POVERTY WARS AND THE SEEDS OF LABOR UNIONISM: NORTH CAROLINA BLACK-BELT, 1966-67
At the end of the Summer and the beginning of the Fall, 1965, we
developed very strong and viable democratic grassroots movements across the
Northeastern North Carolina Black-Belt. The hard lines of resistance to
social change were broken, vigorous local leadership was widespread, we
had driven the Klan out of the North Carolina Black-Belt and the atmosphere
of terrorism was fast waning, there was widespread desegregation and some
integration and significant fair employment victories -- and a substantial
beginning of democratic labor unionism in the larger towns.
At this time, our old friend, Jim Dombrowski, retired as Executive Director
of the Southern Conference Educational Fund and, concurrently, our old
friend, Miss Ella J. Baker, indicated her intention of leaving the SCEF
staff. I, too, left SCEF in the Fall of 1965.
Keeping our house in Raleigh, Eldri and I and our growing family junketed up
to Goddard College in Vermont for several months. There, as a Visiting
Activist, I did some teaching and considerable writing -- and returned, on
various occasions, to the Black-Belt for consultative purposes.
In the Spring, 1966, we were living back in the South once again.
This from my book, Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle
and Schism [1979, and Krieger edition 1987]:
"Times were changing across the nation. The social class dichotomies of the
civil rights movement, now joined by the integrationist/separatist
debates -- all of this in the context of some important victories, much
tokenism, and continuing massive economic poverty -- were combining to
fragment whatever solidarity had initially characterized the movement in
I fought one more campaign in the South. The recently developed North
Carolina Fund was a state-wide "anti-poverty" agency initially funded by the
Ford Foundation and increasingly tied to the U.S. Office of Economic
Opportunity. The Fund, echoing the rhetoric of OEO, was talking about
maximum feasible participation of the poor in decision-making and ostensibly
planning the elimination of poverty in the state. Friends in the lower
echelon of the Fund, some of them Black Belt movement veterans, asked us to
return to North Carolina to help out in the organization's stated mission.
With some misgivings, I accepted the post of Director of Training, working
with young Indian, black, and white people around the techniques of
mobilizing the poor. At the same time, I began to work with my old
colleagues and friends in the Black Belt to organize -- in Bertie, Halifax,
Hertford, and Northampton counties -- a grassroots anti-poverty program
which we called the People's Program on Poverty. All of this was far too
heady for the leaders of the Fund, who promptly fired me [note by HG/JRS:
"for insubordination."] There were massive protests from my trainees and
friends and from people and groups around the state, and these, coupled with
legal action and the impending plans of Black Belt people to "come in
numbers" to the central office of the Fund in Durham, led to my
reinstatement as a "consultant" with no strings attached. I continued to
work with the Black Belt people's program until we secured, from the Fund
and collateral sources, large-scale funding for this poor people's movement.
By now, it was clear that OEO nationally and its appendages were primarily
committed to the political enhancement of the national Democratic party, and
that with the exception of situations like the People's Program on Poverty,
where the grassroots poor were well organized and depended only on
themselves, the funding was merely enough to pit local people against each
other and never enough to do much against poverty."
Here is one of several radical anti-poverty gatherings -- with strong civil
rights and labor union dimensions -- that I organized in 1966 and 1967.
This one was in Rocky Mount, North Carolina [ south of Halifax County and in
Nash and Edgecombe counties] -- a hard-core racist small city dominated by a
vehemently anti-union power structure very sensitive to the wishes of the
textile bosses. The John Birch Society was extremely powerful. As you will
note, these reactionary forces did everything they could do to prevent our
conference -- and, not surprisingly, had lots of FBI help as well. As
always, we kept fighting and the conference -- as with all of our
endeavours -- was quite successful and we reached poor and working people
[to some extent interracially] within and far beyond Rocky Mount. These
gatherings -- open to the public but with a very special emphasis on local grassroots leaders committed to substantive anti-poverty work and frequently interested in effective and democratic labor unionism -- resulted in substantial funding for our People's Program on
Poverty -- and also stimulated the development of considerable solid unionism.
In the northern part of our old battlefield, Halifax County, lay the town of
Roanoke Rapids -- dominated by the huge and perennially anti-union J.P.
Stevens textile mill. The success of our civil rights organizing broke the
atmosphere of fear which pervaded the entire region -- including Roanoke
Rapids; and our consistent linkage of civil rights with democratic
interracial unionism and our continual distribution of union literature
across the entire Black-Belt and environs -- and very much at Roanoke
Rapids -- quite effectively sowed and nourished the seeds of militant
unionism which began to take root and materialize. And these were the seeds
that led eventually, in the early 1970s, to the unionization of J.P.
Stevens Textile at Roanoke Rapids. [And that, by the way, was the
situational setting for the excellent 1979 labor film, Norma Rae.]
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