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The billionaire vs. “Norma Rae”

Civil Rights & textile workers

Published Feb 19, 2011 9:09 AM

When Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeill and David Richmond began their sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960, just 3.3 percent of textile workers were Black. By 1978 African Americans held a quarter of the jobs in the mills.

This was one of the greatest triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement. Billionaire Roger Milliken, who died Dec. 30, did everything he could to stop this progress.

The textile magnate was the moneybags behind the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s racist political machine in South Carolina. The state’s highway patrol killed three African Americans in the “Orangeburg Massacre” on Feb. 8, 1968. They were protesting a whites-only bowling alley.

The same year Milliken became one of the finance chairs for Nixon’s successful presidential campaign. Milliken was the financial angel for Pat Buchanan’s fascist run for the White House in 1996.

Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” was also a textile strategy. Thurmond threw his support to Nixon to keep Black workers out of the textile plants — and unions out of the state.

In 1956 Milliken illegally shut his Darlington, S.C., plant after the workers there voted for a union.

Milliken’s lawyers dragged out the appeals. It wasn’t until 1980 that anyone got any compensation. Workers throughout the South were intimidated by this example of successful corporate law breaking.

Racism kept all workers poor

Keeping Black workers from Southern textile mills helped maintain racism’s stranglehold on white workers who were so desperately poor themselves.

White sharecroppers and small farmers living in poverty could unite with African Americans in similar conditions.

They actually did so during the populist movement that shook the South in the 1880s and 1890s, as described in Vince Copeland’s classic pamphlet, “Southern Populism and Black Labor.”

In 1895 North Carolina’s state legislature adjourned for the day upon hearing that Frederick Douglass died. The last African American in Congress until the mid-20th century, George H. White, kept being reelected.

Between 1880 and 1900 the number of white textile workers in the South increased six times. An even greater expansion of Southern textile mills started in the 1920s.

That’s when Northern corporations like J.P. Stevens fled their union-vulnerable plants in New England and moved south. These companies remembered the revolt of immigrant textile workers in Lawrence, Mass., led by the Industrial Workers of the World in 1912.

The South was their salvation. Wages in Southern mills were nearly 40 percent below the Northern average. By 1961 the region accounted for 89 percent of textile production in the U.S.

Fighting for freedom and jobs

The Carolinas and the whole textile belt became a crucible of the freedom movement. Greensboro, N.C. — the birthplace of the sit-ins — was filled with textile mills.

In 1957 Robert F. Williams — president of the NAACP chapter in Monroe, N.C. — organized armed self-defense against a KKK attack.

Demonstrators waged a long battle during 1963 against segregation in Danville, Va. The city was dominated by the Dan River Mills. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the resistance of the white power structure there “the worst in the United States.”

Danville cops crushed these protests. They brutally attacked marches in 1963, filling hospitals with the injured, many of whom had broken bones.

Opening up the mills to Black workers was the longest struggle. Textile barons like Roger Milliken didn’t rush to comply with civil rights laws.

Black women organized car pools of job applicants to go from plant to plant. They sued companies that refused to hire them.

J.P. Stevens was sued by 3,000 plaintiffs. The biggest textile outfit — Burlington Industries — was taken to court by Betsy Ann Broadnax. A leader of the Danville protests, Julious Adams, brought his bosses at Dan River Mills to trial for massive discrimination.

With struggle there was progress. In 1964 less than 5 percent of textile workers in South Carolina were African American. By 1976 nearly one in three was Black.

Especially dramatic were the gains made by Black women. They increased their share of employment in South Carolina’s mills 13 times over between 1965 and 1972.

Organize the South!

Racism didn’t disappear. African Americans had to struggle against vicious supervisors and bigoted workers just to stay on the job. More struggles were needed to break into the better-paid, higher-skilled positions.

But Black and white workers were being brought together in the mills. They would be joined by Latino/a workers.

The physical barriers between them were torn down as separate entrances, time clocks and bathrooms were abolished. Just the fact they could eat together was important.

Women took the lead in forming friendships. The door was open to organize the South.

Crystal Lee Sutton — who inspired the 1979 movie “Norma Rae” — was a white woman who rejected racism. She went to work in a J.P. Stevens textile mill in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., when she was 17 years old.

Sutton held up a cardboard sign with the word “UNION” inside her plant after she was fired for union activity. Sally Fields portrayed Sutton in the movie.

As Martha Grevatt wrote in Workers World, “The Black workers were solidly behind the union, but Sutton saw she had a lot of work to win over the white workers.” (Oct. 10, 2009)

The first union meeting Sutton attended was in a Black church in 1973. Seventy African Americans attended, along with 10 whites.

The union won the election at Roanoke Rapids in 1974, but it took an international boycott to force J.P. Stevens to finally sign a contract in 1980.

Since that time hundreds of thousands of textile workers have lost their jobs. But Roger Milliken didn’t lose any of his billions. He was 95 years old when he died, conveniently less than 48 hours before his heirs would have had to pay hundreds of millions of inheritance taxes. (Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Jan. 5)

Crystal Lee Sutton became a full-time union activist. She died of brain cancer on Sept. 11, 2009, after her insurance company refused for two months to pay for necessary medication.

Nobody will remember the union buster Milliken. We will never forget Crystal Lee Sutton and the courageous Black and white women workers who helped build the textile unions.

Source “Hiring the Black Worker” by Timothy J. Minchin.