Impact of the civil rights movement on labor organization
Russell discusses the impact of the civil rights movement on labor organization in the South. According to Russell, the civil rights movement had two major impacts. First, he describes how it was demonstrative of the power of collective, direct action. Second, he argues that law enforcement and company bosses were more respectful of African American and other minority workers as a result of the civil rights movement. These things combined, he argues, were highly useful for the purposes of successful labor organization.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with John Russell, July 19, 1975. Interview E-0014-3. 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
- WILLIAM FINGER:
Let me ask you some more. Over this period of time, now, still from
fifty-five to the present, the Henderson strike was one big political
event in the state that affected trade unions. Were there some other
things, you keep talking about progressive trade unionism. The way what
you are trying to build can affect things, like the civil rights
movement in a town, or the Speaker Ban Law, or voter registration
- JOHN RUSSELL:
Probably the next biggest impact that was tremendous, that's
going to influence the South most is the civil rights movement. This
brought into play the tremendous power of blacks when they're
organized. They see it translated into plants. Take Lundy's
for instance. Lundy's back in 1958, fifty-nine, we had an
election there and what had happened, we organized that, had about
eighty-five percent signed up, but the international told me,
don't go to an election. We can shut him off in New York, we
have him by the balls. They had him, at the time, had him right where it
hurt. We waited, we waited better than a year, a year and two or three
months, and then we shut them off. And then came Landrum-Griffin in
that period, in 1959, and our guys were so scared
because of the provisions on the secondary boycott, that they
wouldn't move up in New York, we couldn't get them
to move. The international said we can't get them to do
anything because they're scared, and the
international's scared too. Nobody knew how they were going
on the law at that time, and so they said go ahead with an election, and
we went ahead, and we lost it by fifteen votes. A change of eight votes
would have won it for us. At that time about one-third were Indian,
about one-third white, and about a third were black. Today, eighty
percent are black. One of the reasons there is a big change in the
atmosphere in the whole town, the whole attitude in the town, back in
those days vice-presidents of banks went out visiting workers to get to
them, very frankly. If you vote for this union, or if we suspect you do,
your mortgage is coming due at a certain point, you better be right on
time with your payments, or you're in trouble.
We had merchants visiting. They used to come along on the street and pass
Manny, they searched Manny's car, and Millard
Barbee's * car.
Former N.C. AFL-CIO President They used
to search everybody's car two or three times a week if you
were around that area. They would pick up workers who were going to
work, walking down the street, blacks, Indians, whatever they were,
whites, pick them up, the cops would, and take them in and say, now
look, god damn it, you're drunk. I'm going to tell
you right now, the next time you get drunk if you're with
that union, you're in trouble. This is a
fantastic pressure to keep on for a year, a year and a half.
Don't forget, we went through a year of organizing before we
had to wait a year.
- WILLIAM FINGER:
Could you prove agency in a thing …
- JOHN RUSSELL:
Maybe, maybe we could have. But by the time we went up there, we thought
had it locked up. I never thought that, but we were told not to go in,
not to go for NLRB, it would shut them off. In those days we had Max
Block in New York with tremendous power, and we probably could have done
it. But anyway, we didn't go, but today it's a
different story. Today, I tell you the respect is absolutely fantastic.
From the police they came out they've got a town ordinance
saying the only reason we didn't challenge the town ordinance
against picketing was because they gave us twelve workers and
eight. Whereas if we went to court,
they'd probably get us cut down to four,
experience. We got the Firestone sales right next
door to them gave us a piece of land bigger than this right here. Pitch
your tents and stay. It wouldn't have happened in those days.
Part of it is because of the respect they had for these blacks.
They're no longer no god damned pushovers you undertand. Even
in the heart of the Klan country like that is. They're just
afraid of them, politically, they're afraid of marches, town
fathers are afraid of demonstrations. The chief of police, the whole god
damned gang are scared of the blacks. So this had a tremendous impact.