"Everything Changed, but Ain't Nothing Changed": Recovering a Generation of Southern Activists for Economic Justice
Thuesen, Sarah C., Southern Cultures
The passing of forty years since the tragic death of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. has prompted many Americans to look back at the late 1960s and take stock of where we are today. In 2001 the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) made the complexities of that collective reckoning the centerpiece of "The Long Civil Rights Movement: The South Since the 1960s" (LCRM), a study of the post-1960s South, emphasizing school desegregation, economic justice, gender equality, gay liberation, and other social justice struggles. As SOHP director Jacquelyn Dowd Hall argued at the inception of this project, public memory often distorts the history of the Civil Rights Movement by suggesting that it reached its resolution by the late 1960s. This version of the past not only obscures the Movement's more radical aims but also ignores an entire generation of activists who sought to protect and extend the legacies of the 1960s. Their stories are essential for reckoning with the region's past and shaping its future. (1)
The LCRM project's fieldwork emphasizes the exciting potential for linking memories of the recent past with urgent questions of social justice in the present-day South. After conducting over one hundred oral histories of school desegregation in four main sites--Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Charlotte, North Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; Louisville, Kentucky--the SOHP began in the summer of 2005 to explore the history of post-1960s economic justice activism. (2) At that time, project coordinators anticipated that their biggest challenge might be to convey the objectives of the project to a broad public audience. While school desegregation constitutes a readily remembered--if often misremembered--moment in southern history, economic justice activism in the post-1960s South comprises a less familiar and direct narrative, taking the form of many different movements with wide-ranging goals. Moreover, the economic story that often dominates popular renderings of recent southern history is the rise of the Sunbelt and regional prosperity. For multiple reasons, then, the SOHP research team wondered whether an oral history project centered on economic justice struggles would resonate with public memories of the post-1960s South.
About two months into this research, however, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, and suddenly it seemed that the South's struggle for economic justice was no longer a forgotten story in need of recovery but rather the story of the moment. Yet the flurry of media attention presented new distortions of southern history, often suggesting that the poverty of New Orleans was an isolated tragedy rather than part of a larger regional pattern. Moreover, many media reports suggested that Hurricane Katrina awakened a nation that for more than a generation had failed to pay attention to issues of race and class. As historian Paul Ortiz recently argued, such claims ignored the fact that many social policies of the past thirty years were carefully "formulated more on the basis of enhancing the race and class privileges of the few rather than delivering the greatest good to the many." (3)
As the work of the "Long Civil Rights Movement" initiative reveals, post-Katrina claims about America's inattention to matters of race and class also ignored the efforts of an entire generation of activists for economic justice. In 2006 SONY interviewers traveled to New Orleans and returned to earlier LCRM project sites in search of those activists. (4) Their stories collectively situate the social justice struggles of New Orleans in a broader chronological and regional narrative. In Birmingham, Charlotte, and Louisville, the SOHP team interviewed over seventy members of those communities representing a rich variety of southern economic justice activism: foot soldiers in the War on Poverty who extended their work beyond the 1960s; fair housing advocates; legal aid attorneys; environmental justice activists; residents of low-income neighborhoods undergoing urban "revitalization"; pioneering "firsts" who helped to desegregate the southern labor market; and union organizers in the South's new and old industrial sectors. Some, but not all, of these men and women self-identified as civil rights activists and saw their economic justice work as a clear extension of the movement of the 1960s. The SOHP purposely interviewed a diverse selection of subjects, with the intention of revealing the broad contours of economic justice activism in the post-1960s South. From that initial sampling, several themes and interconnecting stories have emerged.
