Under the general subject of what might be called “race relations,” the bits and pieces of social evidence that make up the daily history of Operation Dixie pile up chaotically, a patchwork of contradictory impulses and actions. Whereas some CIO organizers literally were shot at while engaged in interracial organizing, others found, and accepted, a rigid interlocking of membership between unionists and Klansmen. How to sort through such a maze? One way, perhaps, is to visualize the CIO’s potential membership for what it was—a simple reflection of the Southern population as a whole. Not only did the CIO rank and file collectively possess many tendencies and urges that were contradictory, but contradictory urges could be found within the same individual. Under different appeals or pressures, an individual Southern worker, whether white or black, was capable of a range of responses to racial stimuli.
A long-forgotten “Southern incident” illustrates the way in which apparent ideological differences or jurisdictional rivalries in the internal life of the CIO could be used to conceal the operative cause of trouble—the race issue.
In New Orleans, a representative of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) complained to his international president, Joe Beirne, about the conduct of “a bunch of Communists” who, in the course of administering the CIO Packinghouse Union in New Orleans, were carrying on “all sorts of activities” that were ruining the entire trade union movement in the city. Beirne forwarded the complaint to Packinghouse President Ralph Helstein at the union’s headquarters in Chicago. Helstein promised to investigate, and later discovered that the trouble focused around two segregated pay lines at the American Sugar Plant, across the river from New Orleans. The pay line for white workers was covered with a canopy, while the line for black workers was not. When it rained on payday, black workers got wet.
After a particularly nasty storm, I guess they got together and decided, “to hell with this silly noise. Let’s just break this up.” So they advised the company they weren’t going to stand for this anymore. The company protested and said, “You gotta.” But they started mingling the two lines. And the company tried to make an issue out of it and couldn’t make it stick.1
That the South had its own particular rhythms when it came to race is beyond question. But the task of measuring these rhythms is necessarily an exercise requiring considerable care. The local CWA official who saw the hand of communism in an integrated pay line expressed an instinctive response against “race-mixing” that was widely shared among the white population. But after covert, internal remedies proved ineffective in putting an end to such activity within the labor movement, he was persuaded to accept the new order of things. If Southern white workers would stand in pay lines with black workers in some places, what else could they be induced to do? Unfortunately, one never knew beforehand the limits beyond which white workers would not go. In the spring of 1946, there were many opinions about “how far to go.” These views, while passionately held, were uncertain. It was clear only that a measure of risk was implicit in any action that involved recruiting black and white workers into the same organization.
In any event, imposing statistical realities seemed to impel action of some kind. The tobacco industry employed great numbers of blacks; so did ventures in wood and wood products, packinghouses, and a wide array of other local enterprises in scattered industrial enclaves honeycombing the region. Organizing opportunities and potential racial cataclysms existed everywhere. The CIO’s commitment to organizing the unskilled quickly translated into a commitment to organizing black workers. There was no practical way the CIO could build a solid following in basic Southern industries without organizing black workers. Quite naturally, then, CIO leaders found themselves searching for relatively “non-inflammatory” ways to make clear their intentions. A fairly representative approach was Bittner’s summation that the CIO was “organizing all the men and women of the South, because they all are God’s human beings.” Such an effort could only lead to “a better United States.”2
Throughout the first months of the Southern drive, CIO leaders added more specific references to the importance of the South’s black workers to the CIO. In response to the suggestion that the South would remain out of reach of the CIO precisely because of the large number of black workers in the region, Bittner reminded his organizers that “a Negro gets just as hungry as a white man,” and that from his experience there were “no better union men than the hundreds of thousands of Negro workers already in the CIO.”3 Sherman Dalrymple, the CIO’s Secretary-Treasurer, went so far as to assert that “the extension of CIO unionism in the South would encourage the forces of democracy and lead to the ultimate removal of racial prejudice and the poll tax,” and added, on another occasion, that mass unemployment and race prejudice comprised “the greatest threat to world peace.”4
There is evidence that the CIO and some of its internationals took concrete steps to make public their moral revulsion toward racist policies and racially motivated violence. At a Georgia conference of CIO textile workers, held against the backdrop of America’s victory over Hitler, organized labor in Georgia took a stand against “industrial dictators in the state.” Resolutions against the Klan were passed as well.5
Criticism of Southern white supremacy was often openly political, in spite of Bittner’s demand that the Operation Dixie staff remove themselves from participation in formal political activity. A National Committee to oust Senator Theodore Bilbo was formed in spite of “violence and intimidation,” and promised the people of Mississippi the removal of “an avowed member of the Ku Klux Klan from the Senate” and “a setback for the system of terror, disfranchisement and race supremacy which Bilbo typifies.”6
