Civil Rights Unionism tells the story of a working-class-led, union-based civil rights movement that tried to change the arc of American history in the years surrounding World War II. Its protagonists consist of roughly 10,000 tobacco manufacturing workers, mostly African Americans but including several hundred whites, who through Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers-Congress of Industrial Organizations (FTA-CIO) initiated and sustained a broad-based challenge to economic exploitation, political disfranchisement, and racial discrimination in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, throughout the decade of the 1940s. Arrayed against them were the managers of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and an industrial oligarchy that wielded enormous power in the city, the region, and the nation. This social drama mobilized a supporting cast that was national and even international in scope: it included officers and staff from FTA; a group of mostly white workers who opposed unionization; sectors of the black middle class; officials from various branches of the federal government; and Communist Party activists, many of whom were native North Carolinians. Political, labor, civil rights, and religious leaders from across the political spectrum made cameo appearances. Among them were Henry Wallace, Mary McLeod Bethune, Philip Murray, Richard Nixon, Paul Robeson, Norman Vincent Peale, Lucy Randolph Mason, and Woody Guthrie, all of whom were critical players in the larger struggle of which Local 22 was a part. At its heart, however, this was a local movement mounted by local people with leaders whose names, until now, have been largely lost to history: Robert Black, Viola Brown, Willie Grier, Etta Hobson, Velma Hopkins, Ruby Jones, Robert Lathan, Clark Sheppard, Theodosia Simpson, Moranda Smith, and others.
One of the South’s first truly modern businesses, the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company revolutionized the tobacco industry in the years after World War I, when its Camel cigarette campaign made smoking a wildly popular American pastime. Through brand-name advertising, integrated manufacturing and distribution systems, and the cultivation of global markets, Reynolds helped to generate a landscape of modernity, even as it based its profits on the super-exploitation of black labor and concentrated its operations in a tightly controlled southern town. By 1940 the company operated the largest tobacco manufacturing facility in the world, and its approximately 12,000 employees (plus the several thousand seasonal workers in the city’s independent leaf houses) represented one of the largest concentrations of industrial workers in the region. Two-thirds of the workers were African American, and over one-half of them were women.
FTA drew on the solidarities created by this dense concentration of African American workers. It also built on a long process of social learning that began with the mass migration of rural southerners to the city in the early 1920s. Taking advantage of the window of opportunity that opened during World War II, the union won collective bargaining rights at Reynolds and three smaller independent leaf houses in 1943. Men and women who had been disfranchised and discounted as backward, uneducated tobacco “mules” found themselves negotiating head to head with the state’s most powerful men as they hammered out contracts that brought major improvements in wages, benefits, and working conditions. Equally important, they replaced an arbitrary, personalistic, and often abusive system of labor-management relations—which harked back to the nineteenth century and stood in sharp contrast to the company’s modern, sophisticated public face—with one based on a workplace bill of rights and implemented by militant shop floor stewards. Women such as Moranda Smith, a sharecropper’s daughter who became the first black woman to serve on the executive board of an international union, took the lead in this process of movement and institution building, and their actions proved especially subversive of existing social relations.
Local 22 rekindled the political activism among African Americans that had been smoldering since the turn-of-the-century white supremacy campaign. From the outset, the union blurred the boundaries between home and work, sacred and secular, play and politics, consumption and production. In a society in which the exploitation of black laborers went hand in hand with their exclusion from politics and most social services, black unionists could hardly avoid linking workplace issues to community concerns. Local 22’s brand of race-inflected “civic unionism” thus expressed the experience and perspective of its African American workers, who combined class consciousness with race solidarity and looked to cross-class institutions such as the black church as a key base of support, as well as the outlook of progressive-minded unionists generally, who saw trade unions not just as a means of advancing the interests of their members but as the generative force in a larger struggle for economic democracy.
Women’s leadership forwarded this dual emphasis as well. Winston-Salem was not only a city of blue-collar workers, it was a city of women workers. Men led the World War I-era exodus to the North, but women fled to southern cities in numbers that equaled or exceeded those of men. At a time when the vast majority of urban black women workers in this country had no choice but to labor in white homes, more than half of Winston-Salem’s gainfully employed women found work in the tobacco factories. Working women did double duty as workers and household managers, and their complex consciousness as proletarians, consumers, women, and African Americans helped to reinforce the connections between the community and the shop floor.
