Category: African American history
The peculiar patriotism of Confederate monument huggers | Opinion

Updated on September 25, 2017 at 2:05 PM

In “Bart-Mangled Banner,” a 2004 episode of The Simpsons, 10-year-old Bart Simpson offends the town of Springfield when it appears to them that he’s mooning the United States flag.  It’s all a big misunderstanding, one that can only be understood by watching the whole episode which includes Bart going temporarily deaf, Bart taunting a donkey at a donkey basketball game and that donkey ripping Bart’s shorts off with its teeth right before the flag is displayed for the national anthem.  The people of Springfield are outraged at Bart’s apparent disrespect.

“How dare he?!” a character of obvious Southern extraction yells.  “That’s the flag my grandpappy rebelled against!”

I think we need to stop pretending that episodes of The Simpsons don’t predict the future.  “Bart-Mangled Banner” aired more than 13 years ago, and, yet, it seems to precisely predict the contradictions being noisily aired in 2017:  so-called patriots shedding tears over the erasure of Confederate iconography from the public landscape while simultaneously professing allegiance for the flag the Confederates opposed.

Consider Beth Mizell, the Republican state senator from Franklinton who failed in her attempts to protect four Confederate monuments in New Orleans from being removed.  In June, she released a 4-minute video explaining her opposition to the monument-removal trend.  It includes this doozy: “No real citizen was screaming for those monuments to be torn down, but now they’re gone.”

You’re a citizen of the United States at birth if you were born in the United States or one of its territories; or if you were born abroad to parents who were citizens. You can also be foreign-born and apply for naturalization.  Everybody I know personally who was opposed to the monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and the White League is a citizen, a real citizen.

Mizell is doing that thing that so many conservative politicians do: dismissing people who disagree with their opinions as phony or fraudulent Americans, as inauthentic. She doesn’t even concede that the anger at the monuments might be real, vowing to keep fighting to protect disputed monuments “regardless of who wants to pretend to be offended.”

In her mixed-up worldview, being an American means honoring those people who took up arms against America to perpetuate the enslavement of black people.

If Mizell were by herself, we could respond to her comments real citizens with a laugh and a “whatever.” But she’s not by herself. She’s one of many who have expressed the peculiar belief that reverence for the Confederacy and its symbols is part and parcel of reverence for the United States.

Even the president of the United States falls within that group. Donald Trump has criticized those who protest “our beautiful (Confederate) statues and monuments,” and he’s criticized those who, he says, are disrespecting the American flag by declining to stand respectfully as the national anthem is played.  On which side would Trump have fought in the Civil War?  Or would he have taken his morally evasive “bad people on all sides” approach?

It certainly is confusing to hear people declare allegiance to the United States flag at the same time that they’re weeping at the removal of Confederate flags and monuments. Some people might believe that some black people are sending mixed messages when they criticize they, say,  properly criticize the Confederate battle flag as treasonous and racist and at the same time support professional athletes who kneel during the national anthem.  But it should be fairly easy to understand:  Most sensible black people hate the Confederacy and its images and find it foolish that anybody would expect them to harbor anything other than hatred for the army that fought for their ancestors’ enslavement. Protests that intersect with displays of the United States flag aren’t coming from a place of hatred but disappointment:  How come America isn’t as good as she claims to be? Why won’t Americans collectively demand that everybody be treated fairly and justly?  In a country that has a Constitution and says it follows the rule of law, how is that police officers, government agents, get to kill black people with near impunity?

Martin Luther King Jr. expressed that disappointment the night before he was assassinated when he said, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.'” After pointing out the promises explicitly guaranteed by the First Amendment, King declared that “the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”

A Gallup poll conducted two years before his assassination revealed that a large majority of Americans had a negative opinion of King. That should let us know that anybody who points out that America isn’t what she says she is, anybody who demands that America stop doing black people wrong, is going to be criticized – reviled even.

But somebody’s got to point out the hypocrisies: the hypocrisy of lingering racism in a country with a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution and the hypocrisy of so-called patriots championing the Confederacy and its imagery.

Jarvis DeBerry is deputy opinions editor for NOLA.COM | The Times-Picayune. He can be reached at or at

Report on the Negro Question:

Report on the Negro Question:

Speech to the 4th Congress of the Comintern, Nov. 1922.

by Claude McKay

Published in International Press Correspondence, v. 3 (Jan. 5, 1923), pp. 16-17.