Many participants shared narratives of workplace integration that complement the SOHP's earlier work on school integration and reinforce the critical point that overt barriers to both economic and educational privilege remained intact in the late 1960s and eroded only as African Americans tested legislative guarantees of equal opportunity. Alabama State Representative Mary Moore (D-59th District) was one such pioneer in Birmingham. Having participated as a teenager in many movement meetings and the "Children's Crusade" marches that helped to desegregate Birmingham in 1963, Moore sought economic opportunity in the early 1970s within Birmingham's growing medical complex, which stood as a symbol of that city's post-1960s rebirth. Moore quickly discovered, however, that the racism of Birmingham's past was still very much alive when she integrated the University of Alabama at Birmingham's new medical technology program:
[My teachers] had a way of not ever being able to say Negro. It always came out, "'Niggras' are not mentally able to do well in science courses ..." My thought process was this: I attended Tuskegee Institute. My chemistry instructor was one of the top chemists from Germany.... You going to tell me little old UAB that's got a School of Medical Technology over the Dew Drop Cafe where we listen to country music everyday, smell all the greasy food, going to tell me I can't pass your chemistry courses? Your parasitology, your biology. I told them that--I had to explain to them. They thought I was crazy ... I'm saying, "Look here. You're just getting off the ground and ... everything you presented to me was on a high-school level compared to what I had at Tuskegee...." Then what they would do is if I made an A or a B on a test they would tear it up in front of the class. Then all the white students would laugh. The instructor would come by and say we can't let this slip by that a Negro was able to do better on the same level as whites. You had to endure that type of mental thing and take your mind to a different level to accept it and say, "I'm not going to allow you to tear me down." (5)
Moore went on to have a thirty-year career as a medical technologist at Birmingham's Veteran's Administration Hospital and continued to fight for workplace equality through her involvement in the American Federation of Government Employees.
Moore's extended struggle to open the doors of economic opportunity parallels the story of other narrators, including Napoleon Chisholm, a veteran of the postal service in Charlotte, North Carolina. Like Moore, Chisholm found that barriers to economic advancement persisted even within integrated institutions. He described to interviewer Elizabeth Gritter how he overcame his fears of challenging the system and decided to blow the whistle on the local postmaster's unequal promotional practices:
Now, 1960 to 1972 I'm looking and observing. I don't even let my left hand know what my right hand is doing. I don't even let my wife know because you've got a grapevine. My wife could end up in a beauty parlor some place and tell somebody who tells a beautician who tells somebody else and it gets back. I just didn't like what was taking place. My question was, am I going to work under this for the rest of my life? So after I'd finished, I mean as [far as documenting] time, dates, places, discrepancies, differential treatment, I sat down and wrote a letter to the postmaster, and I simply explained to him that I'd been a post office employee for fifteen years, ... [and] I asked him for one minute of his time for each year I had been an employee. That was fifteen years.... Anyway, I got a letter back from him saying that no such meeting would be allowed. Now what do you do then when you work for somebody for fifteen years, and you ask, well, can I come in your office and say hello, and they tell you no? So where do you go? Fortunately the Congress had made an avenue as to where I could go. (6)
Chisholm filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, with the help of civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, eventually won a class action lawsuit in 1981.
While interviews about educational and workplace activism often centered on battles for black inclusion within previously white-controlled institutions, narratives of housing-related struggles often focused on ongoing African American efforts for neighborhood preservation and control within southern cities still marked by high levels of residential segregation. These stories offer a broad regional context beyond New Orleans's post-Katrina battles over urban space and community ownership. (7) In the mid-1970s, for example, city officials in Charlotte proposed using Community Development Block Grant funds to tear down a large number of houses in Biddleville, an African American neighborhood That proposal infuriated Louise Sellers, a single mother and resident homeowner, who took it upon herself to fight the city's plan. Her advocate, Legal Aid attorney Ted Fillette, described how she mobilized an entire neighborhood with the help of VISTA volunteers:
They started taking carloads and busloads of residents to the city council meetings and completely filling the audience to express their displeasure with the plan.... [Sellers] would go door to door and tell people they needed to come out. They needed to find babysitters or they would bring the children with them. Sometimes there were children of all ages who were coming down to these city council meetings and packing the room. After having that done once or twice, the decision by the city council, which was not made in public, ... was to tell the staff to go negotiate with the community organization about a new plan so that nobody would lose face. The upshot of that was that a new plan was devised and what it did was save all of the structurally feasible housing that was in the community. So I think generally speaking, people in the community thought that was a good compromise ... [The whole experience] gave the neighborhood a sense that they could have some power. At one point, the director of the city neighborhood development department tried to hire Ms. Sellers, which we interpreted as somewhat of a blatant attempt to co-opt her. At that point, I took her to see the movie Norma Rae so that she could try to get some perspective on what kind of role she was playing.... I think she appreciated seeing that and could see how the city would like to get rid of her because she had a whole lot more power than she imagined. (8)