On the grounds that their union stood for “complete equality between all races and creeds,” all district directors, field representatives, and affiliated locals of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, a left-wing, heavily black union, received a plea from their international in Chicago for contributions to the National Committee for Justice in Columbia, Tennessee. Cochaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the committee needed the funds to underwrite legal fees for thirty-one blacks who had been arrested there on a variety of charges.7 The president of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America (FTA), also a left-wing and heavily black union, issued a similar appeal for funds after a black FTA worker in Arkansas, on strike “against 55ȼ an hour and a 12-hour day,” was murdered by a strikebreaker in Little Rock. Although having confessed to stabbing the man, the strikebreaker was set free and, in his place, six union members were rushed to trial under charges of “attacking” a strikebreaker. All were black. Philip Murray, president of the CIO, protested what he termed a “whitewash” of the incident by the federal government, and at the same time initiated a petition for a new federal grand jury investigation.8 CIO leadership, as represented by its Committee to Abolish Racial Discrimination, also protested the murders of two black couples in Monroe, Georgia, by a mob of thirty white men. The CIO’s National Maritime Union contributed $5,000 to a reward of almost $30,000 raised as part of one investigative effort aimed at overcoming what the CIO News described as the “tied-tongue tradition that makes it inadvisable for white or Negro people in the South to expose lynchers.”9
In response to such public stances, the CIO received support from organizations such as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and the National Negro Congress (NNC).10 The NAACP contributed to the CIO’s general strike fund. Its secretary, Walter White, joined a national committee set up to collect funds for strikers at General Motors.11 In much the same manner, the NAACP and the NNC also assisted another group of Southern strikers, led by the CIO’s Fur and Leather Workers Union, who had “crippled” laundry service in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in an effort to win a recognition strike during Operation Dixie.12
Such pronouncements were made and such interracial coalitions, however fragile, were formed and deserve to be recorded as part of labor’s postwar effort to cope with centuries of racial segregation in the South. But beneath the surface of resolution-passing and the rhetoric of brotherhood, another and far more complicated drama unfolded within the interior of Operation Dixie. This struggle can be summarized as labor’s war with its own racism.
CIO policy existed on a national level and was expressed in a variety of ways in Washington; it also was expressed in diverse forms “on the ground” in the South. Some organizers simply could not bring themselves to go beyond perfunctory efforts to organize blacks. Their understanding of possible approaches was so limited by their own customs and experiences that they succeeded primarily in convincing potential black recruits that the CIO offered no real prospects for change. Such organizers were described somewhat elliptically by fellow staff members as “good people, but not good organizers.”13 They were “overly cautious.”14 They were “not effective.”15 They were “Southerners.”16
More specific descriptions were applied to Dixie organizers who were of a somewhat different mold. There was, for example, the CWA organizer in Texas, a native of the eastern “old South” part of the state, who remembered a colleague this way:
He never could get over saying “nigger.” But, biggest and best champion of civil rights you ever saw. Insisted that we never have a meeting that wasn’t integrated. A lot of times we’d have them in the fields because we couldn’t get a place to meet; or we’d have it in a black church or something, hoping we could get a few whites over there. Usually, we’d have it out in a field or in a pasture, or something like that, because that’s the only place we could go. Bill was great, but his whole past was out there on that farm where every black was a “nigger.” Like to never got over it. I don’t know that he ever did.17
This is an extreme example of the expression of a longstanding white supremacist habit coexisting simultaneously with interracial organizing activity. The general truth was less contradictory: the CIO organizers who were more progressive politically tended to do more, or to try to do more, in terms of interracial organizing than did the least progressive staff members. Yet an unconscious aura of white supremacy tended to hang over the great majority of CIO efforts, however advanced they were, or appeared to outsiders, to be.
It was in this sometimes deeply ironic sense that the organizing differences between the AFL and the CIO became clear. With many white supremacist assumptions intact, the CIO tried to organize black workers; in contrast, the assumptions of AFL organizers were such that they often did not attempt to organize black workers at all. A CIO organizer from Mississippi filled in the distinction that existed as the bottom line of Operation Dixie: “Any plants with a mixed work force, the AFL did not try as hard as the CIO. And if it was an all-black plant, you might see the AFL not fooling with it at all.”18
Divergent institutional policies of the AFL and CIO undergirded these different approaches. In its constitution, the AFL, too, declared itself open to “all workers,” but the white-only orientation of the organization was maintained by way of a policy of “local autonomy” that left decision-making capacity in the hands of local AFL functionaries. Whether applied to internationals or to local affiliates of internationals, the AFL policy of “local autonomy” was, in effect, a policy of racial exclusion. Everyone in the labor movement knew this and, at plant gates throughout the South, the custom became most visible in what the AFL did not do: it rarely made a concerted effort to organize black workers.19
In this general context, the racial record of the CIO has been retrospectively characterized by one participant as “good, but not good enough,” by another as being “as good as the times permitted,” and by a third as “good by the left-wing unions, much less so by the rest.”20
Quite obviously, in an effort as expansive in purpose as Operation Dixie, an effort that reached into every Southern state and into the remote countryside as well as into metropolitan centers, plenty of evidence was generated that can be selectively employed to demonstrate, or contradict, all of these judgments. Perhaps a useful way to bring some sense of order to this interpretive problem lies in reconstructing the organizing process itself, so as to determine how matters of race affected each stage of union activity.