Comrade McKay: Comrades, I feel that I

would rather face a lynching stake in civilized

America than try to make a speech before the most

intellectual and critical audience in the world. I

belong to a race of creators but my public speaking

has been so bad that I have been told by my

own people that I should never try to make

speeches, but stick to writing, and laughing. However,

when I heard the Negro question was going

to be brought up on the floor

of the Congress, I felt it

would be an eternal shame if

I did not say something on

behalf of the members of my

race. Especially would I be a

disgrace to the American

Negroes because, since I

published a notorious poem

in 1919 [“If We Must Die”],

I have been pushed forward

as one of the spokesmen of

Negro radicalism in America

to the detriment of my poetical

temperament. I feel

that my race is honored by this invitation to one

of its members to speak at this Fourth Congress of

the Third International. My race on this occasion

is honored, not because it is different from the

white race and the yellow race, but [because it] is

especially a race of toilers, hewers of wood and

drawers of water, that belongs to the most oppressed,

exploited, and suppressed section of the

working class of the world. The Third International

stands for the emancipation of all the workers of

the world, regardless of race or color, and this stand

of the Third International is not merely on paper

like the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution

of the United States of America. It is a real


The Negro race in the economic life of the

world today occupies a very peculiar position. In

every country where the Whites and Blacks must

work together the capitalists have set the one

against the other. It would seem at the present day

that the international bourgeoisie would use the

Negro race as their trump card in their fight against

the world revolution. Great Britain has her Negro

regiments in the colonies and she has demonstrated

what she can do with her Negro soldiers by the

use that she made of them during the late War.

The revolution in England is very far away be-

cause of the highly organized exploitation of the

subject peoples of the British Empire. In Europe,

we find that France had a Negro army of over

300,000 and that to carry out their policy of imperial

domination in Europe the French are going

to use their Negro minions.

In America we have the same situation. The

Northern bourgeoisie knows how well the Negro

soldiers fought for their own emancipation, although

illiterate and untrained, during the Civil

War. They also remember how well the Negro soldiers

fought in the Spanish-American War under

Theodore Roosevelt. They know that in the last

war over 400,000 Negroes who were mobilized

gave a very good account of themselves, and that,

besides fighting for the capitalists, they also put

up a very good fight for themselves on returning

to America when they fought the white mobs in

Chicago, St. Louis and Washington.

But more than the fact that the American

capitalists are using Negro soldiers in their fight

against the interests of labor is the fact that the

American capitalists are setting out to mobilize the

entire black race of America for the purpose of

fighting organized labor. The situation in America

today is terrible and fraught with grave dangers. It

is much uglier and more terrible than was the condition

of the peasants and Jews of Russia under

the Tsar. It is so ugly and terrible that very few

people in America are willing to face it. The reformist

bourgeoisie have been carrying on the

battle against discrimination and racial prejudice

in America. The Socialists and Communists have

fought very shy of it because there is a great element

of prejudice among the Socialists and Communists

of America. They are not willing to face

the Negro question. In associating with the comrades

of America I have found demonstrations of

prejudice on the various occasions when the White

and Black comrades had to get together: and this

is the greatest difficulty that the Communists of

America have got to overcome-the fact that they

first have got to emancipate themselves from the

ideas they entertain towards the Negroes before

they can be able to reach the Negroes with any

kind of radical propaganda. However, regarding

the Negroes themselves, I feel that as the subject

races of other nations have come to Moscow to

learn how to fight against their exploiters, the

Negroes will also come to Moscow. In 1918 when

the Third International published its Manifesto

and included the part referring to the exploited

colonies, there were several groups of Negro radicals

in America that sent this propaganda out

among their people. When in 1920 the American

government started to investigate and to suppress

radical propaganda among the Negroes, the small

radical groups in America retaliated by publishing

the fact that the Socialists stood for the emancipation

of the Negroes, and that reformist America

could do nothing for them. Then, I think, for the

first time in American history, the American Negroes

found that Karl Marx had been interested in

their emancipation and had fought valiantly for

it. I shall just read this extract that was taken from

Karl Marx’s writing at the time of the Civil War:

When an oligarchy of 300,000 slave holders for

the first time in the annals of the world, dared to

inscribe “Slavery” on the banner of armed revolt, on

the very spot where hardly a century ago, the idea of

one great democratic republic had first sprung up,

whence the first declaration of the Rights of Man was

issued, and the first impulse given to the European

revolution of the eighteenth- century, when on that

spot the counter-revolution cynically proclaimed

property in man to be “the cornerstone of the new

edifice” — then the working class of Europe

understood at once that the slaveholders’ rebellion

was to sound the tocsin for a general holy war of

property against labor, and that (its) hopes of the

future, even its past conquests were at stake in that

tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic.

Karl Marx who drafted the above resolution

is generally known as the father of Scientific Socialism

and also of the epoch-making volume

popularly known as the socialist bible, Capital.

During the Civil War he was correspondent of the

New York Tribune. In the company of Richard

McKay: Speech to the 4th Congress of the Communist International 3

Published by 1000 Flowers Publishing, Corvallis, OR, 2005. • Free reproduction permitted.

