For African Americans, the Great Depression and the New Deal (1929–1940) marked a transformative era and laid the groundwork for the postwar black freedom struggle in the United States. The outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929 caused widespread suffering and despair in black communities across the country as women and men faced staggering rates of unemployment and poverty. Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat, was inaugurated as president in 1933, he launched a “New Deal” of ambitious government programs to lift the United States out of the economic crisis. Most African Americans were skeptical about benefiting from the New Deal, and racial discrimination remained rampant. However, a cohort of black advisors and activists critiqued these government programs for excluding African Americans and enacted some reforms. At the grassroots level, black workers pressed for expanded employment opportunities and joined new labor unions to fight for economic rights. As the New Deal progressed a sea change swept over black politics. Many black voters switched their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party, waged more militant campaigns for racial justice, and joined interracial and leftist coalitions. African Americans also challenged entrenched cultural stereotypes through photography, theater, and oral histories to illuminate the realities of black life in the United States. By 1940, African Americans now wielded an arsenal of protest tactics and were marching on a path toward full citizenship rights, which remains an always evolving process.
Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy
The relationship between organized labor and the civil rights movement proceeded along two tracks. At work, the two groups were adversaries, as civil rights groups criticized employment discrimination by the unions. But in politics, they allied. Unions and civil rights organizations partnered to support liberal legislation and to oppose conservative southern Democrats, who were as militant in opposing unions as they were fervent in supporting white supremacy. At work, unions dithered in their efforts to root out employment discrimination. Their initial enthusiasm for Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed employment discrimination, waned the more the new law violated foundational union practices by infringing on the principle of seniority, emphasizing the rights of the individual over the group, and inserting the courts into the workplace. The two souls of postwar liberalism— labor solidarity represented by unions and racial justice represented by the civil rights movement—were in conflict at work. Although the unions and civil rights activists were adversaries over employment discrimination, they united in trying to register southern blacks to vote. Black enfranchisement would end the South’s exceptionalism and the veto it exercised over liberal legislation in Congress. But the two souls of liberalism that were at odds over the meaning of fairness at work would also diverge at the ballot box. As white workers began to defect from the Democratic Party, the political coalition of black and white workers that union leaders had hoped to build was undermined from below. The divergence between the two souls of liberalism in the 1960s—economic justice represented by unions and racial justice represented by civil rights—helps explain the resurgence of conservatism that followed.
Paul Michel Taillon
Railroad workers occupy a singular place in United States history. Working in the nation’s first “big businesses,” they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, came from a wide range of ethnic and racial groups, included both men and women, and performed a wide range of often esoteric tasks. As workers in an industry that shaped the nation’s financial, technological, and political-economic development, railroaders drove the leading edge of industrialization in the 19th century and played a central role in the nation’s economy for much of the 20th. With the legends of “steel-driving” John Henry and “Cannonball” Casey Jones, railroad workers entered the national folklore as Americans pondered the benefits and costs of progress in an industrial age. Those tales highlighted the glamor and rewards, the risks and disparities, and the gender-exclusive and racially hierarchical nature of railroad work. They also offer insight into the character of railroad unionism, which, from its beginnings in the 1860s, oriented toward craft-based, male-only, white-supremacist forms of organization. Those unions remained fragmented, but they also became among the most powerful in the US labor movement, leveraging their members’ strategic location in a central infrastructural industry, especially those who operated the trains. That strategic location also ensured that any form of collective organization—and therefore potential disruption of the national economy—would lead to significant state intervention. Thus, the epic railroad labor conflict of the late 19th century generated the first federal labor relations laws in US history, which in turn set important precedents for 20th-century national labor relations policy. At the same time, the industry nurtured the first national all-Black, civil-rights-oriented unions, which played crucial roles in the 20th-century African American freedom struggle. By the mid-20th century, however, with technological change and the railroads entering a period of decline, the numbers of railroad workers diminished and with them, too, their once-powerful unions.
The rise of the southern textile industry in the early 1900s shifted the center of American textile production from the northeast to the Piedmont and created a new class of southern industrial workers: the “cotton mill people.” Throughout the 20th century, larger economic and political forces changed the industry and its people. Technological innovations, wars, and the diversification of the southern economy affected how textiles were made, the consumer demand for them, and mill workers’ wages and working conditions. The labor, civil rights, and women’s movements produced federal laws and legal victories that desegregated the mills, drew attention to the particular vulnerabilities of women workers, and provided protections for all workers against exploitation and poverty. Continuity, however, was as significant as change for mill workers. Women’s labor was always crucial in the mills, and women were key leaders in strikes and organizing drives. Unionization efforts were consistently undermined by technological innovations that replaced human labor, the global movement of capital, and the united power of mill owners and political leaders. Throughout the 20th century, cotton mill people struggled to resist the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization and insist on the dignity and value of their labor. The story of their struggles reveals important dimensions of 20th-century southern labor and life. With the movement of textile manufacturing from the American South to the Global South, their 20th-century struggles offer insights into the 21st-century struggles of textile workers worldwide.
During the 1890s, the word segregation became the preferred term for the practice of coercing different groups of people, especially those designated by race, to live in separate and unequal urban residential neighborhoods. In the southern states of the United States, segregationists imported the word—originally used in the British colonies of Asia—to describe Jim Crow laws, and, in 1910, whites in Baltimore passed a “segregation ordinance” mandating separate black and white urban neighborhoods. Copy-cat legislation sprang up in cities across the South and the Midwest. But in 1917, a multiracial team of lawyers from the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) mounted a successful legal challenge to these ordinances in the U.S. Supreme Court—even as urban segregation laws were adopted in other places in the world, most notably in South Africa. The collapse of the movement for legislated racial segregation in the United States occurred just as African Americans began migrating in large numbers into cities in all regions of the United States, resulting in waves of anti-black mob violence. Segregationists were forced to rely on nonstatutory or formally nonracial techniques. In Chicago, an alliance of urban reformers and real estate professionals invented alternatives to explicitly racist segregation laws. The practices they promoted nationwide created one of the most successful forms of urban racial segregation in world history, rivaling and finally outliving South African apartheid. Understanding how this system came into being and how it persists today requires understanding both how the Chicago segregationists were connected to counterparts elsewhere in the world and how they adapted practices of city-splitting to suit the peculiarities of racial politics in the United States.