Local 22 registered thousands of black voters, revitalized the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and spearheaded the election of a black minister to the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen, the first African American to defeat a white opponent in the South since the turn of the century. During the CIO’s postwar southern organizing drive, dubbed “Operation Dixie,” Local 22 carried the union message to the poorest, most repressive area of the state, stimulating the organization of an additional 10,000 workers in the leaf houses of eastern North Carolina. Activists also demanded a greater voice for citizens in the day-to-day operations of city government and the enactment of civil rights legislation. Their consumerist, social welfare agenda included calls for low-income housing, price controls, unemployment compensation, and equalization of educational opportunities. In 1948 FTA and Local 22 threw their energies into the Progressive Party and the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace, a last-ditch attempt to extend the social democratic impulses of the New Deal into the postwar world.
These actions placed Winston-Salem unionists on the front lines of efforts to advance the boundaries of democratic culture in the workplace, in civil society, and in personal relationships. Local 22 was the prize local in what was arguably the most diverse left-led union in the country. If FTA could, in one unionist’s words, “bring that big giant,” R. J. Reynolds, “down to earth,” there was hope for a new kind of labor movement, one built around women, blacks, Hispanics, and other vulnerable workers and committed to civil rights and a broad social welfare agenda.
By the 1940s, moreover, the South had emerged as the critical battleground in the efforts of liberals and leftists to maintain the momentum of the New Deal. The region was home to the country’s largest bloc of unorganized workers, and the long-term success of the CIO depended on its ability to bring southern workers into the house of labor. Likewise, two out of three African Americans lived below the Mason-Dixon line, and the vast majority of these were working class. To succeed, the emerging struggle for civil rights had to mobilize the millions of black workers who labored in the region’s factories, farms, households, mines, and lumber camps. To survive and expand, New Dealers had to break the stranglehold of conservative southern Democrats, who owed their seniority and thus their domination of congressional committees to the South’s constricted electorate and one-party rule.
Local 22 thus stood at the nexus of at least half a dozen interrelated democratic projects that emerged in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. First and foremost, its members were in the vanguard of efforts to transform midcentury race relations. World War II was a major watershed in the development of the modern civil rights movement. The number of black voters doubled in the North between 1940 and 1948, and in the eleven states of the former Confederacy black registration more than quadrupled. Likewise, membership in the NAACP soared. The half-million black workers who joined unions affiliated with the CIO put themselves in the front ranks of this movement, as civil rights advocates increasingly looked to mass unionization as the best hope for overcoming the tangle of oppressions that excluded blacks from full participation in American life. The wartime rhetoric of democracy, the imprimatur of the federal government, and the booming economy generated a rights consciousness that gave working-class black militancy a moral justification similar to that evoked by Afro-Christianity a generation later. In the automobile factories of Detroit, the cotton presses of Memphis, the steel mills of Pittsburgh and Birmingham, the stockyards of Chicago and Louisville, the shipyards of Baltimore and Oakland, and the tobacco factories of Richmond, Charleston, and Winston-Salem, the mobilization of black workers made civil rights an issue that could not be ignored by union officers, white executives, or government officials.
Civil rights unionism, in turn, represented the finest flowering of the industrial union project initiated in the 1930s by the CIO, which sought to extend trade unionism beyond the skilled trades and bring industrial democracy to the mass-production industries. It was also central to what may be called the “Southern Front,” a loose coalition of labor unionists, civil rights activists, and southern New Dealers that saw a strong labor movement and the reenfranchisement of the southern poor as the keys to reforming the South and a reformed South as central to the survival and expansion of the New Deal. The linkage between race and class that animated this phase of the black freedom struggle also drew black activists into the Communist orbit. The Communist Party, in turn, helped to tie the movement to liberation struggles around the world. Local 22 drew strategically on ideas and resources from all of these streams. At the same time, events in Winston-Salem shaped the trajectories of these larger movements, and all are illuminated by a fine-grained study at the local level.
