Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Two Southern heroes who stood up to the Fascists: the Rev. Ed King, author of a new book about the Civil Rights Movement, and the late crusading journalist Robert Sherrill

 (Civil rights leader Ed King during his recent reading in Oxford, Miss.)

Today Labor South looks a couple Southern heroes who took on the fascists who ruled the land.

The white Mississippian who stood alongside MLK and Fannie Lou Hamer during the Civil Rights Movement

OXFORD, MISS. - The Rev. Ed King was certain his days were numbered back during the long, hot summer of 1964.

“None of us in the leadership expected to live through the summer,” the lanky civil rights hero recalled during a recent reading from his book Ed King’s Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi) at Off Square Books here in Oxford.  “We were a band of brothers.”

What made King different from his “brothers” in the Mississippi Movement, however, was his whiteness. A chaplain at predominantly black Tougaloo College, King was on the front lines during throughout the movement, helping lead the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in its challenge to the whites-dominated state party and serving as an MFDP delegate to both the 1964 and 1968 national Democratic Party conventions.

The Vicksburg, Miss., native and Methodist minister paid a hefty price for his activism. Beaten and jailed, he suffered permanent facial scars in a car accident in 1963 that he blames on white supremacists out to kill him. His parents were forced to leave the state.

However, it is King’s work as a photographer and writer that was the focus of his recent visit to Oxford. With co-author Trent Watts, King offers in his new book dozens of photographs he took with his 35 mm camera, intimate shots of Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Bob Moses and other movement leaders not only at public gatherings but in private moments at COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) offices in Jackson, in pool halls, and in various Mississippi backwaters.

King proves himself a fine writer in the book’s narrative as well, drawing on the prevalent use of dogs by Mississippi law authorities as a metaphor to describe the horrors movement leaders faced. “The leaping, pawing, snarling police dog, the German shepherd—Nazi beast, fang-bared pet and tool of the white police—had by 1964 come to symbolize white racist power and opposition to the civil rights movement.”

Veteran Mississippi political journalist Bill Minor recalled in a recent column King’s dedication to the cause. “One of my most disturbing memories covering the civil rights era was seeing Ed King in clerical collar and ministerial garb yanked off the steps of the old federal courthouse and tossed into a Jackson paddy wagon. … He had gone that day with several black ministers to make Christian witness that blacks were not alone in the struggle for civil rights.”

King’s strong moral compass put him at odds with other civil rights era veterans during the 1990s when he opposed efforts to make fully public with names and all the secret documents of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which had operated like a secret agency to fight racial integration through intimidation, threats, and smear tactics. King felt that victims of the agency’s spying might be victimized again if the files were simply opened with no protections for them. The files eventually were made public.

Now in his mid-seventies, King is an old revolutionary steeped in the tradition of religious leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoeller. They all sacrificed of themselves to take a stand against fascism.

Robert Sherrill, Southern warrior against the demagogues

My first encounter with Robert Sherrill, one of the South’s premier warriors with a pen, was in the 1980s in a library in Jackson, Miss., where there on the shelf was his blistering indictment of Southern demagoguery, Gothic Politics In The Deep South: Stars of the New Confederacy. The 1968 classic ranks up there with A.J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana and T. Harry Williams’ Huey Long among the best books ever written about Southern politics.

Sherrill died at the age of 89 this past August. The South lost a major voice, but, as is typical for the South, I’ve heard hardly a lament anywhere beyond major publications in the North. In his written memorial, former Nation editor Victor Navasky recalled the late Texas muckraking columnist Molly Ivins’ proposed epitaph for Sherrill: “Here lies a man who never kissed ass.”

A native of Frogtown, Ga., who spent many years in Tallahassee, Fla., Sherrill graced the pages of Nation, the New York Times Magazine, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, Playboy and other publications over the years with his no-holds-barred, searing prose.  No ink-stained wretch of the newsroom was better at tearing off the scabs of the many wounds Southern politicians have inflicted on their region and the nation.

At one point in Gothic Politics, Sherrill takes a moment to talk about himself:
“I started writing this in the sub-basement of the Florida capitol: a good place to begin measuring the Deep South. It is a building whose superstructure is appropriately half a foot out of alignment with its foundation. There is a sense of abandonment, a wistful archeological air about the capitol as of ruins nobody cares to dig.”

In other words, the Florida capitol was like the rest of the South—then and still today, a place “of great disrepair as the result of the business-industry power faction’s having ruled successfully for so long.”

