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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with David Burgess, September 25, 1974. Interview E-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Growing interest with organizing southern labor

Harry Ward's assistant, Jack McMichael, had the strongest impact on Burgess. Through McMichael's influence, Burgess became aware of his middle class status and came to eschew the typical path of labor movement orientation by going southward. To Burgess, southerners' frank articulation of the South and northerners' prototypical types of people increased Burgess's interest in the South.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with David Burgess, September 25, 1974. Interview E-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

How did you perceive the conflict between Harry Ward and other professors at Union?
Well, I think I was influenced by Jack McMichael, the assistant to Ward at Union. Jack came out of the Student Christian Movement.
The what movement?
Student Christian Movement. He was in China in '37, and he was sort of the darling of Mrs. F.D.R. at that time. I had fought the Communists at Oberlin, very hard, partly because I couldn't make up my mind about Spain, later because I was shocked by the German-Russian pact - nonaggression pact - in 1939. I saw what they did to students. I had some friends killed in Spain, and I just didn't like their absolutism, and I could not stomach the noncritical attitude towards Russia that was represented in Harry Ward at that time. And Jack was almost an apologist for Russian power as such. In addition to the question of war, I saw the Communists switch after June 20, 1941 when Russia was invaded from a "phoney war" position, to a position against all strikes in American industry during World War II. I said, "Things don't change that quickly." So I think it's that background, both in college and after college, that made me very skeptical of Communists and the absolutism of Harry Ward. I think Harry Ward was at that time almost a spent force in Union. He didn't pull much weight. This was during the war years. However, I think that I was influenced by Jack McMichael in terms of the realization that I was from a middle class family, and that I had to expose myself to southern culture. Therefore I didn't want to go in the conventional labor movement in the East and the cities of the North. The South was a more challenging situation.
Why did you view the South as . . . ?
I think I read W. J. Cash's book, The Mind of the South. I was very influenced by that. Later I read Southern Politics by V.O. Key and I read some other things. I was a friend of Alexander Heard (now Chancellor of Vanderbilt University) in Washington together in '39 and '40. I liked the South. I liked southern people. I found a naturalness, frankness, even in bigots that I didn't find, say in somebody from cities of the North. Also I think that the fact that I went to prep school for one year before I went to Oberlin really turned me off with what we call the establishment," Wall Street types, Long Island types . . .