Reduced to its essentials, the organizing process required CIO staff people to perform a sequence of actions: (1) they entered a town and found a place to stay; (2) they made contact with individual workers and continued doing so until they had a nucleus of committed recruits; (3) this core group was instructed in what to say to their co-workers inside the plant in order to recruit them; (4) the organizers planned a meeting to which the initial recruits would bring the most responsive of their co-workers; (5) more advanced plans gradually unfolded, involving more meetings, larger meetings, distribution of leaflets, books and union cards, and still more meetings; (6) the drive was successful enough to warrant petitioning for an NLRB election, or it was not. The inherited racial customs of the South intruded upon, and distorted, every step in this organizing sequence.
In the decisive months of Operation Dixie, the mere holding of a meeting quite often became a political act of some magnitude. Black and white workers gathering in the same room constituted a physical violation of the caste system that deeply threatened those in the local Southern establishment. While working in Decatur, Georgia, one organizer held his first meeting in his motel room.
There was no union hall or anything like that, because there was very little union in Decatur at that time. The manager came in the motel room during the meeting and said, “Blacks don’t come in this motel.” I guess I may have had more black people in there than there were white people. And I said, “We’re just talking.” “Not in my motel!” He broke up the meeting. So we went out and met on the grass, you know, right there in public.21
Another organizer remembered one of the first meetings he held while working in Louisiana and Mississippi:
We went over and had a meeting down the railroad tracks with the blacks that worked in the plant, in a little black church, a little wooden church. And we must have had 12, maybe 15 people. And I was sitting on the front or second row. And someone rode around the street there and shot the meeting up. They just shot the little wooden church full of holes. And bullets was coming through the little wooden church and hitting this great big woodstove there, ricocheting off the ceiling and hitting the stove.22
That it was difficult and dangerous for labor organizers and interested workers to meet during the Southern drive is hardly surprising. Even when a meeting involved the participation of federal officials, some Southerners still would not cooperate; the NLRB itself was not sufficiently “official” to be able to hold hearings without interference. Although NLRB hearings were usually held in a federal building, officials in one small Alabama town refused to open the post office building for the occasion. The local postmaster “ran them out. He said, ‘You’re not having no Labor Board hearings in my post office!” After a futile search for another suitable location, “some lady who was brave” let them use the tables in the barbecue stand she operated, only to be threatened by her landlord with the cancellation of her lease once he discovered the nature of the arrangement. The participants finally ended up meeting in “a little old hall the union had.” On top of such difficulties, the town’s police force “insisted on coming in and sitting with their guns on display. They wouldn’t take them off!”23
Under such circumstances, organizers developed a certain anticipatory sensitivity. Discretion was not only safer, it was more practical. Meetings that attracted undue outside attention had prolonged aftereffects: “Sometimes you lose your people. They won’t come back if they feel like there’s no security at all. They may want to be with you, but, you know, that paycheck—to eat on—is important.”24
If, as one Mississippi organizer put it, it took “grits and backbone”25 to be a union member, it took more to be a union organizer, and more still to be a black organizer in the South. A case in point was the occasion of an NLRB election at an Alabama chicken-processing plant employing 490 black workers and ten white supervisory personnel. The CIO’s “watcher” at the election was a black organizer with the International Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union. The union had won the election “overwhelmingly” and the NLRB officials had left the scene. The “watcher” happened to look out at the parking lot, only to see the hood of his car up and a number of whites standing around it. Thinking that the activity in the parking lot might involve a bomb, and finding local authorities unwilling to offer any assistance, he crawled out a back window and ran to safety at the house of a sympathetic black minister several blocks away. An official at the federal Justice Department was finally contacted, who then sent federal marshals to investigate. A white co-worker of the black organizer remembered the incident quite clearly.
Henry was a teetotaler. And Alabama had wet counties and dry counties. And whites could go into a wet county and buy liquor and bring it back, and they weren’t harassed too much; but blacks were. And [so blacks] used to buy liquor and they’d open the hood and put it up under the hood. The whites [in the parking lot] had opened Henry’s hood and taken a cigar box with the top torn off of it, and in that cigar box was two or three Dixie cups and a pint or half-pint of liquor. And the sheriff was right down the road there. And what they were going to do, apparently, was to stop Henry when he left there and search his car and find that, and then confiscate his automobile and prosecute him for transporting whiskey in a dry county.26
One black organizer so deeply imprinted in the minds of his colleagues his courage and skill as an organizer—work that was far more dangerous for him than for his white counterparts—that he acquired a certain fame in the oral tradition of the labor movement. In the folklore, one of this organizer’s many talents involved the ability to go into black communities in Mississippi and “get lost.”
