- Tangled: Organizing the Southern Textile Industry, 1930–1934 by Travis Sutton Byrd
Historians of the southern textile industry during the Great Depression associate two years from that era with strikes: 1929, when labor unrest engulfed mill towns such as Gastonia and Marion, North Carolina, and Elizabethton, Tennessee, and 1934, when a massive textile strike spread from Alabama to Maine. Travis Sutton Byrd has written about the 1929 strikes in Unraveled: Labor Strife and Carolina Folk during the Marion Textile Strikes of 1929 (Knoxville, 2015). Janet Irons and John A. Salmond each have also written histories of the general textile strike of 1934; Salmond has also written a book on the 1929 Loray Mill strike in Gastonia. Now, in Tangled: Organizing the Southern Textile Industry, 1930–1934, Byrd looks at the period between the textile strikes of 1929 and 1934, although he also devotes the last of the book's three parts to the 1934 strike.
Part 1 of Tangled covers the "Organize the South" campaign, which was launched by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in late 1929 after the failure of the textile strikes. Byrd examines how "national union leaders … tried to convert [the] bloodshed" of those strikes "into a wedge issue that would crack the factories of the piedmont open" (p. 4). In explaining the failure of this campaign, Byrd focuses heavily on the strike that occurred at the Riverside and Dan River Mills in Danville, Virginia, in 1930, which ended in failure in four months, after strikers were evicted from company-owned houses and became destitute. With the end of that strike came the end of the AFL's southern campaign, "killed on the banks of the Dan River" (p. 146).
Part 2 examines the strike in High Point, North Carolina, waged by hosiery boarders during the summer of 1932. The "Boarders' Revolt" came on the heels of wage cuts by several mills. The strike spread to include as many as 20,000 operatives in three counties, and it proved that workers could represent themselves without the United Textile Workers or the communist organizers who were in the area. The operatives won the strike in less than two weeks, in part due to the intervention of Governor O. Max Gardner, to whom Byrd ascribes "a milquetoast [End Page 730] progressivism" (p. 15). Part 2 makes the book's most original contribution with its detailed account and analysis of the Boarders' Revolt.
Part 3, in contrast, deals with the far more well-trodden ground of the general textile strike of 1934. Byrd covers this strike in about fifty pages, and he suggests that "strikers agitating for reform under NIRA [National Industrial Recovery Act] Section 7(a) could be seen as a first wave of the civil rights movements that would rework sectional identity" (p. 265). He further asserts that "'right-to-work' doctrine would go hand in hand with 'massive resistance' in the 1950s and 1960s, and many supporters of the latter crossed picket lines in the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s under the banner of the former" (p. 265). Finally, Byrd argues that the birth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1935 "was the upshot and outcome of everything that had transpired in the textile belt since the autumn of 1929" (p. 286).
This book makes a significant contribution to the existing literature on southern labor during the Great Depression. This review only scratches the surface of what Tangled has to offer. The book makes use of a wide variety of primary sources, including the deep level of newspaper research that the digital era affords. The lack of a bibliography is disappointing and, in a way, does the author an injustice, as it would catalog an impressive amount of research. With Unraveled and Tangled, Byrd—a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, according to the back cover—has established himself as a leading scholar in the field.