Civil Rights Unionism

In 1940s North Carolina, a Communist-led union of tobacco workers fought to bring democracy to the Jim Crow South.

An R. J. Reynolds supervisor watches workers during a 1947 strike by Local 22.

When CIO organizers first arrived in Winston-Salem in 1941, Robert Black was a lanky young baseball player who could barely imagine that a trade union might some day bring “that big giant,” R. J. Reynolds, “down to earth.” By the end of the war, Black not only stood at the helm of the South’s largest black-led local, he also found himself at the epicenter of a political struggle that turned on the enfranchisement and mobilization of the South’s black and white poor.

Local 22 had never limited itself to workplace demands. Even before it gained recognition, it had taken up broader civic issues, supporting the federal government’s wartime price controls; helping to defend William Wellman, a black North Carolina man, against a death sentence on a false rape charge; backing a black candidate for the Board of Alderman; and joining forces with the city’s dynamic young ministers to help blacks register to vote. Once established, the union put voting rights and education for active citizenship at the top of its agenda.

This linkage between union building and social transformation propelled Local 22 beyond the bounds of conventional trade unionism. As Black recalled, “After we built our union, we told the people that just to build a union is not going to solve all of our problems. . . . If you are going to defeat these people, not only do you do it across the negotiating table in the R. J. Reynolds Building, but you go to the city hall, you elect people down there that’s going to be favorable and sympathetic and represent the best interest of the working class.”

The CIO had spearheaded labor’s national political offensive by forming a semi-autonomous Political Action Committee (CIO-PAC) in the summer of 1943. Led by prominent trade unionist Sidney Hillman, CIO-PAC aimed to work from the local level up, not only to support the interests of labor but also to overcome the effective disfranchisement of thousands of poor and minority citizens throughout the country and thereby reinvigorate American political life, just as it had already tried to democratize economic life. Taking its cue from CIO-PAC, Local 22 formed its own Political Action Committee (PAC) in the spring of 1944 and threw itself into the congressional campaign.

Communist Party organizers, who became increasingly active in Winston-Salem after the war, helped to sharpen local unionists’ perception of the links between workplace democracy, social welfare, and black civil rights. Robert Black and other rank-and-file leaders found themselves not only fighting to make Local 22 a prime mover in the city’s political life but speaking for a national labor-based civil rights movement.

Civic Unionism and Civil Rights

In preparation for the 1944 election, FTA’s Washington representative, Elizabeth Sasuly, came down to help plan a voter registration drive. She carried with her the paraphernalia of CIO-PAC’s innovative media and educational campaign: posters, leaflets, and the usual how-to-do-it guides with titles such as What Every Canvasser Should Know, The CIO Political Action Radio Handbook, and a Speaker’s Manual.

She also brought special literature targeting women and African Americans; most striking was The Negro in 1944, a thirty-three-page publication filled with photographs that featured ordinary black citizens, often in integrated settings. Such materials contained a powerful message. They pictured black workers as they saw themselves: as citizens in a pluralistic society rather than as problems or pathological types. They also summoned both black and white workers to participation in a new kind of labor movement, one that included the diverse labor force that actually inhabited the country’s factories and mills.

Local 22’s efforts relied on the same vibrant networks and growing organizational skills that had powered its earlier organizing and voter registration campaigns. “We urged the crippled and the blind, everyone that could read or write to go to the polls,” Robert Black recalled. PAC members opened a booth at the black county fair, recorded spots for broadcast on the local radio station, and distributed leaflets at the plant gates. Going door to door in their neighborhoods, buttonholing workers during lunch breaks, speaking up during church meetings, and sponsoring citizenship classes on the US and North Carolina constitutions, unionists encouraged their friends and neighbors not only to stand up against trickery and intimidation but to overcome the insidious, internal barriers created by generations of political exclusion.

Tobacco workers in an R. J. Reynolds plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (date unknown).

