Posts Tagged ‘Great Migration’

Lessons of The Killing Floor

October 13, 2019

I saw a great movie Friday night – a remastered version of the 1984 movie, The Killing Floor, which is about the fight of slaughterhouse workers in Chicago in the 1910s to establish a union and how they were divided and defeated by racial conflict.

It is a reminder of a history we Americans shouldn’t forget and carries lessons for labor and social justice struggles today.

All the characters are based on real people, who supposedly did approximately the same things that the movie shows.

The viewpoint character is Frank Custer, an illiterate sharecropper from Mississippi, who at first is grateful just to find work and doesn’t want to get involved in what he sees as a conflict between white people.

But when Bill Bremer, a German-American union leader, sticks up for him, Custer begins to realize that people of a different race and heritage are not necessarily his enemies.

The union local reflects the culture of the immigrants from central and eastern Europe who make up the majority of its members.  Speeches by union leaders are translated into Polish, and union meetings are following by polka dances.

The white ethnic leaders welcome Custer into their midst, and rely on him and a handful of other black organizers to bring African-American workers into the union.  He becomes a respected member of the leadership.

This was a huge, huge thing for white people to do in the 1910s, when extreme racism was the norm not only in the United States, but throughout the Western world.

But the white leaders do not do what Custer did—get out of their comfort zone and make contact with people who are culturally different from themselves.

Instead they depend on him to represent the union to the black workers, and to represent black workers to the union leadership.  In the end, this proves to be too much to expect.

Custer’s best friend meanwhile goes off to serve in World War One, and comes home to scorn any idea of alliance with white people.  He trusts only his fists and his revolver.

Another black worker, Heavy Williams, resents Custer for the power and prestige he has gained by allying himself with white people.  He helps to sabotage the union’s fragile racial amity.

Following the end of World War One, the United States was torn with race riots—not race riots like today, which consist of black people going on rampages, mainly through their own neighborhoods.

The race riots of the “red summer” of 1919 consisted of armed white gangs shooting up black neighborhoods and wrecking property, while police looked the other way.

A race riot in Chicago was touched off by the stoning to death of a black man for trespassing on a white beach area.  White gangs in blackface set fire to Polish and Lithuanian homes.  Black Chicago neighborhoods are terrorized.

The meat packers used the end of wartime prosperity and the need to create jobs for returning veterans as an excuse to lay off union workers.  Many white union members saw African-Americans as a threat to their jobs.  Many African-Americans saw working as strikebreakers as the only way to get jobs.

The union was defeated temporarily, but gained recognition and a contract in the 1930s.


Seeking freedom in a new land

February 27, 2013

A wise friend of mine once said that immigration is what defines and renews the United States.  Virtually all immigrants come to this country in search of opportunity to better their condition through their own efforts.  Many of them flee tyranny.  Immigration provides a constant replenishment of enterprising, freedom-seeking people.

Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration shows that this is true of the African-Americans who left the South for the North and West between 1915 and 1970.  They, too, were in search of economic opportunity and political freedom.  Their journeys were as difficult and as significant as the journeys of immigrants who crossed oceans and national borders, and, like other immigrants, they had to struggle with poverty, prejudice, an alien culture, even a language barrier (the black Southern dialect was not standard English).

the-warmth-of-other-suns_s6c10Wilkerson describes this history through the lives of three individuals who reflect the diversity of the black migration—Ida Mae Gladney, the wife of a poor Mississippi sharecropper, who left for Chicago in 1937; George Starling, a hot-tempered Florida fruit picker who left for New York in 1945; and Robert Pershing Foster, a physician who sought an independent life in Los Angeles in 1953.

Sharecroppers in the 1930s were only one step up from slavery, if that.  They had to accept whatever their landlords chose to give them, and risked their livelihoods and even their lives if they dared ask for an accounting.  Gladney and her husband had a relatively decent landlord, but left Mississippi after a relative was beaten nearly to death after being falsely accused of stealing a turkey.

Starling was marked for death after he persuaded fruit pickers in his crew to demand higher wages.  He was like someone in a Central American country ruled by death squads.  He had to sneak out, like someone fleeing from behind the Iron Curtain, by traveling to a Florida city where he wasn’t known, and then buying a ticket for New York City.

Dr. Foster’s father was a high school principal, and he married a daughter of Rufus Clements, the president of Atlanta University, the largest black university in the South.  He could have had a relatively comfortable life if he had been willing to adapt to a segregated society.  Instead he struck out for Los Angeles and independence.

He built up a successful medical practice through his skill and his devotion to his patients, but he never got over the need to prove himself.  Another way he sought to assert himself was to emulate the lifestyle of Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack.  He was the personal physician of Ray Charles, who wrote a song about him, and a frequent visitor to Las Vegas, after Vegas became open to black people.  He achieved great material success, but at the price of cutting himself off from his roots.

