Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Wilbur Hobby, March 13, 1975. Interview E-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The road to the directorship of COPE

Hobby offers a rough outline for the events leading up to his election as director of the Committee on Public Education (COPE) in 1960. In particular, Hobby explains divisions within the labor movement—primarily focusing on Voters for Better Government—during his initial involvement in the late 1940s and 1950s. Paying particular attention to his friendship with Sparky Williamson and his demise within the movement, Hobby explains how his decision to work briefly with the textile union in Florida and Georgia in 1958 (after he was fired from the American Tobacco Company and was waiting for arbitration of his grievance) was in part fueled by his hope to better prepare himself for the position with COPE should Williamson be fired.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Wilbur Hobby, March 13, 1975. Interview E-0006. 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

So, I went on and worked for textiles and went to Florida and worked for Claude Pepper …
You were working with their political …
I was their political director in the South.
Oh, you were?
Yeah. In 1958. I met a lot of people. So, I went over there and meanwhile, my local union voted to arbitrate my case, my grievance. Six or seven months later, we won the arbitration. Well, I wasn't making but ?85 a week for textiles and I had been working two jobs and everything and I didn't see any future in it. I had really gone on with this because Williamson had begun to drink real badly and he had gotten into trouble in Durham. He had been down to this black cathouse and had gotten rolled and instead of letting it be, he had reported it to the police, that he had lost his wallet and watch. There was a big newspaper spread about it. There had always been some inter-union rivalry between Williamson and the 176 group at Ligget-Myers who were very active politically and who were kind of he aded up by a fellow by the name of Sam Blane, a very shrewd old man. He died here about six months ago. He was either the first or second vice-president of the tobacco workers international union and he had dabbled in politics in Durham there for years and he had gotten a group of right good workers, guys like Millard Barbee and Al Atwater, who went on the city council for a very brief period and Sam Latta, P.R. Latta's brother. They had been in a very bitter fight since 1948, it started before I got into it. I don't know all the details of it. It sort of centered … Williamson was the full time editor of the weekly labor paper and we set up this political group. So, in 1948, the labor movement supported Mayne Albright for governor. We had at that time what was known as the United Labor Political Committee, which was AFL and the CIO together. And at that time, of course, the Teamsters were in the AFL, but Mayne Albright lost out in the first primary. So, during the second primary, a man came to the labor journal, I'm told, and had 15 one hundred dollar bills and he wanted to know who he was supposed to pay for the labor vote in Durham County. This man was representing Kerr Scott. When Sparky was confronted with this, he called Henry Sawyer, who was the business agent for the IBW local and E.M. Taylor who was known as the grandfather of the labor movement in Durham and who was president of the plumbers union and had built the labor temple there. They got together and told the guy that you don't buy the labor movement's vote. "We have been talking and probably, we are going to support Kerr Scott, but your money doesn't buy the labor movement's vote." They say that the money was supposed to go to Sam Blane and his organization and the guy had just gotten in the wrong place, gotten mixed up and brought it to the people who were doing the work. So, anyway, this was the year before I really got active so that all I know is what I heard. But after that, there was always bad blood between those two groups. So, of course, when Sparky got into this problem down at the cathouse and it got into the paper, they sent it to Washington and Sparky was in trouble. So, when I went out for textile, I went to a meeting right after I went on the textile staff, when they had a conference, a COPE conference in Atlanta. I knew Jim Bevins, we were good friends and he knew how hard I had worked locally, so Jim told me, "Since you and Sparky are good friends, I'll tell you, this trouble that Sparky has gotten in, we've gotten a lot of complaints." I know that they sent letter after letter up there trying to get Sparky fired. That was one reason that I took this job with textiles, so I could … I thought that I might have the chance to be the COPE director and so if Sparky was going to lose it, I wasn't going to do anything to make him lose it, but I was going to qualify myself. So, I went out. Somebody heard Sparky was about to get fired and they called around to a couple of people saying this. They asked them if they would support me for the job and I didn't even know anything about it. So, Sparky got the idea that I was after his job because one of the guys called him and told him that he had had this call and so, Sparky straightened up and did a good job. Meanwhile, I won my arbitration case and I had to go back to the American Tobacco Company or give up my job. So, I decided that since Sparky had straightened up and was going to do right, I might as well go on back down there and … meanwhile, I had been at Duke for three years and I figured that I should try to finish college. So, I got back down there in the plant and Sparky lost his job and nobody said anything to me about it for around a week and then Leo Hicks let it slip. Sparky hadn't told me. Sparky and I were real close until the day he died. So, he had really been misled into thinking that I was after his job before. Some textile people had started this stuff because they knew what kind of bad shape he was in. I didn't really know it was that bad. So, I applied for the job and I put on a real campaign for it after I found out that Sparky was being fired. Of course, it was hard to get it, at that time, they had six states, it's hard to get a job in the same city. Al Barkin was a good friend of mine, I had worked with textile, which had been his international union, he had been pushing for me. Esther Murray, the woman's activity director, knew that I had the best political program in the South and she was pushing for me. Jim knew that I had been working hard for twelve years and he knew what kind of job I had done for textile, so I mounted a campaign. I called these business agents and asked if they would send a telegram. They said yes, but you know that people will say that and forget it sometimes, like I do. I said, "I will write the telegram and send it and charge it to your phone." I had over a hundred telegrams and I had letters going and I had worked in Florida and Georgia and …
So, you had letters from there?
And the textile people got letters for me from all these people. I finally got the job and two years later, I walked into the Social Securities department to see Nelson Cruikshank and some girl said, "Can I tell him who is calling?" I said, "Yeah, Wilbur Hobby." This girl said, "Are you Wilbur Hobby." I said, "Yeah." She said, "Well, I was working for COPE just before you got that job and I have never seen anybody with so many friends in my life as you had." I really got the mail in there. Hell, I bet that I had four hundred letters and two hundred telegrams in there.