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Steven A. Reich of James Madison University adds A Working People to “The African American History Series” edited by Jacqueline M. Moore and Nina Mjagkij. The series relies on established scholars to synthesize existing research into books that are accessible to students and avocational historians. Moore and Mjagkij insist on clear writing, straightforward arguments, and minimal academic apparatus. Reich’s overview of the struggles of African Americans for economic justice between Emancipation and the Great Recession of 2008 fulfill these requirements well.
Reich opens with a two-page chronology of important events he covers from 1863 to 2008. He finishes with a notes section, a very good bibliographic essay, a thorough index, and a selection of twenty documents designed to illustrate his major points. The book’s title comes from a 1961 speech given by Martin Luther King Jr. to the AFL–CIO in which he noted, “Negroes are almost entirely a working people.” Reich uses the quotation to launch his thesis that “the fight for citizenship . . . was . . . intimately connected to African Americans’ work place experiences” (2). He tells his story through three “subplots”: racial equality and economic justice were intimately interconnected; African Americans wanted work that was not merely remunerative but that conferred dignity; and “black labor activism . . . emerged as essential for ensuring that the conditions for change—tight labor markets, unionization, and government intervention—produced substantive change” (3). He begins with African American agricultural workers’ experience in Reconstruction—organizing [End Page 413] politically on one hand, trying to secure land but finally giving in to sharecropping on the other. Reich proceeds through the emergence of Jim Crow, when severe political handicaps hobbled black livelihoods and forced black families to rely on the economic contribution of everyone in the household to survive. Reich follows black laborers north during the Great Migration where they found jobs in expanding industries (though he does not follow them into southern cities). Other chapters combine the Great Depression and World War II; the blending of black unionization and the Civil Rights movement through the 1950s and 1960s; and the rise of federal intervention to enforce workplace nondiscrimination from the 1970s to the present.
Reich tells this story with great consistency and significant nuance. He demonstrates how black labor used its economic conditions and infrastructure to its advantage whenever possible and also changed that infrastructure through active resistance to discrimination. Reich correctly complicates this story by reminding readers that African American workers more often than not failed to secure success for long, that their economic accomplishments were fragile and retreated as conditions changed or white racial backlash arose.
The author’s approach is an interesting blend of “Old Labor History” that emphasizes the activities of unions and “New Labor History” that tells the stories of working people rather than institutions. Much of Reich’s emphasis is on the actions of economic institutions like the Freedman’s Bureau, unions, corporations, and federal law. He often treats African American labor as a macroeconomic entity rather than individuals worthy of attention. Yet he uses individual experiences as example and evidence, and he offers a recurring theme of the household economy that prevents readers from losing sight of the human dimension in his narrative.
Because A Working People is an overview, it relies on standard periodization and narration, especially when treating the politics of Reconstruction, the emergence of Jim Crow, and the Great Migration. Oddly, Reich does not dig deeply into the institutions that supported black families and the African American community, such [End Page 414] as church and fraternal organizations. He is at his best in studying the interaction of black workers and corporations during the 1910s and 1920s and telling the story of how black industrial workers changed their attitudes towards unions across three or four generations, from distrust and disdain to acceptance of industrial unions, to stalwart unionism among manufacturing and public service workers.
An underlying theme that Reich does not directly address except in the...