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  • Rethinking Operation Dixie
  • Robert Korstad (bio)

Ten years ago, I spoke at a rally before a National Labor Relations Board election at the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A month earlier, organizers from the International Association of Machinists (IAM) had “discovered” that there had been a union in Reynolds in the 1940s and that I had written a book about it. They wanted me to tell IAM supporters about that earlier victory and inspire them to do it again.

At about the same time the organizers met the Reverend John Mendez, pastor of the Emanuel Baptist Church. Mendez had a long history of civil rights and social justice activism in Winston-Salem and elsewhere, and they hoped he could put them in touch with black grassroots leaders who might help persuade black workers to support the campaign. They got much more than they bargained for.

By the time of the IAM rally, Mendez had emerged as the charismatic spokesperson for the union drive. A powerful preacher in the tradition of the southern black Baptist church, Mendez effortlessly interspersed the words of Jesus and John L. Lewis and led the audience in singing “Solidarity Forever” and “We Shall Overcome.” There were several hundred union supporters in the ballroom of the Holiday Inn that night, with a good mix of blacks and whites and men and women. By the end of the Reverend Mendez’s remarks, they were all standing, holding hands, tears running down their faces, testifying to their belief in one another, asking for God’s support for their efforts, and praying for victory the next day.

There it was happening in front of me: black and white workers uniting around Jesus and the union. Although scenes like this are not unheard of in the South, they are certainly not commonplace. But they have increased in recent years, perhaps nowhere as impressively as in the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina. Although there are few factory workers in the mass demonstrations that have spread all over the state—as there are few factory workers left in North Carolina—there is a strong working-class presence of school teachers, nurses, clerical workers, and fast-food employees. At the head of this movement is the Reverend Dr. William Barber, the president of the state’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the pastor of the Disciples of Christ Greenleaf Christian Church. [End Page 79] Barber is a talented thinker and speaker who quotes from the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and works of history. He describes Moral Monday as a Fusion movement, a reference to the biracial coalition that took control of North Carolina’s government at the end of the nineteenth century.

Watching Barber and Mendez, who is often by Barber’s side, as I was thinking about Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Ken Fones-Wolf’s engaging and ambitious Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie raised a question in my mind that the authors do not directly address. Could the CIO have won Operation Dixie if it had tried to build a broad-based campaign that sought to organize both blacks and whites and where possible to build biracial alliances? By putting all of its eggs in one basket—the white textile industry—the CIO reinforced the very division that kept the South virtually union free. By focusing on whites, it hoped to avoid race-baiting. Instead, it made race a central issue of the campaign.

Fones-Wolf and Fones-Wolf ask a different question. Given that the CIO chose to target white workers in the textile industry, why was Operation Dixie not more successful? More specifically, they want to know what role, if any, religion played in Operation Dixie’s defeat. They argue that religion was central to the defeat, in part because of how effectively manufacturers and religious leaders used evangelical Christianity to stigmatize unions and union organizers as “Un-Godly Communists” and, more generally, because that brand of Protestantism shaped the values of white textile workers in ways that limited their support for unionization. The first part of their argument is unequivocally...


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