No white person could go in and find him. And I couldn’t even find him—and he worked with me. I’d go into a plant in north Mississippi in one of those little communities and put him out on the street corner. And then he’d have to find me; I couldn’t find him. And nobody else could find him. [Black organizers] survived because they were smart.27
However, the tentacles of Southern companies had a long reach. “Eventually, you had blacks in there who would tell the sheriff who the organizers were.”28 For retired black organizers, such reminiscences are rife with painful memories that make their recollection an activity to be avoided. Not only did black organizers face the harassment that grew from a Southern public opinion that was generally anti-union; they also, of course, faced the threat of white racist reaction. But beyond these hazards, because most of the black organizers had been hired by the more left-wing unions, they were red-baited as well. In addition, salt was rubbed into those wounds each time the racist or red-baiting attacks came from others within the CIO—whether from rank and file, other organizers, or the leadership. Forty years after Operation Dixie, some black organizers still do not want to talk about it.29
As the surrounding social realities are pieced into an overall context, it becomes clear that “having a meeting” was often a major event in Operation Dixie when it involved workers of both races. For one veteran Mississippi organizer, the biggest problem was finding a place to talk. “We met in the woods, under railroad trestles, railroad bridges, and just anywhere we could get people together. You just could not do anything about the race relations, because that’s the way the politicians got elected.”30
In the course of their activities, white organizers gradually learned what black organizers knew from the basic shape of their daily lives, but what very few white Americans, then or later, understood: Southern black people were highly politicized. Behind the mask of enforced social deference, black people knew an opportunity when they saw one. Even today, after all that has happened to alter racial perceptions in America, white organizers express their hard-won insights on race with a kind of qualified awe. “At this time, blacks were very, very susceptible to unions. All the way through they were. And they weren’t afraid to strike.”31 “You got to do some little somethin’ to make ’em believe you’re with ’em. Then, they’ll stay with you until hell freezes over.”32 From a labor lawyer: “Well, many, if not all the people who looked to the CIO for help were black.”33 An Alabama organizer: “Not only was everybody underpaid, but blacks were more underpaid. The blacks were given the most disagreeable jobs. And very quickly, they saw that not only everybody had a lot to gain, they had more to gain.”34 A North Carolinian added: “Oh, yeah! Blacks was right with ya! They were smarter than the whites, where the union was concerned. They had more to gain. And they knew that!”35 Black workers definitely “responded more to organization at that time than the white people did. They sure did.”36 And a CWA organizer agreed: “It was true in Texas: the only time you could do very much with low income people was when a large group of them were black.”37
In placing Operation Dixie in historical perspective, it can be argued that these qualifying phrases surrounding white praise betrayed an unconscious white supremacy. Blacks were not seen so much as being inherently pro-union as they were pro-union “at this time.” They were not understood to be politically sophisticated, but, instead, “smart where the union was concerned.” Such militance where white organizers expected to see deference could only be accounted for as a series of exceptions—“at this time,” or “in Texas,” or “where the union was concerned.” Black organizers, of course, had to live with such attitudes, and even value (with appropriate awareness of the ironies involved) the relatively “advanced” quality of these white opinions.
The historically relevant point is that these opinions of white CIO organizers were, in fact, advanced. Indeed, by making vivid the utter irrationalities of much of daily life in a segregated society, interracial organizing generated experiences that “radicalized” white organizers. While they remained firmly in the grip of many white assumptions, they were changed in fundamental ways. They became “different” from other white Southerners.
A generation after Operation Dixie, when the civil rights movement rolled across the South, there would be one group of native whites who understood, and could even anticipate, the ebb and flow of assertion and repression that would characterize the 1960s. The group would include people like Woody Biggs and Jim Touchstone in Mississippi, Barney Weeks in Alabama, Lloyd Gossett in Georgia, B. T. Judd in Tennessee, Dean Culver in North Carolina, and Jim Pierce in Texas. Such people understood. But there was one group of CIO veterans who understood even better—black men and women like Cornelius Simmons, Moranda Smith, and Elijah Jackson who had earned their stripes with Food and Tobacco, Fur and Leather, and the Packinghouse Workers, the unions with the most prolonged experience in interracial organizing.
