Draper, Alan. "Brown v. Board of Education and organized labor in the South." The Historian. Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc. 1994. HighBeam Research. 19 Jun. 2013 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
Draper, Alan. "Brown v. Board of Education and organized labor in the South." The Historian. 1994. HighBeam Research. (June 19, 2013). http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-15867922.html
Draper, Alan. "Brown v. Board of Education and organized labor in the South." The Historian. Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc. 1994. Retrieved June 19, 2013 from HighBeam Research: http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-15867922.html
The 1954 Decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education, was the greatest challenge to state-sponsored segregation that the South had ever faced. The Court outlawed racial segregation in schools, buses, beaches, parks, hotels, hospitals, and anywhere legally mandated segregation existed. The push for civil rights that followed in the wake of Brown met determined resistance from southern whites. White Citizens' Councils (WCC) and other white supremacist groups organized throughout the South to defend the threatened color line by terrorizing and intimidating blacks. Southern blacks who advocated desegregation were evicted by landlords, fired by employers, denied credit by merchants, and physically assaulted. Segregationists also ostracized whites who dissented from the racist orthodoxy and harassed institutions that supported integration. The reaction of organized labor to Brown sheds light on both the challenges facing the civil rights-era South and the troubled relationship between unions and blacks.(1)
The nascent civil rights movement placed intense pressure on U.S. labor leaders. National AFL-CIO officials and even some southern unionists welcomed Brown as a harbinger of changes that would ultimately topple the southern political system and undermine southern conservatism. However, local union officers and state council officials, accountable to a rank-and-file passionately opposed to desegregation, were reluctant to take a position on the Brown issue that might weaken their unions or jeopardize their careers. Although some southern union leaders disapproved of massive resistance to the Supreme Court's ruling, they were constrained by their concerns for the welfare of their organizations and their own political fortunes.
The AFL-CIO emphatically declared its support for the Brown v. Board of Education decision at its first convention as a unified organization in December 1955. When the newly created AFL-CIO Civil Rights Committee convened for the first time early the following year, H. L. Mitchell, president of the National Agricultural Workers Union, presented a report on the White Citizens' Councils in the South, which posed a clear danger to the labor movement. Although the councils were "ostensibly aimed at |keeping the Negro in his place' through use of economic boycotts and intimidation," Mitchell reported, "we are convinced that [they are] also directed at the trade union movement." He charged that businessmen active in anti-labor organizations formed the leadership of many Citizens' Councils and that the councils had worked to prevent interracial unions, intimidated union officials who supported integration, and promoted discord within unions. After hearing Mitchell's report, the AFL-CIO issued a blistering attack on the Citizens' Councils, condemning them as a "new Ku Klux Klan without hoods," comparing them to the Nazis, and describing them as "anti-union and anti-democratic."
The AFL-CIO statement was reported widely throughout a South already seething with defiance against the Brown decision. Newspaper headlines and editorials excoriated the AFL-CIO and attacked its leaders as "champions of integration and enemies of the Southern way of life." Angry white southern members deluged AFL-CIO headquarters with mail. Some felt AFL-CIO President George Meany and its executive council did not understand the South, while others were outraged by the union's condemnation. One member of a Mississippi Papermakers local patiently explained to Meany how damaging it was for the AFL-CIO to support integration in the South: "People now are beginning to believe, that our aim is desegregation and we are faced with the problem of trying to convince them better.... I believe that we have a big enough job of organizing down here as it is without having to fight a segregation battle too."(3)
Other letters were more inflammatory. An indignant Papermakers local in Georgia urged the AFL-CIO executive council to direct its condemnation at truly subversive groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). One South Carolina union member wrote, "You seem to forget where you are in your tirade against the people of the South.... If outside trouble makers and adgitators [sic] had not come in and stirred up ill feelings there would not have been all this ado among our people." The executive council's stand on Brown was blamed on the recent merger with the CIO: "We never had any sympathy with many of the CIO policies and it looks like the old AFL is now adopting some of their plans." A Brotherhood of Railway Carmen local in Alabama declared, "We are for segregated schools," then asked rhetorically, "Do you realize how many thousands of the Hoodless Ku Klux are members of the affiliate labor organizations of the AFL-CIO?" The local warned that if the AFL-CIO planned to purge itself of Citizens' Council members, it should do so quickly before "the White Citizens' Councils ... purge themselves of the AFL-CIO."(4)
President Meany responded to each letter by reiterating that the Citizens' Councils were a ploy to undermine organized labor. Anti-union employers dominated the councils, he argued, and used the race issue to camouflage their goal of weakening labor unions. The AFL-CIO president reminded his correspondents that the Supreme Court had given the South time to implement school desegregation and turned enforcement over to local courts. Finally, Meany appealed to union members' patriotism by urging them to obey the law as good citizens.(5)
The AFL-CIO Civil Rights Committee, alarmed by the volume and intensity of mail arriving after its attack on the …
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