Transcribed by William Maxwell for the Modern American Poetry website.

PDF version published here by permission.

For further information on Claude McKay and his role, see Dr. Maxwell’s book,

New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism between the Wars.

(New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

Cobden, Charles Bradlaugh, the atheist, and John

Bright, he toured England making speeches and

so roused up the sentiment of the workers of that

country against the Confederacy that Lord

Palmerston, [the] Prime Minister, who was about

to recognize the South, had to desist.

As Marx fought against chattel slavery in

1861, so are present-day socialists, his intellectual

descendants, fighting wage slavery.

If the Workers Party in America were really a

Workers Party that included Negroes it would, for

instance, in the South, have to be illegal, and I

would inform the American Comrades that there

is a branch of the Workers Party in the South, in

Richmond, Virginia, that is illegal — illegal because

it includes colored members. There we have

a very small group of white and colored comrades

working together, and the fact that they have laws

in Virginia and most of the Southern states discriminating

against whites and blacks assembling

together means that the Workers Party in the South

must be illegal. To get round these laws of Virginia,

the comrades have to meet separately, according

to color, and about once a month they

assemble behind closed doors.

This is just an indication of the work that

will have to be done in the South. The work among

the Negroes of the South will have to be carried

on by some legal propaganda organized in the

North, because we find at the present time in

America that the situation in the Southern States

(where nine million out of ten million of the Negro

population live), is that even the liberal bourgeoisie

and the petty bourgeoisie among the Negroes

cannot get their own papers of a reformist

propaganda type into the South on account of the

laws that there discriminate against them. The fact

is that it is really only in the Southern States that

there is any real suppression of opinion. No suppression

of opinion exists in the Northern states

in the way it exists in the S outh. In the Northern

states special laws are made for special occasionsas

those against Communists and Socialists during

the War — but in the South we find laws that

have existed for fifty years, under which the Negroes

cannot meet to talk about their grievances.

The white people who are interested in their cause

cannot go and speak to them. If we send white

comrades into the South they are generally ordered

out by the Southern oligarchy and if they do not

leave they are generally whipped, tarred and feathered;

and if we send black comrades into the South

they generally won’t be able to get out again —

they will be lynched and burned at the stake.

I hope that as a symbol that the Negroes of

the world will not be used by the international

bourgeoisie in the final conflicts against the World

Revolution, that as a challenge to the international

bourgeoisie, who have an understanding of the

Negro question, we shall soon see a few Negro

soldiers in the finest, bravest, and cleanest fighting

forces in the world — the Red Army and Navy

of Russia — fighting not only for their own emancipation,

but also for the emancipation of all the

working class of the whole world


The night Dr. Daddy-O forever changed New Orleans radio

Pioneering New Orleans radio personality Dr. Daddy-O, aka Vernon Winslow, works the mic in an undated file image. In May 1949, Winslow became the first black deejay to get his own full-time radio show in New Orleans. The airwaves were never the same.
Pioneering New Orleans radio personality Dr. Daddy-O, aka Vernon Winslow, works the mic in an undated file image. In May 1949, Winslow became the first black deejay to get his own full-time radio show in New Orleans. The airwaves were never the same.(The Times-Picayune archive)

The Times-Picayune is marking the tricentennial of New Orleans with its ongoing 300 for 300 project, running through 2018 and highlighting the moments and people that connect and inspire us. Today, the series continues with the on-air arrival of Dr. Daddy-O, who would change the face of New Orleans radio for generations.

300 for 300 logo.jpg

THEN: It was the late 1940s and it was the South, so while Vernon Winslow was hired to help create the soon-to-be iconic Poppa Stoppa radio show on New Orleans’ WJMR, he — as a black man — wasn’t allowed to go on the air. Rather, he was brought on as a writer and programmer, coaching white deejays on how to “sound black” and picking hip new R&B records for them to spin. Then, one night in 1948, he decided to read one of his own scripts on the air. He was fired immediately. But within six months, in May 1949, the folks at Jax Brewery and Fitzgerald Advertising, eager to market to New Orleans’ black consumers, offered to sponsor a show for him to host, titled “Jivin’ with Jax,” on competing station WWEZ. New Orleans radio had officially been integrated, and a local broadcast icon was born.

NOW: Winslow, who later in his career focused more on spinning gospel music than R&B, died in late 1993 and was buried in Lake Lawn Cemetery. His legacy lives on across New Orleans’ radio dial, however, as the man who influenced generations of on-air talent, from Poppa Stoppa to Jack the Cat to Okey-Dokey Smith and beyond. “It was like the Berlin Wall. He broke down the walls,” legendary New Orleans recording engineer Cosimo Matassa is quoted as having once said.


