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I Am A Man: Authoring History in Memphis
Unformatted Document Text:  I Am a Man take a half-century of Jim Crow before they would make noticeable gains once more, and, as before, the struggle would be founded on premises of race and labor. Just as the calamity of war upended social relations in the nineteenth century, a shift occurred in Memphis during the 1940s. By the end of the second world war there was a doubling of industrial workers in the South and union membership was at an all time high nationwide. In Memphis the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) each had 30,000 members. 2 While the unions were mostly white, an influx of black workers during the war and their increase in wages was an incentive to spread unionization. Mainly through the efforts of the CIO and black workers who picketed and organized mass meetings, Memphis soon had one of the leading Southern industrial labor movements. Added to that was the fact that it was a viable biracial movement, one that gave increasing attention to the problems of segregation. 3 Despite new efforts to overcome past wrongs, the forces of reaction again sought to undermine progressive social change. Memphis’s political boss, E. H. Crump, wouldn’t allow any threats to his firmly established power, and furthermore, he knew that a divisive social order was necessary to keep wages low for local employers. Under the cover of the post-war red scare, workers in Memphis and across the South faced propaganda that associated unions with integration and communism. The strategy to divide the unions worked, and soon the CIO undertook a series of purges to root out communists. 4 Where propaganda was deemed inefficient, paid thugs used violence to intimidate and eliminate union members. For black organizers, this sometimes meant death. With their hopes again dashed, most black workers in 2 Ibid, p. 214. 3 Michael K. Honey, Chapter 6: Industrial Unionism and Racial Justice in Memphis. In Robert Zieger, ed., Organized Labor in the Twentieth-Century South (Knoxville, Tennessee: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991), p. 135. 4 Ibid, pp. 147-49. 5

Authors: Peters, Benjamin.
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I Am a Man
take a half-century of Jim Crow before they would make noticeable gains once more, and, as
before, the struggle would be founded on premises of race and labor.
Just as the calamity of war upended social relations in the nineteenth century, a shift
occurred in Memphis during the 1940s. By the end of the second world war there was a
doubling of industrial workers in the South and union membership was at an all time high
nationwide. In Memphis the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of
Industrial Organizations (CIO) each had 30,000 members.
While the unions were mostly white,
an influx of black workers during the war and their increase in wages was an incentive to spread
unionization. Mainly through the efforts of the CIO and black workers who picketed and
organized mass meetings, Memphis soon had one of the leading Southern industrial labor
movements. Added to that was the fact that it was a viable biracial movement, one that gave
increasing attention to the problems of segregation.
Despite new efforts to overcome past wrongs, the forces of reaction again sought to
undermine progressive social change. Memphis’s political boss, E. H. Crump, wouldn’t allow
any threats to his firmly established power, and furthermore, he knew that a divisive social order
was necessary to keep wages low for local employers. Under the cover of the post-war red scare,
workers in Memphis and across the South faced propaganda that associated unions with
integration and communism. The strategy to divide the unions worked, and soon the CIO
undertook a series of purges to root out communists.
Where propaganda was deemed
inefficient, paid thugs used violence to intimidate and eliminate union members. For black
organizers, this sometimes meant death. With their hopes again dashed, most black workers in
2
Ibid, p. 214.
3
Michael K. Honey, Chapter 6: Industrial Unionism and Racial Justice in Memphis. In Robert
Zieger, ed., Organized Labor in the Twentieth-Century South (Knoxville, Tennessee: The
University of Tennessee Press, 1991), p. 135.
4
Ibid, pp. 147-49.
5


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