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Oral History Interview with David Burgess, September 25, 1974. Interview E-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • 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.
  • A conscientious objector joins the military
  • Work with migrant workers leads to social activism
  • Growing interest with organizing southern labor
  • Eviction of sharecroppers in Missouri draws Burgess to the South
  • Organizing for labor rights springs from religious faith
  • Labor activism ostracizes Burgess from the larger Presbyterian membership
  • Textile mill owners prevent union organizing by any means necessary
  • Political linking of unions with Communism inhibits organizing nationwide
  • Business owners used workers' religious beliefs to discourage unionizing
  • Baldanzi-Rieve schism diminishes labor organizing in the South
  • Many obstacles to the labor movement result in the loss of activists
  • A weak black coalition and lack of aggression causes Graham's 1950 senatorial defeat
  • County unit system in Georgia prevents the labor movement from gaining political power
  • Blacks and pro-white unionists accuse Burgess and the CIO of racial bias
  • Obstacles impeding Burgess's international labor work in Burma
  • Evaluation of racial and class changes in the South since 1955
  • Critique of the AFL-CIO merger and leaders Meany and Reuther
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  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • 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-
  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.