  • Winslow was first invited to visit the WJMR studios — at that time in the Jung Hotel — based on a phone call. When he went up to meet station management in person, however, the light-skinned Winslow had a rude awakening. “They said, ‘Are you a n—-r?,'” Winslow remembered in a 1977 interview with The Times-Picayune. “I said, ‘Yes.’ So they said, ‘You can’t be a disc jockey, but you can write our copy.'”
  • Dr. Daddy-ONew Orleans radio pioneer Vernon Winslow, aka Dr. Daddy-O, at the console in December 1986.

    “Jivin’ with Jax” broadcast from the Hotel New Orleans. It being the Jim Crow era, Winslow had to take the freight elevator to the studio. He later moved his operation to Matassa’s J&M Studios, first pre-recording his show for broadcast and later broadcasting live from J&M with Dave Bartholomew’s house band providing background music.

  • Jax billed Winslow as “New Orleans’ first sepia disc jockey” and had him train deejays in other markets.
  • Born in Ohio and raised in Chicago, Winslow earned a fine arts degree from the University of Chicago before relocating to New Orleans. “Had things worked out for me in a way that my talent could support me, I would have been a painter,” Winslow told The Times-Picayune in a 1986 interview.
  • Before his radio days, Winslow earned a master’s in education from Tulane, which helped him land a job teaching art at Dillard University.
  • In the late 1950s, Winslow went to work for New Orleans radio station WYLD, where he stayed on and off for more than 30 years hosting a gospel show.


Much is made in the music world about “the New Orleans sound.” But before Dr. Daddy-O signed on, that sound was decidedly muted for the simple reason that “race” records received limited play at best on local radio stations. “Other stations were too dignified to play rhythm and blues,” Winslow said in a 1987 interview with The Times-Picayune. That would soon change. By the end of 1949, the city had its first true black radio station, in the form of WMRY, which broadcast from the Court of Two Sisters restaurant. It would later become WYLD. A second black station, WBOK, signed on about a year later. Those stations have been credited with helping to put local R&B on the map — and on the air. With musicians eager to be heard, and audiences eager to listen, it would lead to a boom in New Orleans-styled R&B that would all but define the radio waves for decades to come.

By: Mike Scott, staff writer
Sources: The Times-Picayune archive; “The Death of Rhythm and Blues,” by Nelson George; “New Orleans Radio,” by Dominic Massa; staff research

Jefferson Davis was never a president | Opinion

In the recent debate over removing Confederate monuments from public spaces, defenders of the statues have argued that such action was part of an attempt to “erase history” and suggested that adding historical information to the sites would better serve the public.

That raises the question of what history will be added and who gets to write it.

“History is always written by the winners,” author Dan Brown says. “When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books — books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?'”

But until recently, the history represented by the Confederate monuments was written by the losing side, a fable honoring men who were committing treason in a rebellion against the United States. The statues have been rightly ridiculed as the 1860s equivalent of participation trophies.

The historical markers written by “winners” would not likely please supporters of the monuments to Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Confederacy.

Christopher Wilson, director of the African American History Program and Experience at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, makes that point in a piece on under the headline “We Legitimize the ‘So-Called’ Confederacy With Our Vocabulary, and That’s a Problem.” The summation is that “Tearing down monuments is only the beginning to understanding the false narrative of Jim Crow.”

“Most of these monuments sprang from the Lost Cause tradition that developed in the wake of the war, during the establishment of white supremacist Jim Crow laws around 1900, and as a response to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s,” Wilson writes. “Those artifacts are not the only way we legitimize and honor the deadly and racist 19th-century rebellion against the United States. Much of the language used in reference to the Civil War glorifies the rebel cause.”

Wilson builds on a 2015 article by Michael Landis urging his fellow historians to reconsider the terms and language they use when writing about the Civil War and the issues leading up to it.

Landis suggests that we call plantations what they really were, slave labor camps, and to stop referring to the United States as “the Union” and the rebelling states as “the Confederacy,” suggesting a conflict between two equal nations. The Confederacy was never officially recognized by any other world government, and in the view of President Abraham Lincoln and others, the United States never ceased to exist, including those 11 states in rebellion.

Wilson says legal historian Paul Finkelman has made a compelling case against the label “compromise” to describe the legislative deals that kept the slaves states from bolting sooner. Compromise, Finkelman says, implies that both North and South gave and received equally in the bargains over slavery.

He says “appeasement” is a more accurate term as the northern lawmakers gave the slave states almost everything they demanded, “including an obnoxious Fugitive Slave Law, enlarged Texas border, payment of Texas debts, potential spread of slavery into new western territories, the protection of the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and the renunciation of congressional authority over slavery. The free states, in turn, received almost nothing (California was permitted to enter as a free state, but residents had already voted against slavery). Hardly a compromise!”

