In reading the first ninety-nine pages of Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: ORGANIZING MEMPHIS WORKERS, I started feeling less and less proud to be a Memphian. I was familiar with the Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968, the event that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to a city that would take his life; however, I was unaware of just how far back the problems stemmed. I was not naïve enough to believe that Abraham Lincoln passed the Thirteenth Amendment and that just like that, everything was okay. But I was unaware of the severe conditions that plagued Memphis businesses and the economy during the early to mid-1900s, moreso than most cities during the depression. The working environment was horrendous—the wages were below the poverty level and the workplace conditions were unfit. Unfortunately, most of the blame for poor conditions fell to the divide of the city-the divide between the whites and blacks.
In the late 1800s, the city of Memphis saw a 400% increase in the black population. With such an influx in the workforce, creating massive competition, all companies lowered their pay rates. Blacks were given the jobs at the lowest part of the totem pole, and whites took the management and white collar positions. However, as the Great Depression bore down on Memphis, unemployed whites came to resent blacks who had employment. There were only so many jobs available, and desperate to compete, the whites were willing to take jobs originally reserved for blacks. Pitting blacks and poor whites against each other, Memphis business owners continued to lower wages. And let’s face it; if a business owner could employ a white man at the same cost as a black man, there were no reservations about giving the job to his fellow white man.
At the hands of political boss E.H. “Boss” Crump, the city continued down the path of racial segregation and disparity. While there were those that attempted to work with union organizations, to make Memphis a more desirable place for employees to work, Crump and the city of Memphis went out of their way to make the city more desirable for companies looking to turn big profits at the expense of exploited Memphians. There were those that spoke out against “Boss” Crump and his political machine, however, those that did were beaten, killed, or run out of town.
One of the greatest examples of Memphis’ attempts to “’sell’ Memphis to outside industries based on its low wages and cheap local resources” occurred with Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. In 1937, Firestone—like many other northern industries that migrated south for cheaper labor—established a mass-production subsidiary plant in Memphis. Moreover, Firestone was attempting to escape the industrial unions currently organizing at their plant in Akron, Ohio. The city of Memphis allowed Firestone to build their plant outside of municipal city limits, so that they could avoid paying taxes, but at the same time provided water and emergency services—reserved to those inside the city limits—for a minimal charge.
It was not until the Great Riverfront Strike of 1939 that the city of Memphis began to make headway in unionizing. Unable to properly organize because of the racial divide, the AFL’s International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) and CIO’s Inland Boatmen’s Union (IBU) unions came together—setting their race aside—to strike against the Federal Barge for better wages and to end preferential hiring for non-union workers. In this instance, the city of Memphis took its first step to ending discrimination in the workplace and ensuring the availability of unions. The white strikers were pleased with their newfound alliance. One white striker stated, “Without the support of the black dockworkers we never would have won.” Another proclaimed, “We have won every round because of our unity…we will continue to do so.”
The victory of the Great Riverfront Strike served as the IBU’s first victory in a strike and the first time that a black-led AFL union exercised leadership. As I have yet to finish the book, I cannot guarantee it; however, I foresee this strike as the beginning of a unified front that will continue to defeat Memphis corruption and discrimination in the workplace.