Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Erik S. Gellman's "Death Blow to Jim Crow"

Erik S. Gellman is assistant professor of history at Roosevelt University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The Tobacco organizing Committee considered Reynolds [Tobacco Company] the next logical step because of the number of black workers there. When the committee met that summer, its plans were nothing short of a region-wide labor and civil rights movement.
This above sentence highlights an important theme in Death Blow to Jim Crow: I argue that the first successful interracial industrial labor movement in the United States came as the result of a concerted efforts by African American activists to form strong industrial unions between black and white workers. In the case of Chicago (chapter 1), National Negro Congress (NNC) members helped organize and sustain a region-wide movement among steel and packinghouse workers. In Richmond (page 99 comes in this chapter), young black men and women in the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) organized tobacco workers. This campaign below the Mason-Dixon line charted out an ambitious vision of unionization and democracy in the South, well before Congress of Industrial Organization’s (CIO) leaders considered it within the realm of possibility.

In both case studies, CIO unionists became champions of issues at work but also demanded antiracist measures to expand opportunities for social, political, and culture freedom in their communities. Ultimately, the book argues, African American workers made significant gains in both employment and civil rights, which in many cities created, by the postwar era, freed spaces and a blue-collar middle class.
With labor agitation and the prospect of government-mandated minimum wages facing them, the tobacco handling plants made an end run around their black labor force.
This sentence indicates the limits to the union-based activism the NNC and SNYC fomented, especially in the South. The tobacco stemmery owners paid some of the lowest wages in the industry, and when faced with a new federal Wage and Hour Act, they chose to upgrade their machinery rather than pay these black workers the new minimum wages and reduce their hours. This legislation, like other New Deal reforms, actually worked against the interests of many African American workers because a half-century of Jim Crow had relegated black laborers to such segregated and unskilled job sectors that moderate reform actually made their situation worse. Instead, SNYC members believed that the South required a new Reconstruction to break down the larger structural inequalities of Jim Crow.

The American Federation of Labor worked to thwart the regional movement of the SNYC and the CIO also hesitated until the Second World War to organize black southern workers. After the war, the CIO’s “Operation Dixie” sought to organize southern industrial workers but had limited success in part due to a less ambitious antiracist vision, and in part due to the onset of the Cold War political climate in America. The reluctance of New Dealers and union leaders to follow the lead of black workers in acting to overturn Jim Crow thwarted a “Death Blow” to the system that had so long divided workers and thwarted America’s democracy.

In the chapters that follow, I examine the NNC and SNYC in Washington, DC area, New York City, and the state of South Carolina. In so doing, the book shows how these activists sought to enact a “second emancipation” in America from 1936 to 1947. Despite strategic errors of their own making and alliances with leftist unions and political parties that both energized and enervated their cause, these activists put a broad vision of civil rights on the national American agenda even as Cold War repression and recurring internal division stalled their momentum by 1948.
Learn more about Death Blow to Jim Crow at the publisher's website, and read an excerpt from the Washington, DC chapter.

--Marshal Zeringue