If Operation Dixie exposed the raw nerve endings left by centuries of racial oppression, it also exposed the damage that segregation had done to both races. Most specifically, it exposed the Klan. The KKK was to be found all across the postwar South. In communities where the CIO was trying to organize, the police belonged to the Klan and so did white union members. To discover that local politicians and law enforcement officers were Klan members was rarely a surprise to organizers in the South; it was simply a fact of life around which they had to work. However, it was less “in character,” more embarrassing to progressive forces within the CIO, and more destructive to the work of organizers at the local level to have CIO rank-and-filers involved in Ku Klux Klan activity. And by all accounts, they were. The membership of a large Birmingham local of the Steelworkers was about half black and half white. There was a nice symmetry to their outside affiliations. Most of the blacks belonged to the NAACP, and most of the whites belonged to the Klan.38 Such a situation was not confined to Birmingham. In Georgia, the local at the Atlantic Steel Plant held separate meetings for black and white workers, at the insistence of those who were Klan members. According to Lloyd Gossett, a long-time CIO organizer, even the international representatives and all the officers of that local were members of the KKK.39
Various internationals added a number of inherited racial attitudes and policies to the mix. For example, while certain steelworkers in Georgia and Alabama moved in one direction, certain autoworkers and communications workers in Texas moved in another. “Race was the first hurdle,” remembers a Texas organizer. “You crossed that hurdle first. If you didn’t cross that hurdle, I wouldn’t speak to you; the leadership wouldn’t speak to you. Nobody would help you if you couldn’t get over that.”40
But what was true of the autoworkers and communication workers, and even more so of the Packinghouse, Food and Tobacco, and Fur and Leather Unions, was not true of the South’s numerically dominant industry: textiles. In the heart of textile country, the North Carolina state director, William Smith, had the delicate problem of balancing the radically different approaches of the two unions engaged in organizing the state’s textile and tobacco industries. Food and Tobacco representatives were habitually generating literature that Smith believed could be “deeply harmful,” should it surface in textile country. He rejected one FTA leaflet because it raised “a Negro nationalistic approach which could easily prove dangerous to us.” In addition, “our campaign in the Tobacco drive is such a huge success [relative to textiles] that we should easily be able to bring it to a successful conclusion without the need of elaborating on the racial issue.” The state director was certain that “this material could very easily boomerang on us and be used by the AFL against us, for instance, in the Textile Industry—especially in Roanoke Rapids, where the racial issue in reverse is being played up by the AFL.”41
In South Carolina, state director Franz Daniel also waged a continuous, and often unsuccessful, rearguard action against the distribution of union literature that was too explicitly integrationist. An organizer for the Paperworkers was chided by Daniel for not showing him copies of all flyers and newspapers before they were printed. “You know, of course, some of the problems we are faced with in organizational work in the South. Many times unions will send in quantities of papers, only to have a picture or story that makes distribution impossible.”42
The pattern of what might be described as racial defensiveness extended beyond textile country to the CIO’s Southern headquarters in Atlanta. Van Bittner, too, lectured staffers on the need to be circumspect. For example, the CIO’s racial policies could on occasion win the approval of such anti-discrimination public agencies as the Fair Employment Practices Commission. In response to a suggestion by the head of the CIO-PAC in South Carolina that a meeting be called to publicize a message of support for the CIO recently received from the FEPC, Bittner illustrated the degree to which caution on race issues was considered essential by the Dixie leadership.
I do not know what the FEPC statement would do toward helping our campaign, at this time. We are not afraid of making anything public that is for the best interests of men and women of labor, but the prime objective of the CIO is to organize unions and bring about higher wages and better living standards through genuine collective bargaining.43
Clearly Operation Dixie became a kind of racial balancing act. Moreover, though it might not have appeared evident at the time, it was a balancing act that could not be long sustained among such a variegated assortment of unions and rank-and-file constituencies. While Packinghouse organizers endeavored to be “fair to all workers,” and CWA organizers tried to be “progressive, but not too progressive” on the race issue, textile representatives intuitively stepped around the issue whenever possible. Black Southerners got many different signals from the CIO.
The irony was, of course, that no public posture could insulate any CIO union from the charge—by local chambers of commerce, sheriffs, or, for that matter, AFL organizers—that the CIO was a hotbed of Communistically inclined race mixers. It was no surprise that race-baiting was coupled with red-baiting on many occasions, such accusations having been a routine component of the array of obstacles set up to stop the CIO in the South. Indeed, an interesting “logical” dynamic was at work. Viewed from an orthodox segregationist perspective, anyone—especially a fellow Southerner, as many of the Operation Dixie organizers were—who could even consider trying to form an integrated union was so flagrantly bucking entrenched custom and reason that a truly extraordinary explanation was called for. How to account for such deviant behavior? The logic was both simple and compelling: Only Communists would seriously try to mix the races in a labor union. So convenient and suitable was this explanation that to view it simply as demagogic red-baiting is to underestimate the grip that traditional Southern racial attitudes had upon a large majority of the white population. Clearly such explanations were self-serving; but they were also deeply believed.
The CIO’s problem went quite beyond the impact that red-baiting by Southern industrialists could have on the general population. The CIO was not dealing merely with a “public relations” problem. Rather, the fundamental difficulty was the simple fact that Southern workers participated fully in the region’s hegemonic racial philosophy. That “race mixing” translated as communism in the view of Southern political and business leaders was a problem. That it translated in precisely the same way for vast numbers of Southern workers was more than a problem: It threatened the CIO’s entire undertaking.
While noting that the Communist issue dovetailed neatly with the racial issue in the dynamic manner just specified, it is important to emphasize the power of the race issue when considered wholly by itself. Much has been written in recent years about “hegemony” and about the complicated political process through which beliefs achieve a truly hegemonic prestige within a given culture or subculture. The racial organization of society was the cornerstone of Southern life in slavery, and it remained so with the establishment of fixed patterns of segregation after the Civil War. Sociologists and historians have carefully interpreted the complex process through which a white supremacist racial hegemony was reconstructed in the South, and they help make clear how each new generation of white Southerners could come to regard any action directed against inherited racial custom as constituting nothing less than the subversion of the homeland. In this sense, the CIO was “unpatriotic” because it was anti-Southern to all people who unconsciously used the word “Southern” when they meant “white.” While the red issue added a certain weight to the equation, the essential loyalty of Southern traditionalists was to this unconscious definition of racial identity. In its various invocations, the defense against Operation Dixie was hegemonic. The subtleties of ideology, of radicalism, and specifically of the Communist Party all had a bearing on Operation Dixie that are of sufficient importance to warrant consideration in a separate chapter; but Southern white supremacy, however blended with other issues, had a life of its own that separated Operation Dixie from any other major labor organizing campaign in American history.
