Title: Oral History Interview with David Burgess, September 25, 1974. Interview E-0001.
Interviewer: Finger, William
Interviewee: Burgess, David
Subjects: Southern States--Race relations Trade-unions--Southern States American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. Fellowship of Southern Churchmen Labor movement--South Carolina Graham, Frank Porter, 1886-
Abstract: Following his early life in China as a child of missionary parents, David Burgess returned to the United States to attend Oberlin College and Union Theological Seminary, where he cultivated a social activist worldview. His religious beliefs dovetailed with his social activism: Burgess explains how his educational background initially led him to conscientiously object to World War II. However, his ideological intimacy with Union Theological Seminary professor Reinhold Niebuhr caused Burgess to enter the military draft. For health reasons, however, he was not admitted to the military. Burgess's relationship with Niebuhr also had a profound impact on his later labor activism. Burgess and his wife, Alice Stevens, eventually moved to south Florida to focus on southern labor issues. He worked tirelessly to improve the working conditions, political options, and housing status of southern workers. Burgess discusses obstacles to labor organizing he faced in the South, including charges that he was a communist. He discusses his organizational and administrative work with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), largely in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia, during the late 1940s and early 1950s. During this time, Burgess began to alter his perception of larger labor groups like the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the CIO. Working as a CIO administrator placed him in a difficult position as an enemy to both black and white workers. Burgess blames the lack of organizational strength of the CIO on Walter Reuther's leadership. As the CIO and AFL merged, Reuther failed to maintain labor organizing as the central focus of the labor group. Burgess came to view the AFL-CIO merger as the beginning of further racial and inter-union frictions and a decline in idealism. In 1955, Burgess requested a labor ambassadorship to Burma. Despite being rejected because of his affiliation with communist groups, Burgess conducted international labor work until the late 1970s. Burgess assesses the racial and social changes in the South following his return in 1977.