Liberation Motifs in White Working-Class Southerners

Kenneth Cauthen

Copyright © Kenneth Cauthen  2004. This essay contains material, with revisions and additions, published in Kenneth Cauthen,  "I Don't Care What the Bible Says": An Interpretation of the South (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2003), 43-7, 56-9.

The liberation motif in biblical religion so prominent in contemporary theology has appeared more than once among the oppressed of the South. The Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. is the most outstanding example, of course. The theme song of this struggle had its immediate origins as a union song of working-class strikers. Pete Seeger tells the story..                                    
This song was originally one of two African American Spirituals: " I'll Overcome Some Day" or "I'll be All Right."  In 1946, several hundred employees of the American Tobacco Company in Charleston, South Carolina were on strike.  They sang on the picket line to keep their spirits.  Lucille Simmons started singing the song on the picket line and changed one important word from "I" to "we".  Zilphia Horton learned it when a group of strikers visited the Highland Fold School, the Labor Education Center in Tennessee.  She taught it to me and we published it as WE SHALL OVERCOME in our song letter, "People's Songs Bulletin"  in 1952.  I taught it to Guy Carawan and Frank Hamilton.  Guy introduced the song to the founding convention of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) in North Carolina. It swept the country.(1                                    
Complaints of bondage and hopes for emancipation have also appeared in the songs and rhetoric of white workers. White working class Southerners are typically pictured as enemies of the liberation of blacks, women, and gays. Enough truth is contained in this accusation to be embarassing and shameful to all who value justice for all. Nevertheless, poor white Southerners have suffered their own forms of oppression. It is this part of the story and their use of biblical Exodus language in response to it that I want to introduce briefly here.

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Beginning about 1875 cotton mills sprang up in the hill country of the Southeast. (2) Eager workers moved from the country in droves to take advantage of the opportunity. Benefits there were in comparison with their lot before and otherwise. Yet the gains were overwhelmingly for whites only. Textile mills were the major exception to the growth of a biracial working class. By and large black men were given only the dirtiest and hardest jobs that paid the least. Black women, when they were employed at all, were restricted to menial tasks like sweeping and cleaning. Even for whites the result was a mill complex as plantation arrangement associated with a controlling paternalism. The mill owners operated with an ideology that magnified property rights. They assumed as a natural right - that coincidentally served their interests - the prerogative of setting the conditions of employment in their factories. Workers as individuals could accept or reject them. The idea that employees could legitimately engage in collective action to counter their power was an anathema to mill owners. Hence, their anti-unionism was generally uncompromising, fierce, and even violent when the occasion demanded. The middle and upper classes of towns and cities - professionals, mill managers, bankers, and others who carried on the commercial and financial enterprises - largely sided with the mill owners. When forces were joined in strikes, mill owners could generally count on sheriffs, police chiefs, and governors for armed support.

The individualistic outlook of white employees -  given with their cultural heritage and reinforced by life on the frontier - played tragically into the hands of the mill owners. They could be driven to protest when conditions became unbearable on particular occasions. But ideologically informed, deeply felt, sustained working-class solidarity was on the whole insufficient to create the massive union strength needed to counteract the entrenched power of the owners. The new industrialists were supposedly the saviors of the South and were so regarded by many laborers themselves. Yet their benevolence operated on the premise of perpetually low wages. It was thought ungracious for the beneficiaries of such generosity to question this arrangement. They could always go back to the farms if they wanted to. A further drawback was that industrialization took place with the assistance of much northern capital. Some of the wealth thus created would flow into hands that cared little for poor southerners other than as a source of income.