The key events in this history of working-class insurgency took place between 1942 and 1950, and their telling forms the heart of this book. But the institutions and processes that influenced that mobilization have a much longer history. Structured as a narrative of a local workers’ movement, Civil Rights Unionismmoves back and forth between the action on the ground and the larger forces at play. It begins by cutting directly to the 1943 strike that sparked the formation of Local 22. It then moves back in time to examine the late-nineteenth-century coup d’état in which North Carolina industrialists and planters snatched power from a coalition of workers, African Americans, Populist farmers, and Republicans. These Bourbon Democrats, so called by their Populist opponents because of their elitist base and goals, established a system of racial capitalism that they called “white supremacy,” a term that helped to obscure the class presumptions of their undemocratic project. Racial subordination lay at the heart of white supremacy, but it encompassed class and gender inequalities as well. In fact, it was the interpenetration of gender, race, and class hierarchies that was the defining feature of this social formation.
More than four decades elapsed between the turn-of-the-century “reactionary revolution” and the rise of the workers’ movement in Winston-Salem. The consolidation of racial capitalism created a separate low-wage labor market in the South that depended on the exploitation of black labor, served as a magnet for runaway northern industries, undercut the labor movement, and pulled national wage standards down. This economic structure so circumscribed consumer buying power that by 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the South “the Nation’s No. 1 economic problem.” The region’s political system also underwrote the power of conservative Democrats who allied with Republicans in Congress to block or dilute social welfare measures and progressive labor laws. Racial capitalism thus became at the same time the context, the subject, and the object of Winston-Salem workers’ democratic endeavors.
The roots of Local 22’s struggle lie deep in the past in another way as well. Lawrence Goodwyn has warned historians not to truncate their search for the origins of social movements, reminding us that a long process of social learning and movement building precedes what seem to be spontaneous uprisings. The involvement of working men and women in the rich associational life of Winston-Salem’s black community gave them self-confidence and organizational and leadership skills. In the 1920s and 1930s, a cohort of aspiring workers, confined by discrimination and economic structures to the tobacco plants, used the local efforts of the American Federation of Labor’s Tobacco Workers International Union, the Communist Party, and the FTA to transform themselves into the organic intellectuals, astute leaders, and institution builders of the 1940s. Accordingly, this study looks carefully at the quarter century preceding the explosion of the workers’ movement, first outlining the spatial and material processes of urbanization and proletarianization, then tracing the social learning that took place during earlier efforts at unionization and political participation, and finally documenting the building of Local 22 and its ultimate defeat in the midst of the postwar red scare.
At times I doubted that I could capture the movement in full bloom, much less find its deeper roots. Most local union documents ended up in trash barrels, and a flood destroyed FTA records. Company lawyers, bent on concealing evidence that could be used against them in antitobacco lawsuits, refused to give me access to their archives. For twenty years, Reynolds officials even held up the publication of a laudatory history of the company by the historian Nannie Mae Tilley. The repression surrounding Local 22’s defeat muzzled former union members, and black and white citizens alike tried to forget the intense discrimination that prevailed in the years before the advent of the union.
In part because of the city’s tight control by corporate interests, Winston-Salem experienced neither the full brunt of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s nor the magnifying glass of civil rights historiography. Accordingly, much of the experience of the city’s black community still remained, as C. Vann Woodward has put it, “in the twilight zone between living memory and written history.” In order to overcome those silences, probe the dynamics of life under Jim Crow, and trace the legacy of the “great fear,” I looked to the only first-person sources available to me: more than one hundred oral history interviews, most of which I conducted myself. I also drew on newspaper accounts, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) records, government documents, and the like, reading those contemporary sources against retrospective interviews with an eye to the competing narratives they contain as well as to what they can tell us about the texture of everyday life and the substance of workers’ politics and practices.