Velma Hopkins and J. H. R. Gleaves explained just how this culture of exclusion worked. Hopkins was one of the few Local 22 activists who, with the help of a black doctor, had registered to vote before the union arrived. Yet the habits of Jim Crow kept even her away from the polls. “I didn’t take registration seriously until the union came in and we began to talk about PAC and the importance of voting,” Hopkins recalled. “The union taught us what each segment of government meant; what the aldermen and county commissioners controlled. We’d never heard nothing about them because they were all white.” Gleaves was a small business owner who had been active in the voting rights movement since the late 1930s. He pointed out that even in the midst of a war for democracy, registrars were still arbitrarily declaring that “some high school and college graduates . . . who can read and write the Constitution, not only in the English language, but often in several other languages,” were not qualified to vote.

The union’s tactics included effective negotiating as well as voter registration. For example, when Local 22 leaders held a public meeting with the county election board chairman to seek his cooperation in getting eligible voters on the books, he not only assured them that he supported the right of every “eligible” voter to register, he promised to look into the possibility of sending registrars to the union hall — an extraordinary reflection of the clout and credibility Local 22 had acquired. Even the Reynolds Tobacco Company bowed to the force of the workers’ desire to vote. According to Robert Black, the company gave voters “time off to go to the polls with no loss of pay for the first time in the history of North Carolina.”

Even so, individual registrars continued to reject qualified black voters. As Eleanore Hoagland remembered it, “People met in the union hall and went to where the registrar was en masse.” This show of collective force turned the tables on registrars who had long intimidated black voters; it yielded what the Winston- Salem Journal described as “record registration by Forsyth County citizens.”

On November 7, the voters of the Fifth District returned New Deal supporter John Folger to Congress and helped keep Franklin Roosevelt in the White House. Nationally, the CIO-PAC claimed a large share of the credit for enabling the Democratic Party to hold its own in the Senate and gain twenty seats in the House. Black workers in Winston-Salem, a large majority of whom had never voted before, had their first taste of successful political campaigning. The next month Robert Black told delegates to the FTA national convention in Philadelphia that Local 22 was responsible for 30 percent of the Democratic vote in Forsyth County.

As it turned out, Roosevelt’s reelection to a fourth term was a bittersweet victory. At the Democratic convention in Chicago, a showdown between the two wings of the party over Roosevelt’s running mate ended in defeat for Henry Wallace, who had the wholehearted support of CIO-PAC and of black leaders. With Roosevelt’s acquiescence, the nomination went to a relatively unknown senator from Missouri, Harry Truman, who had backed New Deal programs but whose roots lay in the party’s conservative wing.

Less noted, but equally portentous, was the effort of blacks representing South Carolina’s newly organized Progressive Democratic Party to challenge the seating of “Regulars,” who had barred black voters from the Democratic Party primary in defiance of the Supreme Court’s decision in Smith v. Allwright. The convention disqualified the Progressive Democratic Party, but its very presence symbolized the breadth and depth of black political mobilization.

Democracy at Home

As Winston-Salem celebrated the Allied victory and veterans began streaming back to town, Local 22 leaders looked ahead optimistically to what they hoped would be an expansion of democracy comparable to the changes that followed the Civil War.

FTA’s Elizabeth Sasuly made sure that the voices of Local 22’s most articulate leaders were heard at the highest levels of government. In November, Christine Gardner, a seasonal worker at Piedmont Leaf and a Local 22 member, traveled to Washington to address a Senate Education and Labor subcommittee considering a new minimum wage. The mother of three children described the difficulty she and her husband had making ends meet on a combined income of less than $40 a week. “My husband and I have been married ten years,” she testified, “during which time he has never had a suit of clothes. His greatest ambition is to buy for me a Christmas present, and for himself a complete set of clothes.” An interracial committee of male veterans from Local 22 boarded a plane on the morning of March 26, 1946, bound for the capital, where they met with President Truman to urge him to back the sixty-five-cent minimum-wage bill.

In the end, the Democratic Congress scuttled nearly every item on labor’s agenda. A filibuster by Southern congressmen defeated attempts to create a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee, which would have posed a serious challenge to a regional economy that depended on systematic discrimination. Truman finally signed an Employment Act, but it was a pale imitation of the original. “We were kicked in the teeth by Congress,” one CIO official concluded.

Members of Local 22’s delegation to the sixth FTA International Convention in Philadelphia, 1947.

