Life is grim today for Southern workers, and it has a lot to do with a massacre many have forgotten
Now that Labor Day has come and gone, another annual tradition can be renewed: the mass migration of agricultural workers down the East Coast, to warmer climes. The trip down I-95 is an annual requirement for an estimated 100,000 laborers. Wary of proliferating checkpoints, the undocumented tend to travel in small vans and other inconspicuous vehicles, heading as far south as Georgia and Florida, where there’s a longer season for crops like peaches and tomatoes. That would be the Florida tomato business, by the way, where in addition to the standard outrages inflicted on agricultural laborers — poverty wages, fear of deportation, chemical poisoning — many break their backs under a clearly unfree labor regime. Look for a moment, and work in the Florida tomato fields starts to bear an unmistakable resemblance to indentured servitude.
Elsewhere on the Gulf of Mexico, BP has pulled off the neat trick of hiring cleanup workers at depressed pay, thanks to its own malfeasance: The spill ruined Gulf maritime industries, further glutting the already flooded labor market, and driving down wages. That’s the freely-employed, of course. But BP, like the Florida tomato growers, is also availing itself of another variety of unfree labor — prison workers, happily offered up by local officials to do a job that The Nation has called “arguably the most toxic in America.”
This is America, on Labor Day week in 2010. But in more ways than we like to notice, it feels like 1910. Somehow, the labor laws and basic protections that we once thought were part of the fabric of American democracy have been quietly excised. Of course, in the South, the postwar dream of free, prosperous, safe labor was never really there at all. The region has always been poorer. It’s always had more rapacious bosses. And Southern workers (especially white ones) have always seemed mysteriously willing to take it, as far as often-condescending Northern liberals can tell.
It’s the glaring question that sharp students always notice and want to ask about Southern politics: Why have poor white people, seemingly such obvious beneficiaries of progressive politics, never joined with their oppressed black neighbors to overthrow their outnumbered overlords?
Conservative habits tell much of the story. Racism has long kept white Southerners from forming the biracial alliance that progressives see as so obviously beneficial; but if racism is costly in this sense, in another it is a lucrative investment, and not casually abandoned. Gender norms keep the peace too. Southern white men have long understood that they are, as one historian has put it, “masters of small worlds,” and a threat to one master is a threat to all.
But, despite the temptation to liberal arrogance, it’d be a mistake to imagine that poor white Southerners are befuddled fools, with no understanding of their class identity and class interest. That’s the view of someone who won’t grant the courtesy of knowing some of the history of workers in the region. And there’s no better week than this one to remember.
On September 6, 1934 — 76 years ago Monday — gunmen guarding Chiquola Mill in Honea Path, South Carolina opened fire on a crowd of picketing textile workers. They killed seven, and wounded about 30. If the history of industrial labor in the South has been a stage tragedy, this was the climactic moment; the rest, for white workers at least, is denouement.
The story of how white Southern workers ended up looking down the barrel of a gun starts, however, much earlier.
After the destruction of slavery in the Civil War, the last remaining pocket unconquered by industrial capitalism was opened up. Investors realized that the undeveloped South was easy pickings. Starting around 1880, textile mills abandoned the New England towns we associate them with — Lowell, Lawrence, and so forth — and moved to the Southern Piedmont, the region running from Virginia to Alabama that sits above the coastal plain but below the Appalachians. Think Greensboro, Charlotte and Birmingham.
At first running on water-power from Appalachian streams and labor power from uprooted farmers, the Southern mills quickly became the largest industrial enterprises around, the symbols of the New South. But this profit rested on intensive exploitation and domination: whole families worked in the mills, including children. The “mill-hands” received appallingly low pay, worked in nightmare conditions, and were utterly dependent on the companies: the general rule was that they lived in mill-owned villages, inhabited company-owned houses, shopped at company stores and went to company doctors. For a few years before going to work, the children might go to company schools, and the men played on company baseball teams. They even worshiped, typically, in churches that were paid for by the mill. (Of course, while the executives might pay the salary of the mill-hands’ Holiness preacher, they wouldn’t dream of going to the same church themselves. The mill towns were strictly segregated along class lines, as well as racially. To the “uptown” folk, the mill workers were the “lintheads,” their stunted, pale and diseased neighbors, to be pitied and loathed.)
The institution of the mill town was an endless paradox. It was a kind of half-prison, half-fortress. Mill-hands couldn’t control their collective destiny, but they could, and did, control some of their own lives and take care of each other. Said one, Hoyle McCorkle, “It was a two-hundred-headed family. Everybody on this hill, we looked after one another.” (Another paradox: McCorkle’s sentiment is both a statement of fact, and a glossing over of the widespread realities of alcoholism, early-and-often pregnancies and domestic violence.)
