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  • Odell Smith, Teamsters Local 878, and Civil Rights Unionism in Little Rock, 1943–1965
  • Michael Pierce (bio)

In February 1945 the radical preacher, civil rights activist, and union organizer Claude C. Williams returned to Little Rock, Arkansas, after a three-year absence and found dramatic improvements in the city's race relations. Efforts to promote black rights were attracting much larger crowds, and interracial organizations could meet unmolested by the city's police. Williams, who normally was eager to claim credit for any such success, declined to attribute these changes to his People's Institute for Applied Religion, other Popular Front groups that had agitated before the war, or the Double V campaigns led by the city's middle-class African Americans. Instead, he rooted the advances in race relations in the simple fact "that there is a labor movement in Little Rock."1 The labor movement that Williams identified as so instrumental in improving Little Rock's racial climate was different from the ones that historians commonly associate with labor's civil rights activism of the 1930s and 1940s. Rather than being led by communists, fellow travelers, or industrial unionists, Little Rock's labor movement was headed by people associated with traditional American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions, with no one more influential than Odell Smith, the white president of both the Little Rock Trades and Labor Council and the city's most powerful union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 878.

This essay traces the civil rights activism of the Odell Smith–led labor movement and his Teamsters local from World War II through the mid-1960s, when Local 878 began working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to organize factory workers in the Arkansas [End Page 925] black belt. During these two decades, a coalition that National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) state chapter president Daisy Bates described as "labor, Negroes, and liberals in the cities" faced off against the planters, bankers, and industrialists who had traditionally controlled Arkansas politics. This union-funded, class-based biracial coalition was critical for advancing civil rights in the state, and organized labor emerged as black Arkansans' most important ally in the freedom struggle. Although the rise of massive resistance to school desegregation and the crisis at Little Rock's Central High School threatened the leadership of Odell Smith and those trade unionists committed to sustaining a laborblack-liberal alliance, these labor leaders survived and reinvigorated the alliance through the open schools movement and opposition to erstwhile ally Orval E. Faubus. This post–Central High crisis period witnessed the most dramatic gains for the black freedom struggle in Arkansas. As Ozell Sutton, Little Rock's most prominent black activist of the era, later recalled, "It was the coming together of liberals, blacks, and unions that really brought the change that was made in this city and state."2

The story of Odell Smith and labor's civil rights efforts in Little Rock challenges both strands of the historiography of the Central High crisis. One strand focuses on the African American experience and stresses black agency and institution building. These historians acknowledge that a few white individuals aided the freedom struggle but emphasize the overwhelming white opposition to black rights. Whatever differences these scholars see within the white community represent competing strategies to maintain white supremacy rather than evidence of moderation. But these historians fail to recognize the importance of coalition building to the gains of the black freedom struggle.3 Those historians who focus on the city's white community—the second strand—essentialize working-class whites as unconditionally hostile to integration and black rights and then contrast [End Page 926] this unyielding hostility to the willingness of white elites to moderate their racist views. Typical in these works is Pete Daniel's insistence that the Central High crisis began as "a confrontation between Little Rock's working-class blacks and whites, who were competing for jobs, education, and respectability." As this confrontation threatened the prosperity of the larger community, Daniel argues, white business leaders and their wives embraced racial moderation, allied with the black community, battled working-class segregationists for control of the school board...


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