Thirty years later, the residents of Charlotte's Belmont neighborhood are facing a similar struggle for power. Belmont had been home to white textile workers until the 1960s, when African Americans who had been displaced by urban renewal projects elsewhere in the city began moving there. (9) The resulting white flight and neglect created the conditions for an economically distressed neighborhood that by the 1980s had some of the city's highest rates of drug-related violence. In close proximity to Charlotte's business district, Belmont now draws intense interest from developers who, according to local residents, are pressuring them to sell their homes. As Diane English, a Belmont homeowner and neighborhood activist, put it: "I think what is happening is everything is on hold until [the developers] see how many of us they can get rid of. It'll make it much easier for them to move in for the kill, as I say, to take over." (10) English was particularly concerned in 2006 when the city demolished Piedmont Courts, a 60-year-old housing project located on the edge of the neighborhood. In its place, the city is building a mixed-income development using federal HOVE VI funds, but many residents at the time of these interviews expressed skepticism about the city's intentions and feared that its ultimate goal was to squeeze out Belmont's low-income residents.
SOHP interviewer Dwana Waugh interviewed several former residents of Piedmont Courts, who forthrightly acknowledged its shortcomings yet lamented what they saw as the city's weakening commitment to low-income residents. In the late 1960s, Annie Harrell Cox's family became one of the first African American families to live in Piedmont Courts. Cox recalled that in the 1980s violence increased within Piedmont Courts and community cohesion declined, but she nonetheless emphasized the pride she had once felt in calling Piedmont Courts home:
I looked at Piedmont Courts as if some ... rich person looked at their home, as home. That's the way I looked at Piedmont Courts. When they tore down my building in Piedmont Courts, apartment 302, I felt it in my heart. When I went past Piedmont Courts yesterday, and just about all of those projects are gone, I cried, sitting at the red light looking and I cried, because that was home. And like I've said more than once, Piedmont Courts was for low-income families. The income that my father brought in, that was the best that he could do, that was the best that he could do, but we took care of it. We mopped every day. I mopped my mother's house every day. I got down on my hands and knees and waxed them floors. You could eat off our floors. We took care of it. That was home, that was home. (11)
Cox's pride in her former home echoes sentiments expressed in many of the SOHP's earlier oral histories about segregated schools, where nostalgia for past institutions emerged alongside critiques of institutional inadequacies in the present. (12)
While these memories of African American struggles for workplace equality and for neighborhood preservation highlight the enduring significance of race in the post-1960s South, many narrators nonetheless shared a sense of the late-1960s as a radical turning point when southerners began to forge new institutions and coalitions around commonly held economic interests and across race lines. Guy Tipton, a longtime organizer for the Laborers' International Union of North America, recalled how in the 1970s and 1980s he assembled an unlikely alliance of municipal workers in Alabama:
There were still some Klan members ... [who] were members of the union, but it seemed like the black guys and white guys just overlooked those issues when it came to strikes and the job itself because everybody benefited economically.... What I saw were a group of people and the city of Birmingham was a common enemy. I think that's why they stuck together is they didn't dwell on that issue. They looked at the city of Birmingham as a common enemy, and they bonded against the city. (13)
Like Tipton, Lula Hodges also emphasized the revolutionary potential of the post-1960s South. A former resident of the Cotter & Lang Homes housing project in Louisville, Hodges served on a neighborhood board that in the late 1960s used War on Poverty funds to develop a community center and health clinic. She described for interviewer David Cline the significance of that board's inclusion of low-income residents:
We [were] able to express how we felt, what we needed, what we wanted.... When we went to Washington or went to wherever we went to these high official people, we were able to say, "Look, we ain't dumb. We're smart. We might not have nothing. I might not even have a job, but I do have the common sense to know I want to live better than this." And they listened. But see, the majority of boards you have now do not even have the poor people on it. The people are talking up there that never lived like we lived. When we ask for something, they can't even really feel it. (14)
In contrasting what she sees as the impoverished civic culture of today with the experimental power-sharing of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hodges recasts the immediate post-King years as a radical--if ultimately embattled--moment in the Civil Rights struggle.
