By Andy Strouthous
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No Prize for Booker

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Review of 'Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908-1921', Brian Kelly, University of Illinois Press £16.99
Issue 271

This book is a welcome addition to US labour history at a time when some labour historians find psychological explanations of racism fashionable. For some an emphasis on ‘whiteness’ is preferred to materialist explanations. In the hands of the ‘whiteness’ approach white supremacy has become a benefit for white workers, while the real beneficiaries–the white elite–are ignored. That racial antagonism exists between black and white Southern workers cannot be denied, but for Kelly the main instigators of racial oppression were not white workers, but the white elite.

The struggle to unionise the Alabama coalfields from 1908-1921 provides an effective rebuttal of the theory that white workers benefit from racism. Black and white miners working in the Alabama coalfields were poorly paid, often captive in company shanty towns, suffering numerous accidents and deaths. In the face of the ferocious, and sometimes violent, opposition of the coal operators, black and white miners struggled to build the United Mine Workers of America (UMW).

White miners were accused of conceding ‘social equality’ to the ‘negro’, but at the same time the white elite claimed they were the black miners’ friend. Acting paternalistically, they gave small benefits to black miners, such as advances of wages, and emphasised that they were prepared to employ the ‘Negro’.

The UMW always ensured that a white miner was the president of district organisations, even when black members were in a majority. They admitted challenging the economic exploitation of black miners, but denied the accusation of promoting social equality. Yet mixing of black and white was a fact for the UMW, even if it lacked the confidence to articulate it. For down the mine, on the picket line, and at union rallies and meetings, black and white miners gave each other solidarity.

Nor did black miners exchange one form of paternalism for another. Black miners–in opposition to their own ‘race’ leaders–often initiated joining the union and involvement in strikes. The black elite in Alabama was as keen as the white elite to keep black miners out of the union. Using the ideology of Booker T Washington’s accommodationism black businessmen and preachers warned black workers off the ‘white man’s union’.

In spite of this black miners were often the most ardent advocates of the UMW. The white elite were furious that a black vice-president of a UMW local had his words taken down by white stenographers who called him ‘mister’. Such examples of equality filled the employers with dread.

This is one of many examples where racial boundaries in the white supremacist South became blurred–unfortunately there are other examples where they didn’t. During the long, drawn out strike of 1920 the union sent impoverished miners of one district 80 pairs of shoes–only 13 pairs went to black miners.

The coal operators moved in black scabs from further south to break the strike. There is little evidence that white miners resorted to racism–indeed they had to be mindful of the thousands of black strikers alongside them. Instead they tried, sometimes successfully, to persuade black miners to leave the coal camps, whenever possible providing food, clothing and the fare home.

In early 1921, with the union running out of funds, the coal operators employing thousands of scabs, and the lynching of union militants, the decision by the Alabama supreme court to uphold the eviction of miners from company homes saw UMW officials sue for peace. After six months of striking the operators had imposed substantial wage reductions. The defeat of 1921 was severe and it would not be until the 1930s that attempts were made to rebuild the union would begin again. Kelly concludes that the most forward thinking Southern elites hoped to reduce racial friction while leaving the structures of exploitation and racial oppression intact. Black accommodationists believed that by persuading ordinary blacks to accept their exploitation and keeping them out of the ‘white man’s union’ they could create space for their own progress within the confines of a segregated South. Only the racially mixed UMW aimed at something different, for black and white miners had no material interest in perpetuating Jim Crow.

This inspiring book is a must for all those interested in US working class struggle, and proof that black and white can unite and fight, even in circumstances as grim as the Alabama coalfields of 1920.

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