restricted access Solidarity for Awhile: Unions and Black Freedom in the New Deal South
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Reviews in American History 32.4 (2004) 558-564

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Solidarity for Awhile:

Unions and Black Freedom in the New Deal South

Robert Rogers Korstad.Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. xii + 576 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, and index. $55.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

On an oppressively humid morning in June 1943 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Theodosia Simpson and several women in the stemming department at Reynolds Tobacco decided to stop working. Paid below subsistence wages, subject to exhausting production speedups, and exposed to working conditions that would have astonished Upton Sinclair, Simpson and her African American counterparts had reached the end of their rope. When the stemming department foreman blew the whistle to signal the return to work, the women turned their backs to the machines, defying the code of racial submission that sustained white supremacy. As word spread to the men in the adjoining casing room, James McCardell, a fifteen-year veteran of the plant, announced to the foreman that he and his co-workers would support the women. Yet no more than a moment after he issued his proclamation, the strike had its first martyr: McCardell collapsed on the shop floor, evidently pushed to the brink by an illness that had grown worse under the punishing conditions at Reynolds. McCardell's death became the rallying point for a walkout that inaugurated the union drive at Reynolds and advanced the movement for working-class democracy in the South. So begins Robert Korstad's powerful analysis of labor and civil rights in the Roosevelt era.

At the center of Korstad's expansive but tightly knit narrative is the argument that unions represented the besthope for carrying the New Deal's vision of economic democracy and social justice into the postwar period. The liberal, reformist atmosphere of the New Deal years provided the climate not only for working-class activism but also for African American civil rights. Through the Wagner Act and the National Labor Relations Board, it provided the framework for collective action at the point of production. The South, Korstad argues, was the battleground for eliminating conservative Democratic influence in Washington and for crystallizing the union movement [End Page 558] nationwide. Following the historiographical channels carved out by Patri558cia Sullivan, John Egerton, Linda Reed, and others, Korstad considers the 1940s a period of democratic renaissance in the South, the moment in which African Americans established the groundwork for the civil rights movement.1 But more than those who have focused on white liberals and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, Korstad makes the compelling case that African- American-led unions provided the most important vehicle for economic democracy and black civil rights, solidifying the evidence that Michael Honey has amassed in his important study of black workers in Memphis.2 In contrast to the bureaucratic unions of the Cold War era, the left-leaning CIO unions of the 1940s endorsed a version of racial justice that addressed the class subordination at the core of Jim Crow. As Korstad argues, Local 22β€”the Winston-Salem chapter of the left-leaning Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers of America (FTA)β€”"expressed the experience and perspective of its African American workers, who combined class consciousness with race solidarity and looked to cross-class institutions" to promote racial justice. But Local 22 also captured the imagination of "progressive-minded unionists . . . 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" (p. 3). Long before the black church became the staging ground for civil rights activism, progressive unions provided the incubator for dreams of racial equality. In those dreams, social democracy was a given.

Korstad's analysis unfolds against the backdrop of monopoly capitalism and southern industrial paternalism in tobacco's capital, Winston-Salem. In a series of engaging chapters that provide a wide historical spectrum for the...