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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Russell, July 19, 1975. Interview E-0014-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

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.