Certainly, the CIO captains of the Southern drive thought so, or quickly came to think so. The CIO’s awareness of the South’s conscious regionalism lay behind the decision to staff the campaign with as many native Southerners as possible. The clear intent of this policy was to deflect the charge of “invasion” by “outsiders,” a charge that was routinely aimed at interracial organizing. Hiring Southerners was a public relations tactic, defensive in nature. The practical task was more demanding: to fashion an appeal to black workers in such a way that the appeal itself did not alienate white workers.
The daily life of Operation Dixie illustrates how this task came to be addressed. The interracial “commitment” of organizers or of specific unions influenced the initial approach; however, Southern workers themselves played an important role in shaping the tactics that eventually came into wide use by CIO staffers, regardless of their individual predispositions. In essence, organizers of varying styles and racial attitudes came to apply those things that worked and gave up on other methods that did not.
In approaching an interracial work force, a CIO organizer encountered a group of people who, in a social sense, shared little beyond their common time in the workplace. The nonwork time of black and white workers was spent in separate spheres. Since company opposition prevented organizers from meeting workers in the one place where they congregated—the workplace—the organizing task routinely and inexorably became two tasks, a black campaign and a white campaign. Which to begin first? CIO staffers soon learned that one had to organize white workers first. As a Fur and Leather organizer put it:
Once we could get among the whites and get them organized, [we could] begin to do a little education work, a little working out of some understanding that “you can’t win here unless you get the black people, too; they’ve gotta come.” If you started with the blacks, it was almost sure that you were gonna have trouble, then, with the whites. At least this is what we found in practically every case. So, normally we started with the whites. And then as quickly as we could, we’d begin to talk to them about organizing the blacks. “You’ll have to have them. Otherwise, the boss is going to use them against you. And here, if you ever have a strike, he’ll hire some black scabs. And these things will help destroy you.” Now, when it was approached properly, you see, it worked.44
But organizers had to be careful not to take in blacks “too fast.” As a veteran of Alabama’s labor wars put it, “If it looked to the whites like you had a black union and you wanted them to join it, you’d be dead. They wouldn’t do it.”45
It would be misleading to suggest that anything approaching a formula evolved. What emerged can be more aptly described as a set of practical guidelines. Given the anxiety levels in the 1940s associated with racial “commingling” in the South, the entire organizing process involving an interracial work force was inherently volatile, if not explosive. The need to be calm and to improvise were two of the guidelines. A certain plateau was reached when workers in both races knew, and accepted, that organizing was going forward on both fronts. “You met with whites, okay; you met with blacks, okay; but the day came when you had to meet together. And that first meeting was touchy. I’ve had it all fall apart right there. Whites just wouldn’t do it.”46 What whites would and would not do depended upon circumstances frequently beyond the organizer’s control. “If a guy everybody liked got up and said, ‘O.K. we’ll do it. We can stand for that,’ then it would happen. But if he said, ‘We ain’t meeting with no niggers,’ then it could all blow up.”47
The sheer irrationality of radial segregation created a tactical climate where subtlety—sometimes subtlety that warred against the best of human instincts—was necessary. The resulting clash of values could produce a complicated organizing situation. For example, an organizer for the Retail Clerks spelled out the lengths to which black workers would go in order to counter company efforts at race-baiting.
The company would say, “Oh, I saw him shaking hands with”—call a name—“right down there by the county courthouse!” [All because] I shook hands with somebody, a black man! Really! And, really, black people knew [the effectiveness of this tactic, and also wanted] to be your friend; but they didn’t want to—it’s hard to use the right word—reduce your effectiveness. So, they would kind of want to avoid you a little bit, too. They watched where they shook your hand.48
And so, in the name of cooperation, black and white CIO members agreed on occasion not to cooperate in public.
Defensive tactics among rank-and-file black workers as well as among CIO organizers clearly took many forms. Indeed, all CIO organizers involved in Operation Dixie were defensive to some extent. Simple intelligence dictated this posture. But an organizer’s decision as to what to be defensive about strongly influenced the shape of the campaign. The most effective defense against Southern racism—one that ensured no counterattack of any kind—was to ignore the black workers. The more one attempted, the greater the requirements for poise, subtlety, and, often, physical courage.