And as long as we are letting the winners write the inscriptions, we should let President Lincoln have his say.

Lincoln consistently referred to the seceding states as the “so-called Confederacy” and made a point of ignoring Davis’ claim to be president of the CSA, calling him — and never by name — only the “insurgent leader.”

And, if we’re are being strictly accurate the highest rank Robert E. Lee achieved in the U.S. Army was colonel. Given that he achieved the higher rank only in service to a failed rebellion, should we really refer to him as Gen. Lee?

Wilson offers a look at how the current debate might look if we rescued our history from the viewpoint and vocabulary of the Lost Cause.

“When news reports about the debate over monuments say ‘Today the City Council met to consider whether to remove a statue commemorating General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army,’ what if they instead were written in this way: ‘Today the City Council debated removing a statue of slaveholder and former American army colonel Robert E. Lee, who took up arms in the rebellion against the United States by the so-called Confederacy’?”

Tim Morris is an opinions columnist at | The Times-Picayune. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tmorris504.

A Louisville union built its strength as blacks, whites took on International Harvester
| August 30, 2017 | 6:44 pm | African American history, Labor | No comments

They crop up right around now, along with the ads for mattress sales: the annual assessments of the state of the American labor movement. There will be a certain mournful sameness to these Labor Day reflections.

While wages stagnate and inequality escalates, union membership rates continue plunging.

The Trump Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress are not, to put it mildly, looking to reverse that trend.

“Right-to-work” is now the rule in most states, as Kentucky and Missouri passed such legislation earlier this year.

And just a few weeks ago, the high-profile organizing effort at Nissan’s Mississippi plant ended in failure.

If you’re a union supporter, all that might well put a damper on your backyard barbecue.

Inevitably, these analyses will focus on the American South. They’ll note the region’s lack of union tradition, the chronically sub-par standard of living, the toxic division sown by racism. The Mason-Dixon line serves as firewall, sustaining an employer-safe zone that undermines organized labor’s ability to secure a firm foothold anywhere else. This deeply-rooted reality makes it hard, these days, to envision how working people can unite to challenge corporate power.

Except that not too long ago, and right here in Louisville, a different story was being written.

“We’re not going to be second-class citizens in the South.” That’s what the 2,000 workers at the sprawling new International Harvester factory — which once stood where planes now take off from Standiford Field — declared in 1947. They objected to the lower pay scale that Harvester management had imposed, and to underscore their point, they walked out of the plant. They then kept it shut down tight in a raucous strike that dominated Louisville’s headlines for over 40 days.

What made this action run contrary to much conventional wisdom is that Harvester’s wages were generous by Southern standards. And nearly all of those who walked out had never been in a union before. And during the strike, whites and African-Americans demonstrated a level of solidarity unprecedented in then heavily-segregated Louisville. And one more thing made the “Southern differential” strike of 1947 noteworthy, then and now: With only $61 in their local union’s treasury, the workers took on one of the world’s most powerful corporations — and won.

Industrial empire built on anti-unionism
International Harvester ceased to exist in the mid-1980s, so it bears reminding that it was one of America’s original industrial empires. Cyrus McCormick began production of his namesake reaper in Chicago before the Civil War and soon became one of the nation’s richest men; in 1902 the company — which the McCormick family continued to control — morphed into International Harvester, a farm equipment monopoly employing hundreds of thousands. IH was a global enterprise well before “globalism” became common parlance, with factories, mines and mills scattered from Australia to Russia to Benham, Kentucky (a coal operation and company town Harvester built and owned in its entirety).

But from its early days the company also garnered a reputation for something else: anti-unionism.

Police violence during a strike outside the McCormick factory triggered the 1886 protest at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, which devolved into chaos when a bomb suddenly exploded. In the aftermath four anarchists were hanged and the eight-hour movement died with them. Cyrus McCormick II played a prominent role in securing both outcomes.

In the early 20th century, IH pioneered in the new field of industrial relations, developing more sophisticated methods to quash workers’ organizing efforts. Consequently, even with the upsurge of activism in the Great Depression, International Harvester remained union-free, holding out even after behemoths such as General Motors, Ford, Republic Steel and General Electric had succumbed. It was not until 1941 that Harvester president Fowler McCormick (grandson of both Cyrus McCormick I and John D. Rockefeller) finally signed a multi-plant contract. By the end of World War II, Harvester’s many manufacturing operations — all of them located in the Midwest or Northeast — were at long last unionized.

