This article originally appeared in Labor
This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the end
of World War II. It's important to reflect on the moment that this
anniversary represents, for the war's ending opened a watershed
period in modern world history.
In a sense it formally marked the end of the years
of the Great Depression: American industry had expanded, wartime
restrictions had built up a great reservoir of purchasing power,
and the talk was of "sixty million jobs" – the equivalent
of full employment. The war's end was the beginning of a period
bursting at the seams with hope and ripe with possibility.
This article will explore the sources of that hope
and possibility – and one brief vision of fulfillment, "Operation
Dixie," crushed by the reactionary offensive of the Cold War.
Black Labor and the CIO
During the Depression years, a new center of working
class strength had been built in the factories and ports of the
nation: the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). From its
beginnings, the CIO accumulated great authority and public prestige
because of the unifying mission that distinguished it from the old
American Federation of Labor (AFL).
The African-American community, especially, saw in
the CIO a strong ally as we struggled to arouse the nation to put
an end to the racist Jim Crow practices that disfigured the American
landscape. When the opportunity offered, we joined the CIO in great
numbers and with great pride, and our community contributed dozens
of gifted leaders, men and women who worked alongside their white
counterparts as organizers – sometimes despite obstacles within
the CIO itself.
In the two years following the end of the war, the
CIO launched the greatest strike wave in the history of the United
States. Millions of workers in the steel, auto, railroad, mining,
maritime, and tobacco industries were among those who took part;
Oakland, California, produced a General Strike. Workers had kept
their "no-strike" pledge during the war as an act of patriotism,
but now the war was over, a new era was beginning, and these industrial
workers were determined to shape it.
In 1947, emboldened by hard-won successes in the strike
period and committed to continuing the progressive policies of the
Roosevelt "New Deal," the CIO set its sights on a new
vision: organizing the unorganized in the South. The dream was code-named
A number of developments in both the South and the
North had encouraged the boldness of this vision. The "four
freedoms" that President Roosevelt had named in his 1941 inaugural
address had become the stated moral basis for U.S. involvement in
the struggle against Fascism. The Supreme Court had outlawed two
Southern Practices – the poll tax in federal elections and
the Democratic "white primary" – that had excluded
blacks from participating in the electoral process.
During the war years, the NAACP had become a truly
nationwide organization for the first time since its founding in
1909. Alongside the NAACP chapters emerging across the South, Southern
Negroes formed statewide grassroots Voters' Leagues that challenged
every effort to disenfranchise them.
The Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), forerunner
of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the 1960s, held
the largest convention in its history – some 1,500 delegates
– in 1946 in Columbia, South Carolina. Paul Robeson, Dr. W.
E. B. DuBois, and Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker spoke in the
state capital's municipal auditorium, opened for the first time
to the state's Negro citizens.
The energy and optimistic determination of the period
were reflected in the arts and in sports. Duke Ellington composed
a jazz poem entitled "New World A-Comin'," dedicated to
the new United Nations. The Brooklyn Dodgers had hired Jackie Robinson;
in 1947 he was leading their farm team, the Montreal Royals, to
its first pennant.
Threats and Opportunities
So there was good reason for the boldness represented
by the proposed Operation Dixie – but it was also part of
the resistance to a threat that appeared after the death of President
Roosevelt in April 1945. The men of big business had consistently
fought against the New Deal during the years of the Great Depression.
Now they were pursuing their own effort to reshape the postwar years.
Operation Dixie was designed to be among the fronts of activism
addressing this challenge.
All of these developments together constitute the
moment in history to be celebrated when we observe the anniversary
of the end of the Second World War.
Now imagine it's October 1947: autumn in New York.
A group of us have gotten together here in our home port, headed
for the National Maritime Union (NMU) convention at Manhattan Center.
Jesse Gray is in off the brand-new SS America, the
flagship passenger ship of the United States Line that makes the
run to England and Le Havre, France. Jim Malloy is in off the SS
Argentina, a passenger ship running down the east coast of South
America to Montevideo and Buenos Aires. I'm back from a six-week
trip on a freighter to Gothenburg, Sweden, and Newport, South Wales.