The initial problem white organizers faced, however, was their own innocence about the patterns of life in black communities. They had to learn some elementary truths, such as the extent of influence—quite beyond anything in white communities—of the guiding social, political, and economic influence of black ministers. As an organizer explained,
We had to learn that the black churches were the very center of the black communities. Then that’s where we went. When we went into a town to talk to the blacks and to try to get a foothold in some of these plants, we went to the black preachers.49
The more sophisticated CIO staffers soon learned that more was at work in the structure and function of black churches than just religion. “Generally speaking, blacks are much easier to organize, not just because they are the most downtrodden, but because of the greater sense of organization that they got through churches and all kinds of lodges.”50
But management, too, soon learned the relevance of the black church. Indeed, the practice of making financial contributions to black churches as a means of cultivating cooperative relations with black spokesmen had been pioneered by Henry Ford. The auto magnate had demonstrated how financial contributions to selected black churches could, where properly followed up, be utilized to mobilize the ministers as employment agents. As one historian has noted, “prospective workers were hired, upon presenting a written ministerial recommendation from their minister to company officials. Negro ministers welcomed Ford’s assistance because it increased church attendance, helped keep the church financially solvent, and strengthened their community leadership position.”51
Similar policies were pursued by Southern industrialists, none with a more institutionalized consistency than tobacco and utility magnate, James Buchanan Duke, who set up permanent endowments for black and white ministers. Duke concentrated his largesse in regions adjacent to his tobacco factories and power companies.52
The CIO’s Food and Tobacco international won a notable victory in 1943 when it successfully organized the R. J. Reynolds plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The campaign brought to light the organizing talent of a black woman in Winston-Salem, Moranda Smith, who went on to become the Southern regional director of FTA-the highest position any black woman had held up to that time in the American labor movement.
Food and Tobacco also helped pioneer integrated picket lines in the course of Operation Dixie. The possibilities for overcoming entrenched racial custom afforded by such effort were vividly revealed in 1946 at the American Tobacco company in Charleston, South Carolina.
Black and white women were walking the picket line in front of the “white” gate, [when] one of the white non-strikers spat at one of the black women as she left the factory in the afternoon. The black woman stepped out of line and slapped the white woman. The police, who were always there, arrested the black woman for assault. At the magistrates’ court the next morning, the white woman presented her case; then the black woman presented her case. [But] the magistrate dismissed the case when one of the white women union members said, “I saw the whole thing. This scab spit in this sister’s face, and she deserved every slap she got.” This new alignment of sympathy reversed what would have been an open and shut case of believing the testimony of the white witness. It also showed a new level of understanding on the part of the white women workers.53
A subtle truth about race relations in the South lurks beneath the surface of events in Charleston in 1946. Cooperation between black and white workers could generally reach higher levels after a union had won recognition. In the initial organizing effort, company tactics to divide workers through the use of hearsay could (in the absence of previous interracial contact that would contradict such hearsay) prove effective in ways that could be disastrous for the union’s cause. A Fur and Leather organizer described the tactic:
The company would go to white workers and say, “You can’t trust them Goddamn so-and-sos.” And then they would go to the blacks and say, “You know, they’ve always sold you down the river, those whites over there. You get with them and you ain’t gonna get that other nickel or dime we told you about.”54
A Mississippi veteran summarized, “Companies race-baited constantly, and the workers would fall for that.”55 A labor lawyer added, “The CIO could get [blacks] to join but they couldn’t keep them, because the employers would come in with one strategy or another and just flush them out like birds.”56
But alongside these pessimistic generalizations, Operation Dixie offered specific case histories that provided examples of how the traditions associated with Southern segregation could be overcome. Food and Tobacco, Fur and Leather, and the Packinghouse unions were notable in their ability to achieve such victories. Each possessed the intuition, as a matter both of union policy and the leadership’s conviction, that interracial organizing was possible in the South in 1946. The ingredients of success seemed to lie in a judicious combination of close and candid contact with workers of both races and an ability to express in down-to-earth language the choices that had to be made, the costs and benefits of those choices, and a preview of company efforts that would be made to derail them.
The experiences of the Packinghouse Workers in Texas provided concrete illustration. In the meat-packing industry, the union entered a working environment that contained a number of long-standing discriminatory practices. There were “male” jobs and “female” jobs, “black” jobs and “white” jobs, differing rates of pay in Northern and Southern plants, and separate eating facilities and dressing rooms for blacks and whites.57
Tension developed in the Armour plant in Fort Worth when, under the terms of the contract, management was to take down the partitions that separated the races in the plant dining room and in all the dressing rooms. The head of the Fort Worth union had been elected by a white segregationist faction in the local. The district director of the Packinghouse Workers Union in charge of the Fort Worth area, A. J. Pittman, was sympathetic to the local union leadership there, and reported to the international in Chicago that union members were “marching on the union hall” to protest the removal of these segregationist symbols in factory life. The president of the international, Ralph Helstein, dispatched two lieutenants, Russell Haisley, a black vice president from Chicago, and “Butch” Hathaway, a Southern white, to Fort Worth to call a meeting of the local. “They were both strong union men,” said Helstein. “Haisley was calm and firm and Hathaway was a Baptist who spoke with a strong Southern accent, and I figured these two guys ought to be able to solve it.”
Over 1,000 members attended the unusual meeting. “There were knives and guns all over the place. There was screaming and hollering. It was impossible to keep order and they didn’t want order; they didn’t want to hear anything. The blacks who were there were outnumbered.” The two union officials confirmed the seriousness of the situation to Helstein upon their return to Chicago.