No surprise, then, that the union that broke through at IH was bold and unflinching. The Farm Equipment Workers, known as FE, was officially formed in 1938; it was one of the founding unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations — the CIO. It was never a very big operation but garnered an outsized reputation for its militancy, with many of its key leaders connected to the Communist Party. “The philosophy of our union,” an FE official explained, “was that management had no right to exist.” In practice, this meant, among other things, a preference for addressing workers’ complaints at once, instead of adjudicating them through a grievance procedure; plants represented by the FE thus registered exceptionally high levels of walkouts between contracts. It, then, was at the least ironic, and perhaps constituted some measure of poetic justice, that historically anti-union IH would find itself saddled with the relentlessly radical FE.

So, as Fowler McCormick planned his company’s postwar expansion, he looked to the largely nonunion and low-wage South. In 1946 IH purchased a former aircraft facility in Louisville and began retrofitting it to manufacture small Cub tractors. When it opened, all the employees were men, most quite young; a hefty percentage were recently-returned World War II veterans. The factory would become the largest in Kentucky, employing by the 1950s over 6,000 people — more than 15 percent of them African-American, as IH applied its equal opportunity policy to its Southern plant — and was once the biggest tractor production facility in the world.

But Harvester did not achieve all it had hoped for in its move South: In July 1947, FE Local 236 secured bargaining rights at the Louisville plant.

‘Hell, a Negro couldn’t even look at a machine’
The leaders of this new local, said FE literature, believed in “something hitherto almost unknown in Louisville — their policy of militant trade-unionism, their conviction that once the Negro and white workers were united, the low-wage system of the South would collapse.” Its president was hard-charging, hard-drinking and politically radical Chuck Gibson, a white worker from the assembly department. Fred Marrero, already known in Louisville as an outspoken African-American activist, was the Local’s Secretary-Treasurer. African-Americans Sterling Neal and Jim Wright were also key leaders. And the FE staffer assigned to Louisville was Bud James, a patrician-turned-firebrand, who’d abandoned his University of Chicago education first to join the Communist Party and then to sign on as an FE organizer. Within this group, the oldest was in his early 30s and all but Neal had seen active combat during World War II.

As their first undertaking, they decided to challenge International Harvester over the very reason the company had come to Kentucky in the first place.

Harvester claimed a “belief in Louisville and its future” brought it to town, but Local 236 insisted the company was instead drawn by “bright dreams of cheap Southern labor.” Wages “are set in accordance with the generally prevailing rates in a given community,” so Harvester said to defend its Louisville pay scale, the lowest at any IH factory.

It was this “Southern differential” that Local 236 leaders vowed to eliminate.

But before taking on management, they first needed to convince the Louisville workforce that they were owed more than they were being offered. Initially, it was a tough sell. Harvester’s wages were at least as good as those paid by nearby employers, and for blacks, in particular, the plant promised opportunities unavailable elsewhere. Jim Wright remembers that even he had to be persuaded at first:

“To the common guy on the street, that got a job at Harvester, well, you’d think he’d gone to heaven. They give those guys jobs, give them a machine — hell, a Negro couldn’t even look at a machine nowhere, wouldn’t even let him clean it up — and here they were running it, had all these benefits, and things. If a guy in Indianapolis, or someplace like that, doing the same job like I was on, and I was getting 35 cents an hour less than he was getting, I used to think that was all right …”

Yet the Local 236 leadership hammered away at the differential.

“We make the same tractors [Harvester] sells to the same farmers; they don’t sell a Southern tractor one penny cheaper than they sell another tractor,” Sterling Neal said, recalling the arguments they used. “We’re not going to be second-class citizens in the South.”

To prevail on this point, Local 236 leaders insisted that racial unity was essential. FE literature emphasized that “the Southern bosses for generations had played Negro against white, and white against Negro” and insisted “there was a direct connection between that and the fact that Southern workers were the lowest paid in the country.”

Given the characteristics of the workforce — the vast majority white, many from outside Louisville — Jim Wright was not sure this would prove a winning argument. “We had hillbillies, that’s all we had,” he said. “Farmers. Guys who wore overalls. Chewed tobacco, spitting on the floor. And those kind of guys were racist — I mean real racist.”

FE leaders in Louisville hoped they had convinced workers, both black and white, to challenge their status as “second-class citizens” within the Harvester empire. It was nonetheless a gamble when, on Sept. 17, 1947, a union contingent went to the front office with petitions calling for the elimination of the “Southern differential.” But when the plant manager refused to discuss the matter, “a lot of the workers spontaneously began to shout, ‘Let’s hit the bricks,’” Sterling Neal recalled.

