Operation Dixie: Labor and Civil Rights in the Postwar South

Article excerpt

One of the important underlying factors perpetuating Southern segregation was the perceived need of Southern employers for a low-wage labor force. Since the days of slavery, Southern and Northern-based employers in the region had understood that low labor costs provided one of the South's main advantages over the North, a region more highly endowed with technology and capital. Landowners, businessmen and industrialists relied heavily on the racial system to maintain low wages and a "docile" work force, and on the poll tax and disfranchisement to keep political power securely in their hands. Even though World War II dramatically revamped the Southern economy, creating a higher-wage industrial sector and the possibility that the South in the postwar years would catch up with the North, chambers of commerce remained convinced that the South's cheap wages and plentiful raw materials remained key to continued growth. Southern industrialization in their view continued to require keeping African-Americans "in their place" and keeping unions out.(1)

Supporters of segregation did not usually defend the racial system before the white public in these terms. Appeals to white fears of the "mongrelization" of the "races" that would result from "social equality" between white and black, or accusations that civil rights supporters were closet communists, made far more unifying themes than did drawing the attention of the white population to the question of who had what economic stake in the racial system, as journalist Wilbur J. Cash pointed out.(2) Many white workers did believe they had a stake in segregation, for this system placed black workers at their disposal as "helpers," reserved the best-paid jobs for whites, and generally placed whites in a position of social superiority over blacks. At the same time, however, it could be well demonstrated that the racial division of labor, far from enriching the white worker, undermined unions, pulled down wages for everyone, and helped to keep Southern workers among the poorest in the United States. Economic elites did not draw attention to the economic basis of segregation for the very reason that some whites did much better than others by keeping black people down, and some whites did not seem to benefit from it at all.(3)

Industrial unionists had long sought to convince white workers that they had more to gain by joining together with black workers than by trying to keep them down, but egalitarian organizing efforts had been repeatedly defeated by appeals to whites to place their supposed racial interests above their class interests. During the 1930s, under auspices of the CIO, Southern workers engaged in unionization drives which often brought blacks and whites together in support of common economic demands, usually within and sometimes outside the normal confines of segregation. During these years, blacks often joined the CIO with little hesitation, while black churches provided a meeting place and organizing base for the CIO when many whites turned it away; such experiences caused many in the CIO to conclude that the cause of civil rights for black people and the right of workers to organize were inseparably bound in the South.(4) White working-class understanding of the economic costs of segregation, however, remained key to union success or failure.

In the postwar era, historic possibilities for breaking down the color barriers which divided Southern industrial workers seemed to be at hand. Previous experiences set the stage for the development of an interracial labor movement, but World War 11 had established the practical basis for organizing success. The war significantly interrupted the assault of Southern employers against unionization, particularly in growing urban manufacturing centers such as Birmingham and Memphis. Industrialization and urbanization changed the economic face of the South, along with the depression-era collapse of cotton tenancy and the increasing displacement of cotton as king. …