An Unmistakably Working-Class Vision: Birmingham's Foot Soldiers and Their Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

That evening I got off work at three o'clock. I got on the bus, and it was a seat vacant beside this white fellow. It was so crowded that people were standing on the bus. All the rest of the black folk was sitting in the back or standing up.... And at this particular stop this white lady got off the bus. Where she had been sitting beside this white gentleman, I sat down beside him.... He grabbed me and said no nigger was going to sit by him.... He tried to push me out of the seat, and I held on.... [The driver] stopped the bus, got off, and made a phone call, fight there on Twenty-sixth Street and about Twentieth Avenue in North Birmingham. He stopped at a telephone booth and called the police.... So the police came.... [and] arrested me, taking me in, and locked me up. I could see the faces of some of them [black passengers], how happy they were.... Nobody else had the nerve to sit beside a white person on the bus.

Jimmie Louis Warren

THIS REMARKABLE STORY SOUNDS A LOT LIKE THE FAMILIAR TALE OF ROSA Parks, the tired woman who ignited the civil rights movement when she refused to give her bus seat to a white passenger. But this was Birmingham, not Montgomery, and the year was around 1960, not 1955. Jimmie Louis Warren, an African American man who worked in paper and pipe manufacturing, seamlessly melded his civil rights activism in the community with campaigns for justice on the job. (1) Like Rosa Parks, Warren represented only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Outside the view of Birmingham's white authorities--and beyond the gaze of most historical accounts--countless working-class black activists quietly engaged in a decades-long battle for access to good jobs, desegregation of social spaces, and the right to vote.

In tact, African American trade unionists and other workers developed and sustained an expansive vision of social change that placed economic justice issues at the center of Birmingham's larger black freedom struggle. Informal networks of black workers rooted in daily fights for equality on the job formed critical hubs around which the more familiar civil rights organizations often pivoted. Similarly, the most visible black leaders such as Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Arthur D. Shores, and Emory O. Jackson all based their own advocacy in the militant organizing tradition of African American labor activists. Black workers swelled the ranks of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), playing key roles both behind the scenes and in public demonstrations. The flowering movement throughout the city in turn reinvigorated the struggle of black workers on the job and within their white-dominated unions. From the 1930s through the 1960s, community- and workplace-based civil rights activism consistently dovetailed. Often orchestrated by the same individuals, struggles in one arena gained strength from and simultaneously emboldened the other.

At the core of all of it was the belief that human rights included not only the desegregation of public space but also the right to improve one's economic condition. Surprisingly, this principle survived the onslaught of the early cold war and persisted during even the darkest days of Jim Crow Alabama. The idea remained muted in the official pronouncements of civil rights leaders, and it proved anathema to most white officers of Birmingham's biracial unions. But it dominated the worldview of most black workers, and for that reason it became the linchpin of the entire black freedom struggle.

Jimmie Louis Warren's one-man bus sit-in was not a singular occurrence, nor did it come out of thin air. Rather, it represented just another manifestation of a well-documented African American protest tradition. If its ancestral roots are to be found in resistance to slavery, this tradition's modern lineage in the Birmingham area began with the formation of interracial unions in the mining industry. Both Brian Kelly and Daniel Letwin have shown that black workers before 1921 seized the opportunity to join the United Mine Workers (UMW), but their white counterparts often proved unsteady allies, causing the incipient union movement to founder. …