.S. Steel and other companies to close the ore mines on Red Mountain. White workers then vastly outnumbered black workers among new hires in steel and pipe mills. Within the mills both the preservation of accumulated seniority rights and access to better jobs had become for African Americans a question not only of improvement but of survival. Birmingham had begun its transition from a city where black men sought industrial and construction work while black women toiled in white homes into a center of service and technical work, where the University of Alabama and its related health centers were soon to emerge as the largest employer.
Elias Hendricks Sr. underscores the point that even when there had been work aplenty in Birmingham, the city "was nothing to write home about." He explains: "We were in an environment that just wasn't conducive to decent things for black folks. Everywhere, whether you were in the union or out of the union, you still was one of those people when it come around to it." As he goes on to explain: "The Dred Scott decision ... [had] said that a black man had no rights that a white man have to respect, and those guys lived up to that kind of thinking, ... and they were able to get away with it."
No single feature of neighborhood life appears more often in these interviews than the arbitrary rule and unrestrained brutality of the police. "When I first came to Birmingham," said Rev. Joseph Lewis Rogers, "you find a dead man on the street or on a railroad most any day." George Price recalls the dangers of walking home from his welder's job late at night, when "the police was on a rampage." Others shared Reuben Davis's youthful experience of running from patrol cars to escape having their heads trapped in the car window and clubbed by the police. Rosa P. Washington was sweeping a waiting room of the Greyhound terminal in 1961 when Police Commissioner Bull Connor brought his menacing "regiment of police" to the "loading zone where the buses came into the station" to provide a hostile reception to the Freedom Riders, whose bus had been burned near Anniston. Long before and long after the highly publicized police assaults on street demonstrators in April and May 1963, community life was marked by police terror. The historian Robin D. G. Kelley has pointed out that routine police repression actually increased after those events, along with popular defiance of the police, reaching "an all-time high between 1963 and the early 1970s, and, of course, black male youth from poor communities accounted for a majority of the incidents."
The ways in which the men and women whose interviews appear in this book became involved in civil rights struggles were all related to their activities at work. Labor unions provided an important vehicle for their involvement. The older generation came to the civil rights movement through their union activities. Younger workers, who came of age at the peak of the movement, carried the community-based struggle for equality and desegregation back onto the job and into their unions.
Ever since the 1870s, the Greenback-Labor party, the Knights of Labor, the United Mine Workers, the railroad brotherhoods, the craft unions of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and the independent unions of African Americans had all left their marks on the region's history. By the 1950s virtually every type of union could be found there. The unions of steel workers, iron miners, and coal miners were all biracial, though that did not necessarily mean that they were egalitarian. Craft unions in construction often had black members (more often than in most of the North) but maintained segregated locals and hiring lists. The prominence of Colonel Stone Johnson's father as financial secretary and later business agent for Local 62 of the Operative Plasterers and Cement Finishers illustrates the role African American officers played in construction locals. Brotherhoods of railroad engineers, firemen, and conductors had enrolled only white employees, and since the early part of the twentieth century they had tried to drive black workers clear off the trains. As several of these interviews reveal, however, black activists in other railroad brotherhoods, like those of oilers and of clerks, provided crucial support to the ACMHR, in addition to waging important struggles in the railroad yards. Unions comprised entirely of black workers also had an important presence in the post office, where President Woodrow Wilson had segregated the civil service in 1913. Since 1921, the American Cast Iron Pipe Company (ACIPCO) had boasted an elaborate employee representation plan as a paternalistic alternative to trade unions. The interviews reveal clearly that all these institutions shaped networks of African American activists and framed the strategies of workplace and neighborhood struggles.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, coal miners had been the driving force behind a general revival of trade unionism in northern Alabama, and the majority of coal miners at the time were African Americans. Alabama's District 20 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had capitalized on the momentum generated by their union's historic 1897 strike triumph in the Central Competitive Field (north of the Ohio River, between Pittsburgh and St. Louis) to bring Alabama's major coal companies under contract. The district expanded its membership to fourteen thousand by 1903 (more than half of them black workers), raised wages, and curbed company mistreatment of miners. During the same years more than ten thousand other workers had joined local unions and affiliated with the Birmingham Trades Council. Many of those local unions accepted only white members. In fact, white bricklayers, machinists, and telephone linemen sometimes struck to drive black workers out of their trades. At the same time, some two thousand black furnace-men, coke workers, and laborers in Birmingham and Bessemer affiliated with the Trades Council through racially separate locals. The unions of coal miners and iron miners, however, organized both the black majorities and the white minorities in their occupations into the same unions. Moreover, those unions strongly influenced the political lobbying of the State Federation of Labor, even after African Americans had been effectively disfranchised by the white primary and the state's 1901 constitution.
This was also the age in which legal segregation was consolidated. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the interracial unions provoked hostile commentary and violent attacks.
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