This pessimistic assessment, however, obscures the meaning of this legislative offensive at the local level. Winston-Salem workers, black and white, neither expected immediate victory nor despaired at setbacks. Meeting with the president, lobbying representatives and senators, and dashing off telegrams to Washington were heady experiences for workers who had been excluded from politics at any level. Moreover, these ventures carried a powerful symbolic punch. Every delegation Local 22 sent to Capitol Hill was made up of blacks and whites, men and women. The photographs in the FTA News and The Worker’s Voice documenting these excursions pictured unionists working side by side for a common cause. These defiant images countered the aura of naturalness and inevitability that surrounded segregation, suggesting instead that interracial activities were not only possible, but a postwar fact of life.

The institutionalization of segregation had allowed whites to live in a “racial dream world” based on the belief that blacks were satisfied with their place at the bottom of a harmonious social world. By the end of World War II, much of the white South was awakening from that dream. In Winston-Salem, black activists — and working-class activists at that — seemed to be everywhere: moderating discussions on the radio, appearing before congressional committees, commenting on national affairs in the newspaper, reporting to the ministerial alliance.

To be sure, their visibility inflamed the opposition, and among some whites it stoked what amounted to a siege mentality. It also upset settled hierarchies within the black community. A small but vocal element of the black middle class had always opposed unionization, and some continued to find the new assertiveness of working people unsettling. Clark Brown, a local funeral home director, was still writing to the Journal in the fall of 1944 about the “outsiders” who would “destroy the past and present progress” of friendly race relations.

But even these opponents — both white and black — had to acknowledge the union’s vocal concern with civic affairs, its growing credibility with much of the black middle class, and its ability to mobilize the political energies of the workers who made up the vast majority of the city’s black population.

The revitalization of the NAACP was a case in point. The civil rights group had chartered a local chapter in 1918, but when field secretary Madison Jones visited in 1941 the branch had only eleven members.

That changed quickly when Local 22 decided to spearhead a membership campaign for the branch. “We saw the need of strengthening the NAACP,” Black remembered, “not to dominate it with our members, but to build it. Because that was the political arm of the blacks, short of our union. By building and getting our members to support these organizations, it gave us extra strength in our community.”

As tobacco workers poured in, the local branch exploded in size. Within a few months, membership had reached 1,918, and the city boasted the largest NAACP chapter in North Carolina.

The Communist Party

Registering voters, lobbying Congress, and supporting candidates were the core activities of American politics, and Local 22 members, who had been denied these basic rights of citizenship, embraced them with gusto. Adding an extra dimension to this civic unionism, however, was the increasing radicalization of many of the union’s leaders and some rank-and-file activists, a process abetted — although not by any means caused — by their contact with the ideas and members of the Communist Party.

After its initial foray into the Twin City in the wake of the 1929 textile strikes, the party had met with quick repression and largely faded from view. It made itself felt again in the early 1940s with the arrival of from the UCAPAWA (United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America — the forerunner to FTA), some of whom were party members and some of whom were independent leftists who had been schooled in a political culture strongly influenced by Communist views on race, class, and international affairs. Yet party members among the organizers “stuck strictly to the union policy,” Robert Black recalled, discussing their political views with only a few of the most trusted rank-and-file leaders.

Those discussions made a strong impression on men and women who harbored few illusions about American democracy, had a keen sense of the courage and persistence that organizing required, and were willing to take their friends where they found them. In discussions with this small group of natural leaders, William DeBerry, a representative of the UCAPAWA, emphasized the class dimensions of black oppression and the role of a disciplined, assertive vanguard in overcoming the fears of the rank and file, the most powerful weapon in the company’s arsenal.

By the summer of 1945, an informer, apparently working with the union, was furnishing the FBI with information on Communist activities within Local 22. In one report, the informer enclosed a list of union officers and Reynolds shop stewards, with an asterisk beside the names of “known members or sympathizers,” a designation that included most of the union leaders, black and white, as well as a number of influential stewards. The informer provided few details about their activities, other than to say that they had “indicated a pronounced sympathy for the [Communist Party] and in most cases are subscribers to the Daily Worker.” What the informer meant by “pronounced sympathy” is anyone’s guess. And reading or even subscribing to the Daily Worker at that time was not uncommon for members of left-led unions. Still, although none of Local 22’s activists openly declared their party membership, it is clear that during this period many joined Marxist discussion groups and developed ties to the party. Some, including Robert Black, quite likely became members.