For help in making sense of the rise and fall of Local 22, I turned to the interdisciplinary scholarship on social movements. The framework provided by historians, sociologists, and political scientists helped me to isolate the multiple and contingent factors that gave rise to this effort, account for continuity and change, and place the movement’s evolution in both a local and a global context. I looked especially at what social movement theorists call “the structure of political opportunities,” the circumstances that made the political system receptive to change. In this case the special circumstances included the New Deal, the rise of the CIO, the coalescence of the Southern Front, and the patriotic rhetoric and economic boom of World War II. Understanding this “macro level,” however, solves only part of the riddle; equally important is unraveling the complex motives that lead individuals to participate in social movements, the subjective meanings those movements acquire, and the sources of hope and political courage that enable people to risk so much for a cause. I remain all too aware of what I cannot know, of how much mystery remains.
Although the main concern of this study is to trace a social movement from the ground up, I also emphasize the national dynamics that made this mobilization possible. Ruby Jones, one of Local 22’s more outspoken rank-and-file leaders, remembered that it was “like being reconstructed when the union came.” Her reference to that earlier effort to build a democratic, interracial political order from the ashes of slavery affirmed the crucial link between the initiative of African Americans and the intercession of the federal government. Just as freedmen and women had sought the support of white allies in their fight for political rights and a share of the region’s economic resources after emancipation, so too did black workers in Winston-Salem enlist the aid of the federal government, the trade union movement, and radical activists in their effort to remake the political, economic, and social landscape of Winston-Salem.
Historians have seen two of these allies—the federal government and the Communist Party—as especially problematic. By and large, previous scholars have underscored the potentially enervating effects of labor’s reliance on the system of legalistic, top-down state regulation that began with the Wagner Act and peaked with the establishment of the National War Labor Board. This critique, however, applies mainly to the North and to white male workers. For the South, and especially for black southern workers, the federally imposed system of what came to be known as “industrial jurisprudence” was quite simply indispensable, and the actions of pro-labor federal agencies did in fact constitute a second “reconstruction.” Disadvantaged by their class, race, and sex, black women especially benefited from the dynamic relation among the union, the state, and the public, which shaped labor law, forwarded democratic participation, and offered protection from retaliation and sexual exploitation.
No one who writes about the Communist movement in the United States can escape the ideological charge that history continues to carry. An older historiography, which reflected the preoccupations of the Cold War, stressed the Party’s ties to the Comintern and the Soviet Union and dismissed its connections to indigenous American radicalism. That approach reasserted itself with new vigor after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Other scholars have emphasized the flexibility and creativity of the Party at the grassroots level and its responsiveness to local conditions and leaders, while also criticizing the Party’s attachment to the USSR and its dogmatism. In the case of Winston-Salem, I see the Communist Party as a controversial but important ally, whose impact on the course of local events was eclipsed by forces ranging from indigenous black activism to technological innovation and anti-Communist hysteria. Although I pay attention to the Party’s ideas and actions, my chief emphasis is on the larger Popular Front, especially its distinctive southern wing, which did shape the movement in Winston-Salem profoundly. The Popular Front, in the sense in which I use the term, was not a short-lived product of Party policy, but a broad-based coalition of laborites, independent radicals, progressive New Dealers, and Party activists, with interracial, left-led CIO unions at its core.
Marshaling its enormous economic power and drawing on the larger corporate backlash in which it participated, Reynolds responded to Local 22’s challenge to its community and workplace control with a strategy that included both the carrot of welfare capitalism and the stick of race- and red-baiting and automation. Soon after the war, the company began a mechanization campaign that eliminated several predominantly black departments. When contract negotiations began in 1947, Reynolds forced a strike. In a pattern replicated throughout industrial America in those years, Communist influence in the union became the key issue around which management and its allies mounted their attack. The Winston-Salem Journalcharged that the Communist Party, which had recruited several dozen members among the union’s local leaders, had “captured Local 22, the Reynolds union of the C.I.O. tobacco workers—lock, stock, and barrel.” Although the company and the union finally reached a settlement on June 7, 1947, it proved to be the last collective bargaining agreement signed by the Reynolds Tobacco Company. Three years later, after a controversial National Labor Relations Board ruling that effectively disfranchised black seasonal workers and allowed lower-level white supervisors to vote in a recertification election, Local 22 lost the right to represent Reynolds workers.