We're part of a new generation of union activists taking up our
With 100,000 members, the NMU is the largest maritime
union in the U.S., and one to be proud of. Our union-shop hiring
hall maintains "no-discrimination" hiring practices. In
most Southern ports the NMU hiring hall is the only desegregated
assembly space in the city. Equal job opportunity is always the
Brother Ferdinand Smith, the national Secretary-Treasurer,
is the highest-ranking black union official in the New York labor
At this convention Paul Robeson is to be awarded an
honorary life membership for his outstanding contributions to the
labor movement. In solidarity, our members on the ships and in port
have responded to requests from the Indonesian Seaman's Union for
financial assistance to their nation's independence struggle against
Holland. We have recently pulled all Camel cigarettes off our union
ships in support of the striking tobacco workers of United Tobacco
Workers Local 22 in North Carolina.
Attacks from the Top
What brings us to take time off from work is that
the word is out that NMU's president, Joe Curran, is planning to
launch a purge against the Communists and other progressives during
this convention. The Cold War climate which the Truman Administration
initiated two years earlier is now confronting the trade union movement
in its many sectors.
Curran's primary base among the members for such a
splitting program is among the white seamen in such Southern ports
as New Orleans and Galveston. Union elections for national office
are less than a year away.
In shipboard conversations after work, over coffee
and a card game, "old-timers" had talked about the tough
times they'd known in building the union. They repeatedly made the
point that the Communists among the rank and file had set an example
of consistently opposing race discrimination and strengthening the
unity of all in the fight for the union. That's working-class morality,
enshrined in the slogan "An Injury to One is an Injury to All."
This background gave many of us a clearer understanding
of what the Joe Curran program and its variations throughout the
labor movement of that time really meant.
In the late 1940s, a handful of unions made sporadic,
often courageous, efforts to carry out Operation Dixie. Two of the
West Coast maritime unions, the ILWU and the Marine Cooks and Stewards,
established a small base in New Orleans. The hotel and restaurant
workers had done so on Miami Beach, and the Eastern Airlines skycaps
had joined the TWU.
Beyond these, a number of unions in the South that
had won bargaining rights during the war were able to stabilize
during the brief postwar period of "Operation Dixie."
Notwithstanding these initial efforts, Operation Dixie
became an early casualty of the Cold War and its strategic objectives.
Although the NMU Convention blocked the Curran steamroller for the
moment, his machine later won the union elections. Ferdinand Smith
was expelled from the union on charges of "malfeasance in office."
His offense had been to telegraph all NMU port agents to inform
them of the murder of Bob New, their colleague in Charleston, S.C.
A progressive white
Southerner, New was assassinated in the NMU hall.
The killer, who called Bob "a Communist and a nigger-lover,"
received an 18-month prison term.
By 1949, the Cold War had gained considerable momentum.
At its Portland National Convention that year, the CIO expelled
a number of progressive unions. Raids followed; so did NLRB decertifications.
Forays into the South by the House Un-American Activities
Committee and its Senate counterpart added to the pressure. James
Carey, who set up a "new" electrical workers union (the
IUE), captured the spirit of the time when he reportedly said, "In
World War II we joined the Communists to defeat Fascism; now we'll
join the Fascists to defeat Communism."
Though this statement was not enthusiastically received
in the "House of Labor," it represented an accurate picture
of what often went on in practice. The CIO split doomed the project
of organizing the unorganized in the South: labor's energy was dissipated
in raiding its own organized ranks.
When twentieth-century "organized labor"
ceased to be a movement, the liberation of the South from the shackles
of institutional racism fell to the initiative, creative leadership,
and dedication of the African-American community.
In our own century, when the challenge is to abolish
institutionalized poverty and militarism, what will define the role
of our country's working class in the struggle? We all recognize
the old saying, "time will tell"; but ultimately, consciousness
will inform time.
Jack O'Dell joined the Merchant Marine during
World War II and was an active member of the NMU for six years.
He directed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s voter registration campaign
in the early 1960's and later was an editor of Freedomways magazine
and Director of International Affairs in the Rainbow Coalition.