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Iron and Steel

Class, Race, and Community in Birmingham, Alabama, 1875-1920

Henry M. McKiven Jr.

Publication Year: 1995

In this study of Birmingham's iron and steel workers, Henry McKiven unravels the complex connections between race relations and class struggle that shaped the city's social and economic order. He also traces the links between the process of class formation and the practice of community building and neighborhood politics. According to McKiven, the white men who moved to Birmingham soon after its founding to take jobs as skilled iron workers shared a free labor ideology that emphasized opportunity and equality between white employees and management at the expense of less skilled black laborers. But doubtful of their employers' commitment to white supremacy, they formed unions to defend their position within the racial order of the workplace. This order changed, however, when advances in manufacturing technology created more semiskilled jobs and broadened opportunities for black workers. McKiven shows how these race and class divisions also shaped working-class life away from the plant, as workers built neighborhoods and organized community and political associations that reinforced bonds of skill, race, and ethnicity. In this study of Birmingham's iron and steel workers, Henry McKiven unravels the complex connections between race relations and class struggle that shaped the city's social and economic order. He also traces the links between the process of class formation and the practice of community building and neighborhood politics. According to McKiven, the white men who moved to Birmingham soon after its founding to take jobs as skilled iron workers shared a free labor ideology that emphasized opportunity and equality between white employees and management at the expense of less skilled black laborers. But doubtful of their employers' commitment to white supremacy, they formed unions to defend their position within the racial order of the workplace. This order changed, however, when advances in manufacturing technology created more semiskilled jobs and broadened opportunities for black workers. McKiven shows how these race and class divisions also shaped working-class life away from the plant, as workers built neighborhoods and organized community and political associations that reinforced bonds of skill, race, and ethnicity. In this study of iron and steel workers in Birmingham, Alabama, in the years 1875-1920, McKiven examines the complex connections between race relations and class struggle that shaped the city's social and economic order. In particular, he traces the links between the process of class formation, on the one hand, and the practice of community building and neighborhood politics, on the other.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5

Contents

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pp. vii-11

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-17

A project of this sort would not be possible without the intellectual, moral, and financial support of many people and institutions. Other scholars took time out of busy schedules to read and critique chapters, friends offered encouragement at critical times, and several institutions came through with research...

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Introduction

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pp. 1-6

In the years following the Civil War, some southerners wrote of the need to free the region from a dependence upon agriculture that, in their view, was a key factor in the failure of the Confederacy. They called for development of southern industries that would capitalize on the region's natural resources and would provide a source of employment for its population. Industrialization, according to the vision, would provide the way for the South to redeem...

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1 The Creation of Birmingham and the Problem of Labor

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pp. 7-22

Historians of Birmingham and the New South have devoted much attention to southern boosters' continuous, and sometimes quixotic, search for capital. Their overtures to some of the leading finance capitalists in America have been well documented and extensively analyzed. Lack of capital was, to be sure, a serious obstacle standing in the way of southern industrialization in the aftermath of the Civil War. But Birmingham's boosters were as concerned with the recruitment of...

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2 Skilled Work, White Workers

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pp. 23-40

At the heart of Birmingham's social order was the relationship between capital and labor. The town's founders and promoters articulated an ideal of harmony between capital and labor that was dependent upon the unity of white skilled workingmen and white capital. In the i88os white craftsmen moved to the city prepared to assume their rightful places at the center of the community. They expected to enter a community where they would be treated as equal members of a broadly...

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3 Unskilled Work, Black Workers

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pp. 41-54

While Birmingham's skilled workers provided the technical knowledge essential to the establishment of the city's early industries, most of the jobs in those industries were low-paying, unskilled positions that required little more than physical strength and endurance. Before 1900 the proportion of iron and steel workers performing unskilled jobs remained near or above 50 percent.1 Unskilled workers performed...

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4 Life Away from Work, 1880–1900

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pp. 55-76

Within the workplaces of Birmingham people identified with each other on the basis of their position within the system of production and their race. Skilled workers, most of whom were white, established a sharp line between themselves and unskilled workers, most of whom were black. They extended the distinctions of the workplace into the community and reinforced them. Away from work white skilled...

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5 Workers and Politics, 1880–1894

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pp. 77-88

To Birmingham's skilled white workers citizenship meant access to political power commensurate with their fundamental role as the creators of society's wealth. When Birmingham's early boosters recruited white skilled workers, they always linked economic status and race to prestige within the community. Skill and race set the craftsman apart from the mass of unskilled blacks and conferred upon him rights denied...

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6 The Open Shop City

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pp. 89-112

By the early 18905, relations between iron workers and employers in Birmingham had reached a point of uneasy stability after years of conflict and tension. Skilled workers, through their organizations, enforced rules on the shop floor that reflected their sense of themselves as independent producers equal to the men who owned the plants in which they worked. It appeared that they had secured...

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7 Remaking the Working Class

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pp. 113-132

According to advocates of the open shop, elimination of unions would enable southern industrialists to realize the benefits of a large and growing supply of cheap labor. But an employer could not simply walk out into the street and find men to operate cranes, lathes, or rammers. Much of the local labor force lacked the necessary knowledge and would have to be trained before the theoretical benefits of more...

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8 Life Away from Work, 1900–1920

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pp. 133-152

The growth of Birmingham's iron and steel industry during the first two decades of the twentieth century brought profound and lasting change to the community. Companies built new plants on the fringes of the old city that attracted thousands of workers. By 1920 most iron and steel workers had moved away from the center of the city to neighborhoods closer to their jobs. Their neighborhoods and their institutions...

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9 Workers and Politics, 1894–1920

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pp. 153-166

When organized workers confronted challenges to their authority at work and in the community, they used their political power to defend their interests.1 The Birmingham Trades Union Council, through the Labor Advocate, repeatedly warned members against political passivity in an era of rapid change in the relationship between capital and labor. In 1898 the Advocate defined politics as "a craft by which...

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Conclusion

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pp. 167-172

When Birmingham's promoters articulated their vision of the city they hoped to create, they confronted problems of race and class relations directly. They assured Alabamians that African American workers would fill the most menial jobs in the iron and steel industry, freeing whites to achieve as much as their talents would allow. Whites of all classes would join together, united by their interest in...

Notes

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pp. 173-202

Bibliography

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pp. 203-218

Index

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pp. 219-223


E-ISBN-13: 9781469603711
E-ISBN-10: 1469603713
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807821886
Print-ISBN-10: 0807821888

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 9 illus.
Publication Year: 1995