This study ends with an examination of the causes of Local 22’s demise, stressing what I call the metamorphosis of white supremacy: the decision by white elites to relax some of the harsher features of Jim Crow while maintaining a system of race, class, and gender subordination. Reynolds was in the forefront of a coordinated campaign by the nation’s leading industrialists to contain and, where possible, dismantle the union-based working-class movement that had dramatically altered the distribution of power since the 1930s. Yet even Reynolds found it necessary to modify some of its policies in response to workers’ demands.
Civil Rights Unionism places the Reynolds campaign in the context of this national corporate counteroffensive. In doing so, it embraces the arguments of recent historians who have questioned the depth of the postwar “settlement” between capital and labor, in which major corporations tied higher wages and benefits to productivity gains. Reynolds, like many other key corporations, never accepted the notion that collective bargaining could serve as a useful prop to oligopolistic pricing. Rather, it routinized paternalism by updating welfare capitalism and bided its time until the Cold War created a climate in which it could join with other businesses to check labor’s growth.
In much the same way, Winston-Salem power brokers ameliorated some aspects of racial discrimination while keeping the larger system of racial capitalism in place. Local officials reluctantly extended voting rights, built low-income housing, and formed biracial committees on community relations. They brought in selected members of the black middle class to sit on governmental boards and on the board of the local black college. They increased spending on social services and philanthropy to the black community. This metamorphosis widened class divisions in the black community and undercut civil rights unionism, but it also created cracks in the edifice of segregation that revealed the irrationality of the whole structure. These cracks, in turn, became the “free spaces” in which the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s would grow.
In the end, however, the breakup of the workers’ movement in Winston-Salem and in the United States required an extraordinary feat of political repression. It was the post-World War II red scare that finally silenced dissident voices and contained political debate. Although the anti-Communist crusade singled out individuals and organizations, the real targets were the broad social movements begun in the 1930s. Anti-Communism not only damaged the left-led unions and civil rights groups, it also constrained the labor movement and civil rights activism more generally. CIO president Philip Murray and NAACP head Walter White, strong anti-Communists themselves, were just as much “victims” of the red scare as FTA president Donald Henderson or Paul Robeson, the leading symbol of the culture of the Popular Front, although they certainly did not pay as high a personal price. More generally, the postwar repression scotched any prospect for what Henry Wallace called the “Century of the Common Man,” the internationalist, social democratic alternative to what Time‘s Henry Luce dubbed the “American Century.”
Cold War isolated the workers’ movement from its most important allies. As in the first reconstruction, once the political tides shifted with the end of World War II, the Republican capture of Congress, and the advent of the Cold War, the federal government moved quickly from ally to adversary. I therefore raise critical questions about the national government’s participation in local and regional systems of subordination while also stressing the importance of the moments when federal officials act against local elites. I emphasize the dialectical relations between citizens’ movements, which give legislation its political force, and state action, which can legitimate and undergird social movements or tip the scales toward capital and against labor.
Congressional action, or inaction, undermined the thrust of the workers’ movement in other ways as well. Congress’s failure to create universalistic social welfare programs—national health insurance, full employment, unemployment compensation, and social security—helped to fracture working-class unity. Large CIO unions had little choice but to pursue benefits such as health insurance and pensions within collective bargaining agreements, creating an “uneven pattern of social provision” in which organized workers, who were mostly white and male, enjoyed protections denied to blacks, women, and nonunion white workers. Those who were left out, in turn, could not look to unionized workers for strong allies in their drive for more generous social spending.
By the time Local 22 faced its final NLRB election in 1950, Reynolds had eliminated enough black jobs and hired enough new white workers to achieve a fifty-fifty racial split in the workforce. Until then, Local 22 had based its success on its ability to gain the allegiance of practically the entire black workforce along with the active participation of several hundred whites and the votes of some other white employees who never officially joined the union. Still, neither local black leaders nor FTA officials ever gave up on recruiting white workers. They believed that in the long run only an interracial labor movement could achieve their broader goals. They also believed that despite the overdetermined blend of company pressure, racialist ideology, fear, fragmentation, and social ostracism that kept whites from joining a left-wing, black-led union, sensitive, dedicated organizers would eventually be able to tap a reservoir of underlying grievances against the company and support for the union’s goals.