Here are a couple of the mini-profiles of now-deceased Southern pols Sherrill gave us in Gothic Politics back in 1968:

Longtime Plaquemines Parish, La., political boss Leander Perez, “the Swamp’s Gift to Dixie”: “Perez has gathered into one spirit all the money lust, moon-spawned hatred for the black man and Jew and foreigner, and painful paranoiac reaction to federalism, that have marked the Deep South for many years; he has gathered them from many sources, and then slopped them back upon the land.”

U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland of Mississippi, longtime chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and “Child of Scorn”: “Like Miniver Cheevy, James Eastland, child of scorn, loves the days of old but does not know what to do about it. … He is a loyal Mississippian, and this loyalty, combined with his hold on the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has given Eastland both the motive and the position to shape, retard and pervert the civil rights movement more than any other man in America.”

Oh, could Sherrill skewer a politician who deserved skewering!

However, he also knew that the true secret to Southern politics lay beyond the ever-dominant issue of race, and that secret was MONEY.

Southern pols “never describe their control of politics as originating in financial motives; their objective, they will tell you, has always been purely to preserve the South as the last outpost of fundamental founding-father Americanism.” However, “it was not the NAACP’s … racial emphasis but the CIO and the specter of socialized production and medical care that … inspired the blackest fears.”

Sherrill spoke with the righteous indignation of an Old Testament prophet, and his words still ring true today.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Hong Kong protesters take on the Communist Party-Big Business alliance in that city

(To the left, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong when Labor South visited there in June 2013)

Labor South follows the Global South as well as the U.S. South, and this blog has been tracking events in Hong Kong closely since editor/writer Joseph B. Atkins visited that city in June 2013 and interviewed top labor leaders, activists and migrant workers there.

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, an account of the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, put the lie to notions that the Communist Party always promotes revolution against capitalism.

“Official Communism must be regarded … as an anti-revolutionary force,” Orwell wrote. “The U.S.S.R. is in alliance with France, a capitalist-imperialist country. The alliance is of little use to Russia unless French capitalism is strong, therefore Communist policy in France has got to be anti-revolutionary.”

Orwell describes in detail how the Soviet Union co-opted worker unions and other true revolutionary forces in Spain in the battle against Generalissimo Franco’s fascists to protect its own selfish interests in the country. In the end, Franco won, setting the stage for the fascist takeover of much of continental Europe.

Karl Marx must have rolled over in his grave.

A similar alliance between “Official Communism” and capitalist leaders in Hong Kong today is why thousands of students and workers have taken to the streets in that city of more than 7 million in a weeks-long protest.

The protests, referred to as the “Umbrella Revolution”, began in late September, just before the Oct. 1 celebration of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in opposition to a Beijing plan to have a select group of Communist Party types and Big Business interests vet candidates in the 2017 election for chief executive of the former British colony. The current holder of that post, Leung Chun-ying, is himself a Beijing favorite, and among the protesters’ demands is that he step down.
Students and other young people in Hong Kong have had long-simmering disdain for Beijing’s hidden hand in Hong Kong affairs, a contradiction to Communist Party promises to Great Britain back in 1984 that the “rights and freedoms” of the residents of the semiautonomous territory would be protected. That hidden hand has worked closely with Hong Kong’s top business leaders to show favoritism to immigrants from the mainland in hiring, an easy and probably profitable exchange for protection of their financial interests.

The Economist reported earlier this month that Chinese President Xi Jinping “held a meeting in Beijing with 70 of Hong Kong’s super rich to ensure their support for his stance on democracy.”

Protesting alongside the students have been workers and union members. Member unions of the city’s only independent union organization, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, have gone on strike in support of the pro-democracy movement. In fact, the HKCTU, led by Hong Kong Labour Party chair Lee Cheuk-yan, was at the heart of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong long before the recent protests began.

(To the right, HKCTU leader Lee Cheuk-yan in his Hong Kong office)

In an interview with Labor South in Hong Kong in June 2013 (an interview that was subsequently published by the London-based International Union Rights journal), Lee Cheuk-yan talked about the alliance between the Communist Party in Beijing and top capitalists in Hong Kong and how their tactics resemble those of the old colonialists in times past.

The Communists “want big business on their side,” Lee said. “That is the political deal. The capitalists support the Communist regime, and the Communist regime supports the capitalists. Workers, of course, are always the ones that sacrifice.”

The HKCTU is “part of the movement for democracy in China,” he said. “We need a strong base in Hong Kong, both in terms of workers’ rights and at the same time we need a strong democracy movement.”