Many narrators similarly paired recollections of past organizational potential with present-day expressions of loss, including Representative Mary Moore, who observed diminishing black solidarity across class lines. Comparing the Birmingham of her youth with the city today, she insisted that in the 1960s she could not have fathomed the class divide that she now observes in Birmingham's black community: "Never would I have believed that if you had a black earning X number of dollars that all of a sudden they felt as though other blacks were beneath them." (15) White activists also experienced the post-1960s era as a moment of declining group cohesion. Following the splintering of the Louisville-based Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF) into ideological factions in the 1970s, former labor organizer and SCEF member Ira Grupper recalled learning an important lesson: "When people can't accomplish what they want to accomplish, they fight amongst themselves." (16) Al McCullough, a bricklayer from Birmingham and third generation union man, pointed to the significance of collective memory in explaining why his own network of union members lost power in the 1980s. After sharing a story about union solidarity in his father's and grandfather's eras, he reflected on the shortcomings of his own generation: "We didn't keep talking about these stories like I just told you, about what workers did. What they had to do. How they had been treated.... We became individuals. We allowed ourselves to be reduced to the lowest common denominator: the individual. When you do that the person with the money is always the one in power." (17) These narratives of individual or organizational shortcomings emerged alongside discussion of structural and political barriers that stood in the way of visions for economic justice: de-industrialization, unemployment, high rates of African American incarceration, the destructive role of drugs (including the War on Drugs) in poor neighborhoods, disinvestment in social welfare programs, federal surveillance of suspected "radicals," and the ascendance of the political Right.
In addition, in reckoning with the legacies of the post-1960s-era Civil Rights Movement, many activists echoed the sentiments of Andrew Broadnax, longtime employee of the city of Birmingham and president of Local 1317 of the Laborers' International Union. Having participated in Birmingham's dramatic protests of the 1960s, Broadnax emphasized the enduring hierarchies of economic power and privilege in the city:
Black[s] don't control nothing here, don't own nothing. So that's the reason why I say everything changed, but ain't nothing changed when it come to black[s]. [When] you go and try to get [a] loan or something, they going to give you a million questions about your mama, grandmamma, and all that, then just come back and tell you no. You white, and go down and want an application or a loan, you get it right then. You black, they want to know my mama's mama. (18)
Broadnax's sentiment that "everything changed, but ain't nothing changed" carries added resonance in a post-Katrina South. In fact, while these oral histories of economic justice struggles offer a powerful collective challenge to popular declension narratives of the Civil Rights Movement, many former participants in those battles nonetheless filter their memories of past triumphs through a heightened awareness of the unfinished business of the present.
This phase of the LCRM project, then, powerfully reinforced how the memories of a forgotten generation of activists could offer context for social justice struggles that are very much ongoing. With that possibility in mind, the SOHP is now planning a significant expansion of its "Long Civil Rights Movement" research with the help of a major $937,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of New York. This three-year grant--"Publishing the Long Civil Rights Movement"--is a collaborative effort by the SOHP, UNC Press, the UNC Center for Civil Rights in the School of Law, and UNC Libraries. It aims to expand the reach of the SOHP's interviews, use new digital technologies to facilitate the production and distribution of scholarship, and foster civic engagement with the history of contemporary social justice struggles. The Mellon grant, explained SOHP director Jacquelyn Hall, will "invite the participation of a community of scholars in ways that we would not have dreamed of just a few years ago." (19)
This essay is adapted from a paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the OHA, Little Rock, AR, 2006.
The author would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of her colleagues at the Southern Oral History Program: Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Joseph Mosnier, Elizabeth Millwood, and Kerry Taylor, with special thanks to the project team that collected the interviews described in this essay: Joseph Mosnier (project co-coordinator), David Cline, Elizabeth Gritter, Kimberly Hill, Aidan Smith, and Dwana Waugh. She also thanks Laura Caldwell Anderson, Pamela Grundy, Horace Huntley, and Tracy K'Meyer for serving as lead associates in the project's main interviewing sites. Finally, the sore, is grateful to the men and women who granted interviews for this project. Their interviews can be found in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
(1.) Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, "The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past," Journal of American History 91 (March 2005): 1233-1263. It is beyond the scope of this essay to acknowledge edge the wealth of scholarship that has informed the "Long Civil Rights Movement" initiative, but Hall's article includes an extensive review of this literature.
