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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Women took the lead in forming friendships. The door was open to organize the
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
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
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.
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.
Articles copyright 1995-2012 Workers World.
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