Workers and pro-democracy forces around the world should be supporting the protesters in the streets of Hong Kong. Bear in mind, however, those pro-democracy forces likely won’t include Big Business.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A progressive, populist South rising up? From Moral Mondays in N.C. to the UAW in Tennessee & Mississippi, Southerners are challenging the right wing


(A tobacco field near Cameron, N.C.)

Again another delay in posting on Labor South, and I apologize once more. Wrapping up a book manuscript and other duties kept me busy this time. Coming soon will be a look at labor support of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, a victory for casino workers in New Orleans, and a glance back at the hard-hitting journalist Robert Sherrill, a great Southern muckraker who died in August.

CAMERON, N.C. – This tiny town on tobacco road in central North Carolina looks much like it did back when my father grew up here in the 1920s—a small gathering of stores and homes with wrap-around porches between the railroad tracks and Plank Road, piney woods and fertile fields in the distance.

Scratch the surface, however, and what you find is deep, fundamental change—the homes are nearly all antique shops now, some with smart, little cafes and coffees shops that serve expresso. The residents are artists and collectors, local and transplant, not farmers and seed merchants.

A lot is changing in my home state, and the change here says much about the South today. Hard-right Republicans control this once Democratic haven, and their impact includes: refusal of Medicaid to 500,000 people, slashed federal unemployment benefits and state earned-income tax credit to more than a million, deep cuts in public education funding, and new tax breaks for the wealthy.

A progressive populist movement has risen up, however, and challenged the conservative junta in the state capital of Raleigh. Led by the Rev. William Barber II, president of the state NAACP, the multi-racial Moral Monday movement has been protesting, organizing, and spreading dissent since April 2013. Hundreds of supporters have been arrested for opposing the junta’s restrictions on voting and abortion rights, gerrymandered legislative districts, and gutting of the safety net for the poor.

The movement has spread across the South, including Mississippi, and beyond, and now members have aligned with a wide range of progressive activists, including the “Fight for 15” fast-food workers seeking union representation and $15-per-hour wages. Movement leaders like the Rev. Nelson Johnson of Greensboro, N.C., and the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson of Washington, D.C., were early supporters of the effort to bring a union to the Nissan plant in Canton.

“The South has been one of the greatest purveyors of death and destruction,” Nelson said during a pro-labor rally in Memphis, Tenn., back in 2006. “We come here to join in the struggle. People are being mistreated on their jobs, getting injured on their jobs, and being cut from their health care, individuals on temporary work and who’ll never have any kind of retirement income, people who work forty, fifty, sixty hours a week and don’t make enough to put aside to help their children go to college. That’s our congregation.”

An old friend of mine in North Carolina, Vietnam and Afghanistan war veteran Bob Mayton, told me during my recent visit that Mississippi may be pulling ahead of North Carolina now in the wake of the Republican takeover there. I told him Mississippi should never be a model, not with a governor like Phil Bryant who can refuse Medicaid to 350,000 in the nation’s poorest state.
Despite mainstream media’s general avoidance of any positive news about the labor movement, workers are gaining ground in the nation’s least unionized region. The 712-626 vote against union representation at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., in February may have caused anti-union Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans, to pop champagne, but it also opened the door to a new kind of organizing that may prove a model for unions in the South.

The United Auto Workers decided to forego an appeal of the vote to the National Labor Relations Board—an appeal certainly justified in view of Haslam and Corker’s obvious interference in the campaign—and establish Local 42, a voluntary, members-only union in that will fight for workers’ rights in Chattanooga and hopefully grow largely enough to get official recognition.

In July, a federal judge ruled that the Michigan-based Kellogg Co. violated the labor rights of the 226 Memphis, Tenn., workers it locked out after a contract dispute. The 10-month lockout ended with workers returning to their jobs, and Kellogg’s multi-millionaire CEO John Bryant exposed as a paragon of greed in corporate America.

In many ways, the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference in Jackson, Miss., in June was a landmark event in all this Southern activism. The conference drew activists from across the region--civil rights-era veterans like Bob Zellner and labor organizing legends like Bruce Raynor. More importantly, the conference brought young people together to pick up the banner for social justice in the South. No issue got more attention than labor rights.

Some 400 students participated in a pro-union rally outside the Nissan plant in nearby Canton at the conference’s end, waving placards, singing labor and civil rights songs, and shouting their approval when the Rev. Isiac Jackson of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan told them, “Union today! Union tomorrow! Union forever!”

The civil rights movement of the 1960s began with black students’ protest at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Mississippi later became its most heated battleground. Is Mississippi the next stage for today’s movement of progressive activism?

This column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.