Mill-hands were plagued by pellagra, a malnourishment disease caused by their limited diets of pinto beans, mustard and turnip greens, fatback meat, and often little else. They lived in low-grade shotgun shacks. Yet for all that their conditions were brutal and the experience of industrial work was generally degrading and humiliating to these uprooted rural folk, they were still fed and housed. This was more than they could count on while back on the farm. And it was more than black Southerners could ever take for granted — a grim privilege that the almost universally white and racist mill-hands were well aware of.
This system, stretched taut by irony though it was, remained stable until World War I. If the mill-hands kept quiet enough — which they knew to do — they could usually scrape by. But the mills overexpanded to meet wartime demand, and the tightly-drawn fabric of mill life started to unravel. Recession followed recession for textiles, and the whole industry was in depression well before the great crash in 1929.
To keep profits from sinking too far, the companies deployed then-voguish “scientific management” techniques. College-educated consultants — often Northerners to boot — working in the tradition of management guru Frederick Taylor patrolled the factory floors with stopwatches and clipboards, telling mill-hands how to do their jobs faster. Workers were decimated by layoffs, yet still found production quotas doubling, tripling, or more, while their pay stagnated or sank. For the masses of Southern textile workers, the depression was almost two decades long, and was associated with one word, describing the new factory regime: “stretchout.”
The stretchout brought workers into the streets. “During the last few years men have been carried away from their work dead or unconscious. I ask you to read of the cruelty of Pharoah to the Israelites to get a comparison,” wrote one. At one protest, a group of eight mill-hands carried a coffin down the street; a ninth was lying in it, dressed up as their superintendent. Periodically, the “superintendent” would sit up and ask, “How many men are carrying this thing?” “Eight,” the marchers would reply. Then the faux-superintendent would command, “Lay off two; six can do the work.”
A strike wave broke out in 1929, but it was spontaneous and ill-organized. A series of bloody crackdowns extinguished the flashes of protest easily enough — most famously at Gastonia, N.C., where a fairly fraudulent trial followed a massacre, and ended with communist organizers fleeing to Russia.
Hope was renewed, after the failure of this first series of uprisings, by the election of Franklin Roosevelt. Mill-hands viewed the new president as a near-spiritual personal savior. In huge numbers, they wrote letters to him, to Eleanor Roosevelt and to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. Wrote one, “I want you to know that I am for you in this most wonderful undertaking. I am a long ways from you in distance yet my faith is in you my heart with you and I am for you sink or swim.” And they didn’t hesitate to tell him what they really thought. The mill bosses, wrote another, were “old slimy serpants crowling spiting their Poison fighting your program.” In one now-famous letter, a mill-hand wrote to FDR, “You are the first man in the White House to understand that my boss is a son of a bitch.”
Yet the New Deal turned out not to be Kingdom Come for textile workers. Under the National Recovery Administration, various boards were set up to arbitrate between labor and capital, and new codes were written to regulate the industry. But Roosevelt let the companies write them. Ed Bruere, the head of the new Cotton Textile Labor Relations Board, scoffed, “Every introduction of improved machinery or technical methods is likely to be interpreted as stretchout.” Bruere’s CTLRB received thousands of complaints from August 1933 to 1934. It ruled only one time in a worker’s favor in a wage-and-hour dispute.
Although they still felt the president himself was on their side, mill-hands understood that negotiations were over. After a summer of watching the textile companies flout their demands, Alabama workers decided they’d had it. The union, the United Textile Workers, was reluctant, but they walked off the job anyway in midsummer of 1934. Word spread up the Piedmont virtually overnight. Strikers piled into trucks and cars and raced from mill town to mill town to call mill-hands out to join them before the bosses could catch on. Since the strike was obviously happening one way or the other, the UTW — a generally feeble and conservative union — called a meeting, and endorsed the thing. On September 1, 1934, the general textile strike began. With participation between 200,000 and 400,000, from Maine to Alabama, it was the largest labor rebellion in American history to that point. The only prior uprising that exceeded it was the collapse of slavery during the Civil War.
But, while a general strike is an inspiring thing, it’s not easy to pull off. Strikers quickly started finding themselves evicted from company houses, and homeless. As people who lived to hand-to-mouth, how could they last without paychecks? The UTW, broke and disorganized as it was already, was in no position to feed a few hundred thousand hungry people. The churches — another common fallback — were largely unfriendly. Worst of all, the federal government was nowhere to be seen, and state and local officials were getting their response ready.
