- Reverend Addie Wyatt: Faith and the Fight for Labor, Gender, and Racial Equality by Marcia Walker-McWilliams
Few people involved in the great struggles of the mid-to-late 20th century for the rights of women, workers, and against racism can say they were fully committed to each in equal measure. Except from within Black-church-based civil rights movements, few who committed to the often secular forms that labour and women's rights struggles took through the modern era can say they were also primarily motivated by their faith in God to organize. Reverend Addie Wyatt of Chicago transcended all of these realms.
In the richly detailed and well-researched study Reverend Addie Wyatt, historian Marcia Walker-McWilliams reconstructs the life and activism of a faith-based activist who is arguably one of America's most important and unheralded labour, civil, and women's rights leaders. Selected as one of Time magazine's "Women of the Year" in 1975, Wyatt's honour placed her accomplishments in line with a women's liberation movement that was invariably represented as white and middle-class in origin. As Walker-McWilliams notes, the Time article "minimized the importance and contributions of women of color and working-class women in the movement" whose lives and labours pre-dated the 1960s and 1970s iterations of women's rights activism. (2) As Walker-McWilliams further suggests, "more than anyone, Addie Wyatt – a black woman, a labor leader and a feminist – transcended the barriers between the organized labor and the women's movement in hopes of providing a stronger voice for women in labor and for working-class women and black women in the women's movement." (2)
Indeed, Wyatt's resume indicates that she literally lived and breathed intersectionality. Born in 1924 into an African American community in rural Mississippi, she and her family fled to Chicago during the Great Depression as many southern Blacks did over the course of these years. Wyatt was able to gain work in a canning factory during World War II and, from the 1940s through the 1960s, she rose through the ranks of locals in her union, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (upwa). Over time, she became the union's first female vice-president in the mid-1970s when the upwa was the Amalgamated Meat Cutters. Wyatt became the International Vice President and Director of Civil Rights and Women's Affairs with the United Food and Commercial Workers (upcw), which was one of the largest unions in the United States in the late 1970s and 1980s with over a million members. Upon her retirement in 1984, Wyatt was one of the "highest-ranked women in the organized labor movement." (3)
Over this time, Wyatt worked with numerous prominent Black labour and civil rights organizations including the Coalition of Labor Union Women (cluw), the Negro American Labor Council, and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. She helped her union, the upwa, lead fundraising efforts to support Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. She served on President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women as a member of the Protective Labor Legislation Committee and later "became [End Page 346] one of the nation's most outspoken proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment (era) and began lobbying for its ratification in the early 1970s." (4) In Chicago, Wyatt also became closely involved in significant local civil rights, church, and community empowerment organizations such as Jesse Jackson's People United to Save Humanity's Operation Breadbasket in the 1970s and in the campaigns to elect Harold Washington as Chicago's first Black mayor in the 1980s.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Walker-McWilliams' treatment of Wyatt's lifetime of activism is how Wyatt's labours in disparate social movements are shown to be integral expressions of her profoundly Christian universalism and deep commitments to her Protestant faith. Walker-McWilliams writes that Wyatt's ministry "offered an alternative to conservative, antifeminist interpretations of the Bible popular among the religious right...