Iron and Steel: Class, Race, and Community in Birmingham, Alabama, 1875-1920

Iron and Steel: Class, Race, and Community in Birmingham, Alabama, 1875-1920

Iron and Steel: Class, Race, and Community in Birmingham, Alabama, 1875-1920

Iron and Steel: Class, Race, and Community in Birmingham, Alabama, 1875-1920

Synopsis

In this study of Birmingham's iron and steel workers, Henry McKiven unravels the complex connections between race relations and class struggle that shaped the city's social and economic order. He also traces the links between the process of class formation and the practice of community building and neighborhood politics. According to McKiven, the white men who moved to Birmingham soon after its founding to take jobs as skilled iron workers shared a free labor ideology that emphasized opportunity and equality between white employees and management at the expense of less skilled black laborers. But doubtful of their employers' commitment to white supremacy, they formed unions to defend their position within the racial order of the workplace. This order changed, however, when advances in manufacturing technology created more semiskilled jobs and broadened opportunities for black workers. McKiven shows how these race and class divisions also shaped working-class life away from the plant, as workers built neighborhoods and organized community and political associations that reinforced bonds of skill, race, and ethnicity.

Excerpt

In the years following the Civil War, some southerners wrote of the need to free the region from a dependence upon agriculture that, in their view, was a key factor in the failure of the Confederacy. They called for development of southern industries that would capitalize on the region’s natural resources and would provide a source of employment for its population. Industrialization, according to the vision, would provide the way for the South to redeem itself and, in time, rise again to ascendancy in the nation.

New South boosters did not ignore the potential problems that an industrialized society would generate. of particular concern were problems they associated with the presence of an industrial working class. Antebellum defenders of southern institutions had frequently argued that only in an agrarian society, and preferably one based on black slavery, could freedom and equality for white men be preserved. They described industrial societies in Europe and the northern United States that created large classes of men dependent upon other men for their existence. Among the “wage slaves” resentment festered until it exploded in periodic attacks on the employing classes. Advocates of the New South did not deny the accuracy of this image of industrialism. the South, they declared, could learn from the failures of older industrial societies. the industrial order they envisioned would distinguish itself from the industrial North by providing means through which white men would experience the prosperity and upward mobility that were essential to harmony in a free labor society.

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