Steelworkers, racism and Herbert Hill

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Jan 9 16:25:37 MST 2001

>From the newly published "Divided We Stand: American Workers and the
Struggle for Black Equality" by Bruce Nelson (Princeton University Press):

In retrospect, it is clear that the top leaders of the United Steelworkers
were sitting on the edge of a smoldering volcano, with little apparent
awareness of the dangers that confronted them. Over time, events would
demonstrate that the union possessed neither the understanding nor the will
to deal effectively with the festering problems of racial discrimination in
steel’s occupational structure and racism in the USWA’s own ranks. But in
1950, and for a number of years thereafter, there was a moment of racial
equilibrium within the union that convinced the leadership that its
policies were achieving the objectives of maintaining institutional
stability and advancing the cause of civil rights. This moment of
equilibrium was made possible by the convergence of several factors, which
included Philip Murray’s continuing reputation among black workers as a man
of honor who cared deeply about the goal of racial equality; the union’s
incremental gains in securing promotion rights for African Americans; the
booming economy of the late 1940s and early 1950s; the favorable position
of black steelworkers relative to their counterparts who labored in the
service sector and on the margins of the industrial economy; and, finally,
the relative calm that accompanied the larger struggle for black equality
in the period between the Dixiecrat rebellion of 1948 and the Supreme
Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Murray died, suddenly and unexpectedly, in November 1952. In the outpouring
of affection for the man whose name and persona had been synonymous with
steel unionism since the founding of SWOC, perhaps none could match the
reverence an African American gospel group in Alabama expressed. According
to the CIO Singers,

The Congress Industrial Organization assembled.
The whole world began to tremble.
Men, women, and children cried,
When they heard the sad news Mr. Murray had died.
He was the CIO’s loss, but he’s Heaven’s gain.
In the day of Resurrection we’ll see him again.
Good God Almighty our best friend is gone.
I want you boys to help me, just sing this song.

The CIO Singers were based in Bessemer, which in the late 1940s was the
site of a violent confrontation between the United Steelworkers and the
rival Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, one of the unions expelled from the
GIG on charges of Communist domination. Throughout this conflict, black ore
miners remained loyal to Mine Mill, which had won impressive material gains
for them and had vigorously opposed racial discrimination in the process.
For this very reason, white miners had never been entirely comfortable in
Mine Mill. They accused it of fighting for "social equality" and trying to
"change our way of life"; they took offense when visiting Mine Mill
officials made a point of shaking hands with black miners; they threatened
to "form a white party line in the union" to counteract the alleged
influence of the NAACP and the Communists. But with the encouragement of
key regional and national leaders of the CIO, they ultimately opted for
secession instead. After a bitter and sometimes violent electoral campaign,
in which the Ku Klux Klan openly supported the secessionists, the ClO
(acting as a surrogate for the USWA) defeated Mine Mill by a vote of 2,696
to 2,233 at TCI’s iron ore mines. To black miners it appeared that Murray
had betrayed them and that, as their union newspaper put it, the CIO and
the United Steelworkers were "ten times worse than the giant corporation we
have to fight."

Black ore miners lived in communities that overlapped in many ways with the
world of their counterparts in steel. Some—perhaps many— of them drank in
the same taverns, attended the same churches, belonged to the same
fraternal orders, and were members of the same extended family networks.
And yet, in spite of the USWA’s unsavory role in the destruction of Mine
Mill, Negro steelworkers remained loyal to their union and apparently
shared the GIG Singers’ reverence for "Mr. Murray." In an environment
characterized by rigid adherence to the norms of segregation, the United
Steelworkers offered black workers a significant measure of protection and
respect. On occasion at least, the union even defended their job rights
against the competing claims of hostile white workers. At TCI’s Fairfield
Wire Works, for example, African Americans had moved into "white" jobs
during World War II, with the result that after the war their accumulated
seniority placed them higher on the occupational ladder than some whites in
the same lines of progression. In a letter to President Murray in July
1946, eleven white unionists had complained that "as it stands now no young
white returning veteran can work himself up to a job of Wire Drawer without
first helping a negro operator, and gentlemen that will never happen." But
union officials at the local and district levels responded by defending the
existing arrangement as contractually sanctioned, thereby breaching the
walls of white supremacy and inviting the accusation that they had fallen
prey to "communistic ideas."

The loyalty that the USWA engendered among blacks was strengthened when
Murray appointed Howard Strevel, a white Tennessean, to the District 36
staff in 1951. Strevel won the respect of many white steelworkers by
aggressively and intelligently prosecuting their grievances. At the same
time, he proved unusually sensitive to the concerns of black workers. On
one occasion he even persuaded white union members at TCI to go on strike
in support of what were in essence black demands for improved conditions in
the coke plant. Although Strevel found it necessary to accept some of the
institutional trappings of segregation, he openly transgressed the
boundaries of southern racial etiquette in his relations with black
workers. When whites reminded him that "we don’t shake hands with blacks in
Alabama," he replied, "Well, it’s a good thing I’m not from Alabama." In
1953 a union official in East Texas reported on an influx of white
steelworkers from the Birmingham area who claimed that they had left
Alabama "because Strevel was making it too tough for them."

Herbert Hill offered an eloquent testimonial to the effectiveness of
Strevel and other union officials who recognized the need to build an
organization that offered more effective shop-floor representation to
blacks as well as whites. Hill joined the staff of the NAACP in 1948 and
became labor relations assistant to NAACP executive secretary Walter White.
As a teenager in New York City he had been drawn to black culture and to
leading black intellectuals on the anti-Communist Left. At Harlem jazz
clubs he met Duke Ellington and Richard Wright; in Greenwich Village he had
long discussions on the "Negro Question" with the brilliant and charismatic
C.L.R. James and other Trotskyists, black and white. Although he was a
graduate of New York University, he also worked briefly at a Crucible Steel
plant in New Jersey and on the staff of the United Steelworkers before
joining the NAACP. Michael Harrington, who became the leading spokesman for
democratic socialism in the United States, remembered Hill as "one of the
first people to ... educate me out of my sophisticated Marxist ignorance"
on issues of race. "Hill had originally entered the fight against racism as
a socialist doing ‘mass work’ in the NAACP," Harrington recalled. "But in
the course of organizing militant demonstrations against police brutality
in Harlem, Hill’s basic loyalty began to shift . . . to the NAACP itself. .
. . Indeed his identification with the cause was so strong that he
sometimes passed as a Negro. Dark-haired and swarthy, his knowledge of
black argot was so impressive that he sometimes confused even Negroes about
his racial identity. "

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list