(2.) For an overview of the SOHP's work on school desegregation, see "The SOHP's 'Long Civil Rights Movement' Initiative Post-1960s Race and Schools Research: Reflections and Comment," unpublished paper delivered by Joseph Mosnier at the Oral History Association Annual Meeting in Little Rock, Arkansas, October 2006.
(3.) Paul Ortiz, "The New Battle for New Orleans," in John Brown Childs, ed., Hurricane Katrina: Response and Responsibilities (New Pacific Press, 2005), 2.
(4.) The SOHP's work in New Orleans was conducted in partnership with the New Haven Oral History Project, Yale University, and the Louisiana State Museum. New Haven Oral History Project director Andrew Horowitz and UNC doctoral student Pamela Hamilton presented the results of the "Imagining New Orleans" initiative at the 2006 annual meeting of the Oral History Association in Little Rock, Arkansas.
(5.) Interview with Mary Moore by Sarah Thuesen, 17 August 2006, U-0193, in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hereafter SOHP.
(6.) Interview with Napoleon Chisholm by Elizabeth Gritter, 10 May 2006, U-0094, SOHP.
(7.) SOHP interviewers are exploring the connections between local battles for school desegregation and economic integration. See Kimberly Hill, "Spinning Rims and Locked Doors: Economic Transition After Desegregation in Birmingham Public Schools," unpublished paper delivered at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the Oral History Association, Little Rock, Arkansas; and "Fighting for Freedom in Charlotte: A Work in Progress," a panel session at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which included Charlotte activists Annie Bradley Fiadjigbe and Mable Latimer and SOHP associates Dwana Waugh, Pamela Grundy, and Sarah Thuesen.
(8.) Interview with Theodore Fillette by Sarah Thuesen, 11 April 2006, U-0186, SOHP.
(9.) Thomas Hanchett, historian of the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, offers a history of the Belmont neighborhood on the website of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission: http://www.cmhpf.org/kids/neighborhoods/belmont-et-al.html. For the broader story of shifting racial patterns in Charlotte's residential areas, see Hanchett's Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
(10.) Interview with Diane English by Sarah Thuesen, 19 May 2006, U-0183, SOHP. In interviewing English and other Belmont residents, the SOHP worked in cooperation with the American Institute of Architects - Charlotte Section, which was working to preserve and document the history of the Belmont neighborhood.
(11.) Interview with Annie Harrell Cox by Dwana Waugh, 16 July 2006, U-0161, SOHP.
(12.) This conceptualization of the role of nostalgia comes from Barbara Shircliffe, The Best of That World: Historically Black High Schools and the Crisis of Desegregation in a Southern Metropolis (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2006).
(13.) Interview with Guy Tipton by Sarah Thuesen, 17 August 2006, U-0196, SOHP.
(14.) Interview with Lula Hodges by David Cline, 2 June 2006, U-0114, SOHP.
(15.) Interview with Mary Moore by Sarah Thuesen, 17 August 2006, U-0193, SOHP.
(16.) Interview with Ira Grupper by Sarah Thuesen, 20 June 2006, U-0176, SOHP.
(17.) Interview with Al McCullough by Sarah Thuesen, 19 August 2006, U-0192, SOHP.
(18.) Interview with Andrew Broadnax by Sarah Thuesen, 18 August 2006, U-0191, SOHP.
(19.) For more information: http://SOHP.org/news/SOHP_news_lcrm_momentum.html.…
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Publication information: Article title: "Everything Changed, but Ain't Nothing Changed": Recovering a Generation of Southern Activists for Economic Justice. Contributors: Thuesen, Sarah C. - Author. Journal title: Southern Cultures. Volume: 14. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 2008. Page number: 142+. © 1999 University of North Carolina Press. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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