Taking this optimism seriously, I attend to the common interests that made interracial unionism thinkable; to the events, such as the Great Depression and the immense popularity of the New Deal, that enabled some white workers to put their class interests ahead of their tenuous racial advantages; and to the remarkable steadfastness of the union’s small core group of white supporters, who acted bravely and against type. I also underscore the division of labor and social life enforced by four decades of official segregation, the continued deployment of sexualized racism, and the new uses of anti-Communism, as well as the many other barriers that kept black and white workers apart.
In all this, I draw on the rich scholarship on the wages of whiteness, especially on works that emphasize the fact that white workers’ racism was never static and instinctual and that their consciousness shifted “back and forth along the axes of race, class, and gender” in tandem with changes in the cultural and political terrain. White workers’ racial identities and attitudes, however, are not the focus of this book, in part because I do not see them as a primary cause of the movement’s defeat. In a predominately black industry, the particular strategies of Reynolds, the national postwar corporate counteroffensive, the broader structures of racial capitalism, and the political repression associated with the Cold War were more important. Moreover, a focus on the well-known and relatively easily understood racism of white workers would decenter the black workers who are the main protagonists of this book. It would also shift attention away from the role of “great corporations in constructing and maintaining racism” and thus replicate a long tradition of blaming poor whites for the worst aspects of southern history and letting the discursively and economically powerful off the hook.
The collapse of civil rights unionism cast a long shadow over the second half of the twentieth century. The disintegration of the movements of the Popular Front era ensured that when the civil rights struggle of the 1960s emerged it would have a different social character and a different political agenda, which in the end proved inadequate to the immense social problems that lay before it. Like the workers’ movement of the 1940s, the protests of the 1960s mobilized an African American community that was overwhelmingly working class. The key institutions of the new movement, however, were not the trade unions but the black church and independent protest organizations. As Martin Luther King Jr. and others well knew, winning the vote and ending discrimination in public accommodations and education could not overturn the forces that impoverished African Americans. After 1965 such activists sought to raise issues of economic equality and working-class empowerment to the moral high ground occupied by the assault on disfranchisement and segregation. Yet they found themselves hamstrung by the institutional and cultural rifts between the civil rights and labor movements and by the divisions between the haves and have-nots within the working class. Most important, perhaps, they could not build on the alternative social vision of the 1940s, for that vision had been largely lost to memory, destroyed by the political repression of the McCarthy era.
There were other repercussions as well, for the South, for labor, for the women’s movement, and for American political culture. The South has prospered in ways that the activists of the 1940s could never have imagined or foreseen, but it still suffers from its historical reluctance to invest in health, education, and other dimensions of “human capital.” Just as leftists feared, conservative southern congressmen did help to push through an edifice of labor law that hampers the labor movement to this day. The South, along with reservoirs of even cheaper labor abroad, continues to lure runaway shops, ensuring that capital will retain the advantage of infinite mobility over labor. The CIO’s embrace of Cold War ideology, its thralldom to the Democratic Party, and its attempt to forge a postwar “settlement” with leading corporations ended the industrial union project of the 1930s. The purge of the left-led unions deprived that movement of organizers oriented toward the heterogeneous workforce that would emerge after World War II. McCarthyism cut the women’s liberation movement off from one strand of its history, the multiethnic-left feminism represented by the women of Local 22, leaving the movement vulnerable to the charge of being racially exclusive and middle class. The list could go on. All the ills that beset America cannot be chalked up to the outcome of the struggles of the 1940s. But that outcome does stand as a watershed. And the United States is distinguished by the lowest rates of unionization and the most miserly social provisions in the industrialized world.
None of this could have been predicted. Nothing was inevitable. To the workers who rose in the wee hours of the morning to make their way toward the R. J. Reynolds Building, June 17, 1943, was simply another day of toil. Yet ahead of them lay seven years of high-stakes conflict. Some would suffer for their participation in the events that were about to unfold. For others, those years would be the glory of a lifetime. Few in the town could escape the drama altogether. And few who were drawn into it, or tried to write about it, would emerge unchanged.