Starling became a railway porter.  One of his jobs going South was to shift black passengers into segregated cars when the train exited Washington, D.C.  When segregation was outlawed, he took it upon himself to encourage black passengers to stand up for their rights.  He was able to earn a good living, but he had a troubled marriage, a daughter became pregnant in her early teens, and a son became a drug addict.  He told Wilkerson that he made both good and bad life decisions, but at least they were his own decisions.

Ida Mae Gladney was the only one of the three still alive in 2010, when the book was published.  She and her husband worked hard, achieved modest success and were loved by their extended family.  She lived in a crime-ridden neighborhood, where she passed the time sitting by her window watching the drug dealers and street gangs outside.

Some African-Americans in recent years have moved back to the South, which has changed dramatically, if not completely, during the past 50 years.  But Gladney said she is now a Chicagoan, not a Mississippian, and faithfully attends neighborhood association meetings.

Wilkerson did a fine job of weaving together the stories of Gladney, Starling and Foster and the history of African-Americans in the 20th century, and challenged common assumptions concerning this history.

She said the African-American migration was not a result of the mechanization of agriculture in the South, but rather was a response to a labor shortage created by the migration.  White Southerners tried to prevent black people from leaving the South, to the point of sending police or vigilantes into railroad stations and throwing black people off the trains.  The loss of black farm labor may also be a reason for the large presence of unauthorized Mexican immigrants on Southern farms and in the migrant labor stream, but this is not a question she addressed.

She said the poverty of black ghettoes in large American cities was not the result of the migration of ignorant rural Southerners, as is commonly believed.  She said that, on average, the black migrants had better education, more stable families and better work ethics than those they left behind or black families already in the North.  A high proportion of successful black American politicians, musicians, writers and entertainers are children of the great migration, she wrote.

While in many ways the experience of black migrants from the South resembled the experience of European immigrants of a generation or two earlier, the African Americans faced greater difficulties.  They were lower in the social scale than any other ethnic group, and they could not assimilate by changing their names or losing their foreign accents.   They encountered plenty of racial prejudice and discrimination, but it was not imposed at gunpoint to the degree that it was in the South (the exception was when black families tried to move into all-white neighborhoods).

White Americans sometimes think of our black fellow-citizens as a social problem.  But we choose to think of American history as the story of a struggle for freedom and democracy, then we have to recognize that no group of Americans have struggled as hard to make these ideals a reality as black people have.  Wilkerson’s book is part of that story.

A 20th century underground railroad

February 26, 2013

I have been reading The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Isabel Wilkerson about the migration of black people in the 20th century from the South to the North and West.   I intend to post a review of it tomorrow, but there was a particular passage that was so fascinating that it deserves a separate post.

A brave black editor in Mississippi named Arrington High wrote a newsletter attacking segregation.  In 1957, he wrote an article exposing white segregationist politicians who patronized a black whorehouse.  The authorities had him declared insane and committed to a state mental institution, where he could expect to spend the rest of his life at hard labor.

the-warmth-of-other-suns_s6c10The asylum put patients to work on farms owned by the state.  One of High’s chores was to get up at 5 a.m. and milk the cows.  One morning early in 1958, instead of going to the barn, he walked down a deserted path to a row of automobiles, with four white drivers and a black driver.  He got in beside the black driver, and the caravan was waved through by the armed guard at the gate.  They drove to the Alabama line, where he got out of the car, walked across the line and joined another caravan with Alabama license plates.

They took him to a black funeral home.   He was told to lay down in a pine coffin with breathing holes.  The coffin was sealed shut and flowers were put on top.  The coffin was put in a hearse and driven to a railway station, where it was shipped to Chicago and opened 15 hours later by waiting friends.

The whole story reminds me of someone escaping from behind the Iron Curtain.  In the 1970s, the Soviet Union also dealt with dissidents by having them declared insane.  There was a medical diagnosis called “sluggish schizophrenia,” a unique form of supposed mental illness which had no symptoms.   But I suppose it was a sign of progress, both in Mississippi and Russia that there came a time when dissidents were railroaded into mental institutions rather than being killed out of hand.   And progress did not stop there.  The changes that have taken place in the American South and in Russia during my lifetime are a reminder that freedom and democracy are not hopeless causes.

As Wilkerson pointed out, the hearse technique was used by the Underground Railroad to smuggle slaves out of the South before the Civil War.  The precision with which Arrington High’s escape was organized indicates that there was another underground railroad operating in the 20th century.   Wilkerson couldn’t get anybody to tell her details “in case, it would seem, it might need to be used again.”