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February 10, 2008


Students of what happened when New Orleans drowned in 2005 might look at the wealth of primary sources in the Katrina Reader.

Our school is doing a month of black inventors.


aimai, that's great. In my field (biology), african americans are still severely underrepresented. Although about equal numbers of women and men are getting PhDs in biology (there are still more male than female professors, but it's getting better), the number of african-americans (and other minorities) getting PhDs in biology in the US is still MUCH less than whites and there are very few african-american professors (and the lack of minority role models may make it even less likely that minorities stay in science, though I'm not sure how big a difference that makes).

If you're interested, here's a page from a group within the American Society for Cell Biology that is trying to increase the number of minorities in biology. If you look at the biographical sketches under the section titled "E E Just Lectures," you'll find out about some of the best black (and other minority) biologists in the country. E. E. Just was a prominent black biologist in the early 1900s, and everyone listed in that section received an award named in his honor.

Prior to the Civil Rights Era of the 50's and 60's, much Economic Progress for American Blacks came through the Labor Movement, in particular the CIO which was formed officially in about 1937. Unlike virtually any other American Institution of that era, the CIO required a blanket non-racial discrimination clause in any local or Industry constitution, and required that all bargaining units totally respect this, and indeed because so many early CIO Unions were re-organized versions of earlier craft unions, the Congress of Industrial Organizations required the fair merging of seniority lists, and employer contractual agreement to non-discrimination.

Today with Union Culture so less common in the US (but strangely the Teachers are pretty hep on Unions), the importance of the CIO to the notion of economic equality has gotten short shrift in History Lessons. So let me take you back in Racial terms to the late 30's when Walter Reuther and others finally organized Ford in Detroit.

In worker terms in those days, there were two sides to Ford Operations, the Hot side, and the medium cool side. The Hot Side was the foundary, where they poured engine blocks from liquid metals, and where the average temp was 125F. The other side the workplace was perhaps 75F. Now where do you think Black's worked before the Union -- well of course, on the Hot Side. The wages were the same on both sides, but they had separate senority lists. Essentially a black man with 20 years seniority pouring engine blocks could not get a promotion to the cool side.

So when John L. Lewis was planning how he would organize Ford for the CIO, he had to take into consideration Ford's giving Blacks a near monopoly on the worst jobs in the industry -- the hot side, but at an equal wage -- and thus the suspicion that an Industrial Labor Union might eliminate that monopoly.

John L. Lewis was not a racial equality crusader, but he had been totally burned organizing a Coal Mine in Southern Illinois in the 20's, the Centeralia Strike, where the employers brought in black strike breakers, resulting not in a labor contract, but a race riot. As a leader who lost a strike, he studied his mistakes, and realized he should never again seek to organize without a fair agreement with Black Workers prior to labor action. The reason Ford worked out as it did was because Lewis had done his homework.

Lewis's first step was to meet with the Black Preachers in Detroit, many of whom had Hot Side workers in their congregations. Lewis asked for broad meetings with the workers organized by the ministers -- and eventually he got them. He laid out the CIO non-discrimination doctrines, the importance of merging Seniority Lists so that Blacks could leave the Hot Side for better jobs and job prospects. He talked about the disaster at Centrallia, and why the labor struggle had become a race riot. He made hard promises. In return eventually the Ministers and others made equally important promises.

Now I am skipping over stuff -- but when the strike was called at Ford, the Black Workers went out with everyone else. But the tradition of the industrialist strike breakers was to send a train down the Illinois Central and collect sharecroppers and the underemployed to get onboard and go grab the jobs with no union entanglement. But Lewis, the Black Ministers, and the Ford Hot Side workers, had something in their pocket -- the Prince Hall Masons -- the Black Masonic Orders. Word was sent south through the Masons not to get on Ford's trains, and they came back North empty. (in the middle of the depression), Thus Lewis gained the power to actually negotiate a sound contract, and in addition, Seniority Lists got merged. All promises to the Black Ministers and the existing workers were kept. Employment at Ford essentially became non-racial.

It is so easy to do Black History with the abolitionists and all, honored as they should be -- but why forget this huge bang bang on the essence of the working class in America? Essentially the Economic matter that is so profound. Who works? Who gets wages to scale? Who has benefits? Who gets protection? Who gets promoted to a better job on the cool side?

Many African Americans can just ask elders about this stuff and get an ear full, particularly if they moved North in the migration just before and during WWII, when J Phillip Randolph's agreement with FDR provided protection for these industrial jobs, with Union coverage, that more or less erased the racist hiring policy in many a production industry.

Personally, I have always measured things by the guy who sat behind me in first grade in 1942-43. He was 15 years old or almost, had never been to school, and had actually never worn shoes. He was nearly 6 feet tall, and I was 3 feet, but I did help him learn to read. Our Teacher was distressed that in wartime her little class had been changed by adding kids from temp housing for rubber workers -- but that is what happens in wartime. My seatmate did two years in the rubber factories (union scale) before he got drafted, and did both German Occupation and then Korea. And he still could not read all that well.

So let's forget the dead heroes of the abolitionist era and all, and look clearly and help kids look clearly at the 20th Century.

John L. Lewis trained hundreds of black labor organizers to push forward his agenda. When are they going to get credit? (and I don't mean celebrating J Phillips Randolph as much as he needs honors) -- I mean the folk who did the work.

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