Members of Local 22 picket in downtown Winston-Salem during a 1947 strike against R. J. Reynolds. Forsyth County Public Library

By the end of 1946, the party membership rolls in Winston-Salem reached approximately 150, a large majority of whom were African-American tobacco workers, including a large number of union shop stewards. The first North Carolina Communist Party convention held in six years took place in Winston-Salem that year. Communist activist Junius Scales remembered that the letter summoning him to the meeting arrived by mail, something that would have been “unthinkable” before the war. Like other young white radicals, Scales also remembered being awed by the charisma and sophistication of the rank-and-file leaders of Local 22.

From the summer of 1946 through the spring of 1947, Winston-Salem saw a flurry of party activity, much of which centered on the union hall. An upsurge in lynching and other racially motivated violence and an attempted revitalization of the Ku Klux Klan seemed to portend a campaign of terror like the one that had followed World War I. In response, activists circulated a petition in the name of the party, calling on President Truman to use the power of the federal government to stop vigilante violence in the South. At the same time, full-page advertisements, complete with subscription forms for the Daily Worker, began appearing in North Carolina’s leading newspapers. These appeals combined a tough denunciation of Jim Crow with a “people’s program” that included a state minimum wage, repeal of segregation laws, higher salaries for public school teachers, and abolition of the state sales tax.

By the fall of 1946, party membership in the city had grown large enough to support an organizational structure that closely resembled those in large Northern cities. Party officials assigned members to one of eight clubs, each of which elected its own officers and a representative to the city committee. The Winston-Salem chapter also had a Trade Union Committee composed of organizers from the various unions and rank-and-file leaders.

Individual clubs consisted of anywhere from ten to twenty members and took their names from African-American and Communist leaders: Crispus Attucks, the African-American Revolutionary War hero; Benjamin Davis, the Communist councilman from New York; William Z. Foster, the chairman of the party; Sojourner Truth, the feminist abolitionist; and Paul Robeson, the world-famous actor and singer who had become a spokesman for labor, civil rights, and left-wing causes.

When Junius Scales became chairman of the party in the Carolinas, he had a chance to sit in on club meetings. “The clubs were usually based on areas of the factory that they worked in,” he remembered. “There were a few clubs that weren’t Reynolds workers, they were former Reynolds or something. They focused on city problems. Of course there was nothing in the city that didn’t concern the tobacco union.”

Black and White, Unite and Fight

Even at its height, party interests and orthodoxy usually took a backseat to the needs of the union and the culture of the black working class. To be sure, given the overlap between union leaders and party activists at both the local and national level, party concerns affected the functioning of Local 22, and party affiliation could serve as a means of gaining influence in the union. But it is equally true that civil rights unionism dominated the activities of the local party. Even the district organizers devoted the vast majority of their time and energy to union building and voting activism.

Local 22 leaders like Robert Black had no doubt that party activists were critical to Local 22’s success. This was so for reasons both simple and profound. First, the party provided man- and womanpower: competent, militant allies who usually saw themselves as unionists first and Communists second and who were willing to put their lives and livelihoods on the line. Second, it combined the ideal and practice of interracialism with a commitment to the black freedom struggle. In Winston-Salem and elsewhere, party members created an “oasis of genuine interracialism” where African-American culture was treasured, blacks and whites worked and socialized together, and the “Negro problem” was transformed into the problem of how white racism could be overcome. “Here was an outfit that put its money where its mouth was,” Junius Scales explained. “It really meant business on racism.”

Finally, the party helped to counter the psychological onslaught of racism by linking the experiences of black Americans to those of other oppressed people and to the cause of the international working class. Scales remembered that the “top leaders [of Local 22] had such inquiring minds that they just soaked up all the educational efforts that were directed at them. The party’s program had an explanation of events locally, nationally, and worldwide which substantiated everything they had felt instinctively from their experience. It was right in their guts.”

Through precept and example, the party thus offered a reason to hope that workers could be the generative force in a broad-based radical movement and that — despite the phobias spawned by white supremacists, despite the powers arrayed against them — black and white together could some day overcome.