In South Carolina, Gov. Ibra Blackwood rounded up a posse, promising to deputize “mayors, sheriffs, peace officers and every good citizen.” In Georgia, Gov. Eugene Talmadge declared martial law, and rounded up strikers in internment camps. (Newspapers in Nazi Germany crowed that this was a sign of fascism’s coming global triumph.) Mill companies did what they had always done: buy up a quick-assembly industrial army — some police, some goons-for-hire — to menace picketers. And at Honea Path, on the sixth day of the general strike, the inevitable massacre happened.
It wasn’t immediately obvious that it was all over then. 10,000 mourners showed up to the funeral for the Honea Path dead, seemingly defiant. (Nor was Honea Path the only case of violence, although it was the most famous. Machine gun nests became a normal sight on the roofs of textile mills during the strike.) Bessie Shankle remembered that her family “nearly starved to death” during the strike. Now they were being shot at too, and it had become clear that no help was on the way. After a few weeks, with the dead likely numbering in the dozens, the uprising began to disintegrate.
Roosevelt appointed a board to arbitrate a deal. But, revealing his lack of interest in the workers’ cause, he put a Republican in charge, New Hampshire Gov. John G. Winant (no relation of mine). The Winant board sided with the workers on virtually nothing; Roosevelt politely asked the mills not to blacklist strikers — a request that they denied. But the union, desperate to seem successful, wanly declared victory anyway. The workers, betrayed, walked away and never came back. “You seem to think we won something,” wrote Mollie Dowd. “I just cannot see it and things here are in a much worse condition than they were three months ago.”
The crushing of the strike imparted a clear enough lesson: keep your head down. For a whole generation of mill workers, the disaster became a taboo, bad luck even to mention. “I took a man’s hat off his head and fanned him ’til he died, ’til the breath left him. But I ain’t got no more to say into it. I’ve been trying to forget about all of that, and this is just bringing it all back up,” remembered a veteran of Honea Path. When interviewed later, a daughter of a striker marveled that she didn’t know the story herself. “I can’t understand why my Dad didn’t tell me. He could talk about the war and about people being blown to bits, but he couldn’t talk about his neighbors being killed. It’s like somebody trying to hide a dirty secret about their family, like they’re ashamed.”
After 1934, the labor movement would try every few years to organize Southern textiles. The rise of the CIO unions starting in 1935, left the cotton mills as the biggest industry without a major union presence. An attempt in 1937 failed when organizers tried to convince bosses that the union and the manager could be friends. The mill-hands were disgusted. A more serious campaign in 1946, dubbed “Operation Dixie,” showed little ability to uproot or challenge the now-institutionalized and intensifying stretchout. Seeing no reason to go out on a limb again, the workers held onto their skepticism; little else had ever worked for them. The union, explained mill-hand Ila Dodson, is “nothing but trouble.”
The basic tenets of 20th-century progressive politics in America — unionism, the welfare state, public-safety regulations — all failed the mill-hands, the largest class of industrial workers in the South. And the failure was spectacular, a once-in-a-generation trauma. The inability of New Deal liberalism to bring on board the Southern white working class was, it seems in retrospect, its ultimate undoing. Who was it that voted for Wallace, then Nixon, then Reagan? The depressing question points to the politically weak people for whom racism was the only bullet left in the chamber. We can’t excuse their racism this way. But we can start to understand it.
The historian Robert Zieger has said that, although we are fond of thinking of the South as stuck in the past, when it comes to labor relations, Dixie is not where we have been. It’s where we are going. It is exaggerating, but not by too much, to say that the unraveling public safety state and the union-free country we know today emerged from the violence at Honea Path. This descent has been possible, in part, because we forgot about 1934. And we forgot about 1934 because the mill-hands did themselves. It was too painful to remember.
Referenced in this article
This article relies on the work of more scholars than I can name here. A good guide to this story, however, begins with “Like a Family,” by Jacquelyn Hall et al., the true bible on the Southern textile mills. Other vital reading on the subject includes Bryant Simon’s “A Fabric of Defeat,” Glenda Gilmore’s “Defying Dixie,” Dolores Janiewski’s “Sisterhood Denied,” Janet Irons’ “Testing the New Deal,” John Salmond’s “The General Strike of 1934,” Douglas Flamming’s “Creating the Modern South,” Michelle Brattain’s “The Politics of Whiteness,” David Carlton’s “Mill and Town in South Carolina,” G.C. Waldrep’s “Southern Workers in Search of Community,” and Timothy Minchin’s “What Do We Need a Union For?”
Anyone interested in more specific recommendations is welcome to ask in the comments, and I’ll do my best to keep up.
Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale. More Gabriel Winant.
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