Many members of my own family worked in the mills. My mother, father, and four aunts worked at the Spalding Knitting Mill in Griffin, Georgia. Birdie Mae, my father's sister, was employed there for forty years. I labored there myself for seven summers while I was in college and seminary. I used to question my fellow-workers about their lack of interest in joining a union. I assumed that they were afflicted by a "false consciousness" that prevented them from acting rationally in their own behalf. I now believe they were being rational in the light of their experience and ideology. There were four reasons I learned for their lack of interest in the union. 1. Individualism. They assumed that they had an individual contract with the mill. The mill offered to pay them a certain wage. They were free to accept or reject the offer. They had little sense of belonging to a working class of people who could bargain collectively with the mill management.  2. Paternalism. The mill owner cultivated their personal loyalty. They could go into his office if they were in financial trouble and work out a loan or some other arrangement to see them through. 3. A sense of powerlessness. Their experience was that the union usually lost, and workers would end up worse off than before. They made reference to the strike at the Dovedown Mill in 1934. Eventually, the union lost, and a lot of people were out of work. My Uncle Emory Cauthen joined the union at the Dundee Mill in 1934 and boasted to my father and my Uncle Dennis that he had done so and that the mill could not fire him. They cautioned him against being so confident, and sure enough the next week, he was laid off. Moreover, his reputation had spread so that it was hard to get another job, since no superintendent wanted to hire somebody who might get mixed up with the union. 4.Rational pursuit of self-interest. They were better off working in the mills, even with low wages and long hours, than they had been on the farms. Moreover, mills offered opportunities for women that were not available anywhere else. Without these jobs they would have been worse off than they were.

The story of Ella May Wiggins tells us much about the plight of the mill workers. She was a 29 year old union organizer in North Carolina during the great strike of 1929. She had given birth to nine children. Four of them had died. She was born to an itinerant logging family in the mountains. She married a not-too-successful man who eventually deserted her. So Ella May supported her family by working in a mill at Bessemer City. She made speeches and sang union songs. Her most famous ballad was  called "Mill Mother's Lament," and it went like this:
We leave our home in the morning,
We kiss our children goodbye,
While we slave for the bosses,
Our children scream and cry.

And when we draw our money,
Our grocery bills to pay,
Not a cent to spend for clothing,
Not a cent to lay away.

And on that very evening,
Our little son will say,
"I need some shoes, dear mother,
And so does sister May."

It is for our little children,
That seems to us so dear,
But for us nor them, dear workers,
The bosses do not care.

But understand, all workers,
Our union they do fear,
Let's stand together, workers,
And have a union here.

On September 14, a truckload of Bessemer City unionists were forced off the road by a group of armed men. As they ran through the fields, shots rang out. Ella May Wiggins died on the spot with a bullet hole through her chest. Only after the governor forced the issue was there a trial, and her alleged killers were acquitted, although the murder took place in daylight with many witnesses. Soon after that the strike ended. (3)

To the economic deprivation suffered by poor whites in the cotton mills was added the cultural snobbery they experienced from the white middle classes who lived uptown. Ada Mae Wilson, who lived in a mill village in North Charlotte, North Carolina, said that "real high-falutin people" lived in places like Myers Park. "But we was trash out here, we was poor white trash because we worked in the mills. We didn't have white-collar jobs, as they called them, like working in a bank or the stores and things like that. 'Poor white trash' they called us. They thought we ought to wear brogan shoes to church." Hoyt McCorkle said that when they went to town, "The other children would kind of look down on you. You'd go to school and they'd call you a linthead and things like that. You was kind of from the wrong side of the tracks." Sometimes the racial hierarchy got turned upside down. Mr. McCorkle added that "even the blacks looked down on us, yes they did. Call us white trash." (4)

White mill workers frequently used the language of deliverance derived from the Exodus event to express their misery and their hopes. One man wrote to President Roosevelt as follows:  
During the last few years men have been carried away from their work dead or unconscious. I ask you to read of the cruelty of Pharaoh to the Israelites to get a comparison. Although the Israelites worked in fresh air while the mill people are shut in and have to breathe the same air over and over again. . . . For God's sake and humanity's sake deliver these people from a hell on earth.  (5)
At the Brandon Mill in Greenville, South Carolina, the same analogy was drawn between the children of Israel and "cotton mill people." Said one worker,  "They made bricks for them, and each day the Egyptians would beat them and want them to make more. The cotton mills are not as different as people think."