The impediments—and the opportunities—that the race issue visited upon labor-management relations were vividly demonstrated by the Fort Worth incident. Helstein contacted Frank Green, Armour’s vice president in charge of industrial relations, and told him:
“You and I got a date to go to Fort Worth. We’ve got a lot of trouble there.” He said, “I understand you got some troubles down there, but they’re not my troubles.” And I said, “Oh, Frank, you’re wrong. You’ve got troubles, too. And you had better make them your troubles; or, if you prefer, I’m going to pick up this telephone and I’m going to call every Armour local in the United States and tell them you are reneging on your agreement about eliminating segregated dining rooms.” So, he quickly came around and sent his lieutenant—whom I actually preferred to Green, because he was a better man—Dean Hawkins.
Hawkins and Helstein went to Fort Worth, where Helstein met first, alone, with Pittman.
I said, “Let’s get down to specifics. I don’t think we can have the kind of union we need unless you do.” I pointed out how much this contract provided, and how much of that had come out of the pockets of black people in the North. And I explained to Pittman that he had to tell his union members that they couldn’t have it both ways. So, we met with the leadership of the local and they said they didn’t give a damn about a contract. And I said, “Do you want me to put that to a vote?” Of course they didn’t. But they told me that I didn’t understand, that “rape was going on all the time,” and “everybody knows they [the black union members] all got syphilis. We’re not going to use the same toilets as they do.” Well, I listened to this stuff until I got tired of it. And I said, “Let me make this clear. You know this union. You know the rules by which we live. You know what our constitution provides; and, that it is enforced. You’ve got the following benefits out of this last contract.” And I named them. “You will either live by those rules that got those benefits for you, or you’ll be out on your ear. And you can’t go argue with Armour on your own.” And they said, “You don’t mean that!” And I said, “Don’t put me to the test.”
Helstein, together with Hawkins, then met with the company’s supervisory personnel. Helstein said to the local plant superintendent:
We have every reason to believe that you people instigated this and spread the word, playing on every prejudice. And I understand that there was fertile soil here, that the union as well as the company is in this thing. Now I want Mr. Hawkins—in my presence—to tell you whether or not this represents Armour policy, and what you can expect if you continue it.
Hawkins said that the partitions had to come down and emphasized to the Armour supervisors that they were not to violate the conditions of the contract. Helstein told the local union head, Pittman, to “sit” on the situation, and he added privately to Armour’s Hawkins, “Don’t do anything yet. I’ll tell you when the time has come to move.” One of the items in the contract concerned paid holidays. To collect, an employee had to work the day before and the day after the holiday. Helstein waited until the next holiday—several weeks—and then called Hawkins on the day beforehand and said:
“The walls come down tonight.” And he said, “You’re not giving us much notice. What’s the hurry?” And I said, “The men, they have to have a self-interest in it.” So, the partitions came down. And there were rumblings. But, after three days, when everybody had worked the day after the holiday, nobody had died, nobody had contracted syphilis. The heat had gone out of it.
The upshot of this affair was a change in the style of the local union in Fort Worth. As Helstein summarized,
Throughout, black union members conducted themselves with discipline. Two months later, we had an election and the international got actively involved, putting together a black-white slate against a completely white slate. It won by a two-to-one margin. The black membership was about 40 percent. There was a heavy turnout. Of course, the union was much stronger after that.58
The conclusion that arises from such case histories concerns the distinctions that can be made between an integrationist policy, on the one hand, and integrationist action, on the other. In interpreting CIO racial policy in the immediate postwar era, Helstein, among other CIO progressives, made this distinction: “The CIO fulfilled its commitment to organize all people, irrespective of race, creed or color; but its concept of organization stopped with their becoming members of the union.” Many CIO unions maintained separate seniority lists, black and white, and had differences in terms of participation in decision-making and union office-holding. Said Helstein: “I think it is crucial to understand the distinction that should be made, and was not made, between the CIO’s constitutional commitment to organize all workers, irrespective of race, creed or color, and what discrimination means in terms of daily life. Now, we in the Packinghouse Workers Union had become sensitive to that, and were able to make that distinction. But very few other unions ever did.”
Helstein added, “And as far as I know, many haven’t to this day.”59
Having specified the pivotal distinctions between pronouncements and performance, it is nevertheless necessary to add that Operation Dixie did not fail because the CIO was “not liberal enough” on racial policy. To the extent that issues of white supremacy bore on the outcome of Operation Dixie—and they bore heavily if not decisively—the racism of the larger society, including the racism imbedded in the Southern work force, seemed to blunt the racial initiatives inherent in the CIO commitment to organize a “big union” of all workers. In terms of institutional commitment on issues of racial equity, the CIO was in advance of the business community, the nation’s religious and academic communities, and the white workers of the South.
Yet white supremacy was not the only barrier—nor even the only cultural barrier—to a successful outcome of Operation Dixie. The Southern heritage of poverty and paternalism also played a central role.