“It wasn’t started as a strike — it was merely a demonstration in the shop,” Bud James said, adding, however, “the guys were so startled by seeing their own strength that they pulled out together” and the plant emptied out. The Local didn’t have a union hall yet, so James scrambled to find one; FE leaders were also uncertain whether their walkout was legal — especially because a new law, the Taft-Hartley Act, had just been passed — so they dubbed it “a continuous meeting.” And they didn’t even have a membership roster or a list of employees, so the day after the strike began they put out a call for workers to come by the new union hall in downtown Louisville to sign up for picket duty — or rather, register as “meeting notifiers” — figuring that way they’d be able to collect some names. The response stunned even the leadership, as James recalled:

“Well, the next day something like 2,000 people showed up, and there was a double line, and the girls at the typewriters spent the whole day giving them their slips and their duties. This double line stretched out into the hall, down the stairs and onto the sidewalk and clear around the block. They waited all day in line to register for that strike. I’ll never forget that line.”

Courier-Journal photo, 1949

Arrests did not stop strikers
With this early demonstration of enthusiasm, the walkout became what Jim Wright called “a humdinger.” Production was entirely halted at the plant, as sizable picket lines patrolled the gates, at first turning back even management personnel. This was too much for Harvester to accept; “unlawfully and by force,” the company argued in court, Local 236 had effected “a seizure of the Louisville Works [which] resulted in the denial to Harvester of access to its own property except by permission of the union.” Ten days into the walkout, IH got the injunction it sought, limiting to two the number of strikers at any of the plant’s six entrances.

This didn’t change things much, however, as Chuck Gibson seized on the fact that the order omitted any mention of how often substitutions were allowed. “Nothing can prevent you from replacing a fellow worker every 30 seconds,” Gibson told the Local’s members, and so they still congregated near the plant — sometimes over 1,000 strong — waiting to take their turn on the line. Since the surrounding area was then largely vacant countryside, the police tolerated the throngs, so long as they “stood away from the gates.”

But they frequently pressed too close. In one two-day stretch in October, for instance, 30 union members, both black and white — including Chuck Gibson, Bud James, Fred Marrero and Jim Wright — were arrested for various forms of picket-line misconduct. Gibson was charged with overturning a plant foreman’s car — while the foreman was still in it. Once out on bail, they went back at it again: James was hauled in at least six times during the strike. Though Harvester invited employees to return, few did; the union claimed only a few dozen white workers, and no African-Americans, crossed the picket line.

“In Louisville there hadn’t been a successful strike in an industry,” Sterling Neal indicated, “since anybody could remember … it wasn’t like Detroit or Chicago or Pittsburgh, or someplace where shops had been shut down. It just had never been done here.” Yet the Local’s rank-and-file took easily to aggressive, and creative, labor activism. One morning, 800 World War II veterans in the Local, wearing their old uniforms, paraded around the plant, led by an African-American, former Marine sergeant. On another occasion, they parked their cars, three abreast, on the street leading to the plant; traffic was gridlocked as the union conducted a meeting in the middle of the road.

The FE also appealed to the broader public, insisting that “Harvester is not being a good citizen of this community.” The differential enriched the company and the McCormicks, while Louisville workers “can afford to buy less consumer goods, less services, less of what the farmer produces.” On their lone hand-operated mimeograph machine, Neal said, “we ran off about 10,000 handbills a day” and union members “went out into the street corners and left the stuff all over town.”

Some material was distributed even farther afield. “Quite a few of the boys had relatives all around through what we call Kentuckiana, between here and Indianapolis and as far South as the Tennessee line, and those fellows making the trips over the weekend while we were on strike, they’d take a lot of those handbills and they’d leave them off in these little hamlets [and] the general stores,” Neal recalled. Strikers’ wives, as well, visiting “scores of rural communities” helped circulate fliers pointing out to small farmers — the IH Cub’s customer base — “that they would not get the tractor any cheaper if the tractor was made in Louisville but still the company wanted to pay a cheaper wage.”

Courier-Journal, photo by Jim Harlan, taken Feb. 28, 1952.

Black and white on the picket lines
This activity transformed the Local’s membership. “Everybody was cutting everybody’s throat in this area,” Sterling Neal said of race relations among workers, and thus outside the FE “everyone was sure we were going to lose” when the strike began. “This is a Southern town, and the thinking of the guys is Southern,” Neal said. “But one thing that happened during that strike: The fellows met together in the hall, they ate together, they picketed together and they practically lived together down in the hall, which was an unusual thing … it was the first strike in Louisville when Negro and white guys were really out on the picket lines battling together.” As a result, Jim Wright said, the 1947 walkout “unified the people” in nascent Local 236.

International Harvester, of course, made its own appeals during the walkout. In late October, Harvester sent a letter to all its employees represented by the FE, decrying the “situation” in Louisville. “The Company wants good relations with responsible unions,” but with the FE that was impossible, the letter said, since its officials were “irresponsible radicals.” The letter concluded with this advice to the FE membership: “Get yourself some new leaders.”

