Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960-1980

By Clifford, Amber R. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960-1980


Clifford, Amber R., South Carolina Historical Magazine


Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960-1980. By Timothy J. Minchin. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Pp. xi, 342. $19.95, paper.)

Little is known or understood about the lack of economic equality that existed for African-American workers in the South after 1968. According to historian Timothy J. Minchin, the fight for economic equality was ignored by scholars and activists who chose to emphasize the victories of the pre1968 period. In his monograph, Hiring the Black Worker, Minchin examined the fight for economic equality in the Southern textile industry. As the leading industry in the South, the textile industry system led the fight against workforce integration well into the 1980s. With the help of government agencies and African-American advocacy groups, textile factory owners were eventually forced by law to integrate their workforces. According to Minchin, the integration of the Southern textile industry was central to the post-1968 Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

Though many historians have studied the importatnt role of textile factories in the South (such as Like a Family by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall et al.), Minchin is correct in stating that few historians have focused on the postCivil Rights Era textile industry. His landmark work won various literary prizes, including the 1999 Richard A. Lester Prize of the Industrial Relations Section of Princeton University, and a 2000 Choice outstanding Academic Title designation. However, this work did not receive recognition simply due to its subject matter. Minchin, who teaches United States history at St. Andrews University in Scotland, conducted an extensive oral history program to collect the stories of the workers themselves. The result is a work that mixes secondary research, public documents and the voices of African-- American factory workers. The stories of the workers, who faced and fought discrimination in the textile industry, added a deeply personal dimension to an important study.

Hiring the Black Worker contains three important points. The first of Minchin's points was that little attention was paid to the struggle for economic equality among African-Americans after 1968. This study focused on the textile industry that was based in the southern Piedmont region-far from the sights of Civil Rights protests in the deep South. Unlike other industries, the textile industry managed to stave off integration of its workforce until the 1970s. For example, well into the 1970s most African-- American workers in Southern textile factories worked in janitorial and menial jobs while white workers were employed on the production line. Minchin also wrote that the Southern textile industry was in a unique position to create support for integration in other Southern industries.The textile industry was the largest industry in the South, so integration in its workforce would be copied in other Southern industries. However, while the goals of political and legal equality were largely acheived by 1968, the textile industry made no effort to integrate its workforce in the "classic" Civil Rights period. According to Minchin, the key to integration in the textile industry was lawsuits filed by the workers themselves. During a recession in 1974-1975, textile companies began to consolidate. Large class action suits filed against these conglomerate companies in the 1970s forced factory owners to integrate their workforce.

Minchin's second point was that reforms in the textile industry were forced by a cooperation between African-American workers filing lawsuits and representatives of private and government agencies. According to Minchin, it was a "mixture of government pressure and accute labor shortage that explains why African-Americans made employment gains in the Southern textile industry at a faster pace than any other American industry" (p. 44). Government action concerning textile industry workers, including an Equal Employment Opportunity Comission forum on African-American employment in the textile industry in 1967, led many factory owners to comply with new Federal regulations. …

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