The Southern Textile Bulletin speaking for the mill owners observed, "It is doubtless the sons and daughters of the `Holy Roller' enthusiasts who followed the Communists into the strike" (at Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1929)   (6) Hidden in this pejorative comment was the recognition that it was frequently the marginal churches of poor whites that supported the strikers. Pentecostal and holiness preachers, renegade Baptists, and others on the boundaries of the major denominations usually offered what little support the workers on strike or union organizers generally got. Some Methodist and Baptist congregations were split by strikes and union activity. Generally, foremen defended the mill owners, while some workers were sympathetic with protest. The uptown churches made up of middle class whites, professional people, and the mill owners usually could be counted on to support law and order and to condemn violence. The established clergy of the leading churches in the urban areas were no threat to the economic interests of the industrialists. Seldom did well-educated ministers with their scholarly sermons offend the sentiments of the mill management.  (7)

The same class and culture based divisions among the churches and their pastors appeared elsewhere. During the last decade of the 19th century some Baptist and Methodist ministers combined their religious duties with leadership in the Populist cause. So much was this the case that one alarmed editor warned that Baptist preachers had "gone wild with politics." Urban pastors allied with conservative interests castigated their ministerial brethren for their entry into politics. (8) In Alabama as elsewhere it was often among Pentecostal churches made up of some of the poorest whites that resistance to perceived oppression found its most radical expression. Pastors and lay people belonging to the Church of the Nazarene, the Church of God, and other like groups "became enthusiastic champions of unionism and class-based protest."  (9) Women preachers were prominent in the Church of God of Cleveland, Tennessee, and sometimes delivered their message across racial lines. A pacifist tendency manifested itself among some, leading to charges of disloyalty and subjection to violence during World War I. In the Southwest around 1900 and after Pentecostal churches produced numerous socialists. Baptist, Methodist, and Churches of Christ congregations also included a fair number of them in rural areas.   (10)

Let us note in passing that even the otherworldly religion of common whites had a relevance that was rooted in the way they had experienced the world. Wayne Flynt argues that poor white southerners were not necessarily out of touch with social reality.
Talk of vindication and justice in heaven was hardly escapist in a world where striving came to nothing. When poor whites entered politics or formed unions, elections were stolen and strikes broken. They did not passively accept their fate. But once confined to it, they tried to make sense of it. How could God be compassionate and fair and yet tolerate such injustice? Because someday the poor of this world would inherit a crown and those who cheated and abused them would get their just reward.  (11)
 Mrs. Sadie Harris of Greenwood, South Carolina, wrote the following letter to her local paper: 
I am sorry the mills are so depressed for money. The officials always have a poor mouth. . . . Poor little fellows, we cannot afford to weep over them. . . . They are only ordinary men with great salaries and feel their importance, but they are no more in God's sight or as much as the poor man or woman, who is so depressed and toiling all day in the mills, almost as severe as the penitentiary. . . . Wait until judgment day comes. . . . It will be a sad day for the people . . . who have trampled God's poor in the ground. The world will see then who is chosen for God's children.  (12)
Religion serves many functions in human life. The value of churches should not be measured solely by the extent to which they challenged the oppressive character of slavery, segregation, farm tenancy, low wages, and poor working conditions in mills, mines, and factories. But it is one way in which Gospel finds expression. The North had its social gospel, championed by Walter Rauschenbusch, at whose seminary I was privileged to teach. Nevertheless, long before the development of liberation theologies in the seminaries, many white Southerners were using biblical terminology to express both their plight and their aspirations. The hope of liberation here and now and beyond this life is prominent in their songs and in their language.

1.  Pete Seeger quote can be found at: 
2.  Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, James Leloudis, Robert Korstad, Mary Murphy, Lu Ann Jones, and Christopher B. Daly, Like a Family: The  Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987); David L. Carlton, Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880-1920 (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1982); and Liston Pope, Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942); and I. A. Newby, Plain Folk in the New South: Social Change and Cultural Persistence, 1880-1915  (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1989).

3.  Hall, et. al., Like a Family, 215, 226-7.

4.  Ibid., 222-3.

5.  Hall, et. al., Like a Family, 296-7.

6.  Ibid., 220-1.

7.  See Liston Pope, Millhands and Preachers; Hall, et. al, Like a Family, 220-1; and J. Wayne Flynt, Poor But Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989).

8.  J. Wayne Flynt, "Southern Protestantism and Reform, 1890-1920," in Samuel S. Hill, Jr., ed.,Varieties of Southern Religious Experience (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1988), 138-40.

9.  Flynt, Poor but Proud, 238-9.

10.  Flynt, "Southern Protestantism and Reform, 1890-1920," 145-6.

11.  Ibid., 238.

12.  Hall, et. al., Like a Family, 321-322.

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