Those “irresponsible radicals” in the union’s top leadership responded by threatening to pull all 35,000 Harvester workers in the FE out on strike, because the “precedent in Louisville” would allow the company “to cut wages … throughout the chain.”

Harvester capitulated, granting hefty wage increases to end the walkout. On Oct. 27, the members of Local 236 returned to work with “two smashing victories in hand,” so said the FE News, “one over International Harvester, the other over the Mason-Dixon, low-wage line.”

‘A religious feeling of them sticking together’
The “Southern differential” fight was over, but its lessons reverberated. Local 236 waged “a constant campaign” about racial solidarity, said civil rights leader Anne Braden, who began working with the FE in 1948.

“I never went to a meeting that somebody didn’t get up and make a speech about the reason we’re so strong and we can win — and they always said that they had the highest wages in the South, and I never saw that refuted anywhere. The reason we’ve got all that is because we stick together, black and white. They attack a black worker, and we’re there to do something. We’re going to walk out of that plant — this is the reason we’ve got the strong union. And they preached that constantly.”

This “constant campaign” carried into the community as well, with Local 236 at the forefront of battles in the late 1940s and early 1950s to desegregate Louisville. But to Jim Wright, perhaps the FE’s biggest impact came at the personal level, as those whites who had come into the Harvester plant as “real racists” became friends with black workers there.

“They’d go along with [blacks], eat with them, go places with them, go hunting with them, walk out with them, work on a machine with them, have fun in the shop with them. That was a new thing for [the white workers]. That union had put what people call some kind of religious — I don’t mean a biblical religion — I mean a religious feeling of them sticking together.”

But the militant FE, beset not just by International Harvester but the labor establishment too — was declared “communist-dominated” and expelled from the CIO in 1949. It was unable to survive. In 1955, the FE merged into the much larger United Auto Workers.

So the union and the company are both long gone. But something remarkable happened at the plant that once stood on Crittenden Drive: Black and white workers there decided that none of them should be “second-class citizens,” and fighting together, they got what they deserved.

On this Labor Day in particular, that’s worth remembering. •

Toni Gilpin, a labor historian, is working on a book about the Farm Equipment Workers union, entitled “The Long Deep Grudge: An Epic Clash Between Big Capital and Radical Labor in the American Heartland.”

Activist, Comedian Dick Gregory Leaves Behind, Uncompromising, Unbought Legacy
Activist and comedian Dick Gregory

Activist, Comedian Dick Gregory Leaves Behind, Uncompromising, Unbought Legacy

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Stalwart activist and comedian Dick Gregory died Saturday at the age of 84. A contemporary of Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell, Gregory was renowned for his biting sense of humor, incisive commentary on political issues and his commitment to healthy living.

Radio Sputnik’s By Any Means Necessary speaks with Keith Silver, former special assistant to Dick Gregory, about Gregory’s legacy and how he was able to sustain a long career without compromising his principles.

“If I had to capture the essence of Dick Gregory in ten words or less, I guess it would be ‘Dick Gregory daily walked with God and God daily walked with him,'” Silver said, “The single most important fact about Dick Gregory is long before celebrities and high profile folks adopted causes to enhance their status, Dick Gregory not only daily put his life on the line, but put his income on the line.”

​Silver said that he was “still somewhat in a state of shock” over Gregory’s death, but said he can see his influence even in current demonstrations, such as this weekend when an estimated 40,000 people showed up in Boston to protest a far-right “free speech” protest.

“The events in Boston spoke to the essence of Dick Gregory because he continuously fought for the downtrodden, for the bypassed and the polarized peoples of the world,” Silver explained.

He described Gregory’s life as an 84-year long curtain call, because the comedian possessed a humility that wouldn’t allow him to hog the spotlight.

“If you didn’t catch him before he left (an event) he didn’t stick around for applause or standing ovation, he always cited the people who did the groundwork to pull these events off.”

By Any Means Necessary host Eugene Puryear pointed out Gregory’s ability to strike at the heart of racial issues in his comedy, saying he had an “unbelievable ability to make light of so much of the racism that we face as black people but in a way that really touched people.”

“His comedy came from his creative genius,” Silver concurred, “he didn’t have time to script this out. He could speak on current events and be just as poignant, just as articulate, and he didn’t mind putting humor in there to break things up, but he could speak to the issue point blank.He was an authority on many subjects.”

Gregory was well known for fasting for health and political reasons, and Silver noted that famed musician John Lennon credited Gregory for instructing him and wife Yoko Ono on a fast they conducted in protest of the Vietnam War and helping inspire his song “Imagine.”

Ono and Lennon conducted this fast during a “Bed-in” where they spend extended periods of time lying bed as part of the demonstration. Silver recalls an amusing story Gregory told him where the prominent couple asked if he’d like to join them in bed, but he politely declined.

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