- Reverend Addie Wyatt: Faith and the Fight for Labor, Gender, and Racial Equity by Marcia Walker-McWilliams
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016
ix + 266 pp., $95.00 (cloth); $28.00 (paper); $25.20 (e-book)
Addie Wyatt—labor organizer, black community organizer, feminist, and minister—lived her life where the lines of race, class, gender, and religion intersect. From the Mississippi Delta to the South Side of Chicago, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, and the Vernon Park Church of God, Wyatt traversed a landscape that was at once black, white, and interracial; male-dominated labor activism and labor feminism, community organization and workplace union, "worldly" networks and communities of faith. Telling the story of Wyatt requires that her biographer be agile in negotiating these worlds. Biographers and their subjects often come to grief over such conflicting and competing claims for significance and meaning. More challenging yet, working-class lives, even those that are spent in public, leave behind scant and scattered evidence, much of it poorly suited for the intimate task of biography. To understand the story of the Reverend Addie Wyatt, an African American worker and labor organizer, feminist civil rights advocate and Pentecostal minister, one has to have the chops for it.
Biographer Marcia Walker-McWilliams aspired to that challenge when she took on writing the life story of Wyatt, one of the best-known women trade union leaders in the mid-twentieth century and a person of interest and importance in African American history, women's history, and the history of labor. Like other labor leaders who come from the working classes, Wyatt's archival traces leave little but institutional records; but Walker-McWilliams was able to expand her research with rich oral history interviews of Addie Wyatt and her colleagues. The result is a dense, fact-filled account of an exceptional individual—a woman trade union leader who advocated for racial and gender equality and led religious community choirs and also served on the President's Commission on the Status of Women and in the Chicago mayoral campaign of Harold Washington.
Born in modest circumstances in Mississippi, Wyatt (née Cameron) came of age in Chicago schools and matured within her close-knit family and the church. Marrying her high school sweetheart Claude at the age of 16, Wyatt quickly became a mother and then, after her mother died, guardian of her younger siblings. She first worked in a packinghouse and later in a canning factory during and after World War II. In 1953, she became the first woman president of United Packinghouse Workers local 56. Over her career, she also became the first woman vice president of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butchers, a member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and a vice president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Wyatt's life was thus witness to the great social justice struggles of the twentieth century—including the fight for fair public housing, against poverty, against race and sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual violence—in Chicago neighborhood and city politics and as part of the national labor [End Page 133] and women's movements. Wyatt became known for her relatively radical labor movement politics and associated with causes such as the Equal Rights Amendment and, toward the end of her life, with local struggles for the same union she served for more than three decades.
The frame for Walker-McWilliams's narrative of Wyatt's life is a religious one, stemming from Wyatt's devout upbringing in Mississippi and Chicago, her participation in and leadership of church and community, and Wyatt's own attribution of her work to faith and religious principles. These values, which are echoed in interview quotes and in published articles, establish Wyatt's own deep connection between Christian principles and her social justice work in ways that Walker-McWilliams characterizes as the "social gospel." While that term seems out of place in a late twentieth-century biography, Wyatt's social justice practice was rooted in this precursor to liberation theology and in the religiously inspired civil rights...