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Life and Labor in the New New South

Reviewer(s):Friedman, Gerald

Published by EH.Net (June 2013)

Robert H. Zieger, editor, Life and Labor in the New New South.? Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida Press, 2012.? xi + 363 pp. $75 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8130-3795-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts.

The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina, has an exhibit about Kannapolis, the textile city built around Cannon Manufacturing?s textile mills.? Drawing cotton locally from throughout the South, and using the most up-to-date machinery powered by local water, Cannon made Kannapolis a world center in the production of cotton sheets and towels. As recently as the 1980s, Cannon employed 30,000 workers in Kannapolis, and the Levine Museum includes exhibits of working conditions, living conditions, recreation, and culture.? There are even pictures of the first black workers at the Cannon Mills.

Kannapolis was part of the New South of the decades before World War I and is part of both the success and failure of that New South.? On Youtube, one can watch the demolition of the great Cannon Mills in 2005 after the company?s final bankruptcy; and with the loss of the mills from the Carolinas and the Southeast went much of the promised affluence and new opportunities for many of their workers.? Yet, amid the economic wreckage, Kannapolis survives; instead of the giant textile mills, the city?s economy is now built around a public-private venture, the North Carolina Research Campus.? Built on the former Cannon Mills site, it is a collection of research facilities with laboratories for biological and other research.? Kannapolis is now part of Carolina?s Research Triangle, home to a prosperous and cosmopolitan population able to produce products that sell throughout the world.? There are jobs there; although one may wonder how many are filled by the former mill hands.

There have been many ?new Souths.? Before the Civil War, there was the trans-Appalachia west, a new slave empire of large-scale plantation agriculture and staple crop production carved out of lands conquered from the native peoples and from Mexico.? In the 1880s, Henry Grady famously proclaimed a ?new South? of ?union and freedom,? a ?perfect democracy? with a diversified industry to meet ?the complex needs of this complex age.?? Again, even while saying that the ?new South? would move beyond racism and authoritarian politics, Grady?s New South was based on an authoritarian state able to maintain “the supremacy of the white race of the South? and to advance the economic interests of rich capitalists (Woodward 1951; Lichtenstein 1996; Blackmon 2008).?

Yet, Grady?s words show the enduring interest in a new South that would be both prosperous and democratic.? New Dealers and Civil Rights activists campaigned for political reforms and economic diversification to promote broad-based prosperity through education, by spreading purchasing power, and by ending racial injustice (Badger 2007; Wright 1986; Wright 2013).? There has been some progress, especially around the southern periphery where improving education and reduced racial discrimination has brought new industry and prosperity.? Those who feared that a new South would lose its distinctive identity into a soul-less, homogenized United States might grieve at how Atlanta or Charlotte have come to resemble Chicago or the Boston suburbs; but this fear is still premature.? Outside of a few enclaves, much of the South remains poor, left behind by many of the industries of the twenty-first century economy.??

What then of the ?New New South??? Robert Zieger and his colleagues think there is one and their collection shows how labor relations in the South have come to resemble those in the North and elsewhere.? Rather than showing how the South has changed, however, much of their work shows how the South has helped to transform the rest of the United States by undermining unions and democratic impulses.? In an excellent study of capital mobility focused on the movement of the carpet industry south, Tami Friedman shows how the weakness of southern unions gave capitalists a way to escape unionization in the North as well as leverage against their northern workers.? Michael Pierce writes of political struggles between Dixiecrats and New Deal liberals in Arkansas.? Building on work of Anthony J. Badger and others, Pierce shows that a liberal, pro-labor, biracial coalition was viable in Arkansas right up to 1957 when the Little Rock school integration fight polarized white voters, insuring the triumph of the most conservative, anti-organized labor elements.?

Other chapters are more optimistic about the New New South by showing how the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s improved the situation of low-wage public sector workers in Baltimore (Jane Berger), Texas farm workers (Max Krochmal), Texas prisoners (Robert Chase), and migrant farm workers in Georgia (Michael Bess).? It is unclear, however, whether these gains will be any more enduring than those of reforms during an earlier southern reconstruction after the Civil War.? Robert Bussel?s chapter on Teamster Local 688?s Community Stewards Program, for example, shows how an alliance of organized labor and neighborhood organizers promoted political democracy in St. Louis in the 1950s.? By helping workers realize their potential as ?first-class citizens,? the Teamsters helped to improve education, transit, housing, and public services for working people and the poor.? This would be a disappointing model for a New New South, however, because the program died with the collapse of the Teamsters? Union.

Little more encouragement can be found from the other chapters in this collection.? Michael Honey and David Ciscel report from Memphis, home of Martin Luther King?s last campaign where little remains of King?s dream of political empowerment and economic equality.? While the city is dominated politically by a black political elite, it has lost much of its manufacturing employment and many of its African-American residents are without jobs and locked in poverty.? Timothy Minchin gives a preview of his new book on the decline of southern textiles.? Hardly had textile jobs been opened to African Americans when they disappeared to foreign imports that left entire communities poverty-stricken in a new world for which they are poorly prepared; few have made the transition as successfully as has Kannapolis.? Chapters by Bruce Nissen and Michael Dennis are a little more optimistic and report organizing successes for health care workers in Florida and for communities in Virginia respectively.? In a larger context, one may want to withhold judgment about the long-term success of these initiatives.

What then remains of the democratic and egalitarian hopes for a New New South?? Perhaps hope lies in the variety of southern experiences shown in this excellent collection.? The southern story has been varied, filled not only with disappointments and tragedies but with brilliant struggle and even occasional triumphs.? If a new Kannapolis can rise from the ashes, may a new prosperous and democratic South rise as well??

References:

Badger, Anthony J.? 2007. New Deal/New South: An Anthony J. Badger Reader. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

Blackmon, Douglas A. 2008. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Doubleday.

Lichtenstein, Alexander C. 1996. Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South. New York: Verso.

Woodward, C. Vann. 1951. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Wright, Gavin. 1986. Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War. New York: Basic Books.

Wright, Gavin. 2013. Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gerald Friedman?s publications include ?The Political Economy of Early Southern Unionism: Race, Politics, and Labor in the South, 1880-1953,? Journal of Economic History (2000).

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Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII