Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Labor South roundup: Journalist Bill Minor's early career chronicled in new documentary; famed burlesque performer Blaze Starr dies; and UAW wins at auto parts plant in Mississippi

This Labor South roundup ranges from a new documentary on trailblazing Mississippi journalist Bill Minor and the recent death of famed New Orleans burlesque performer Blaze Starr to a United Auto Workers victory at an auto parts plant in the Mississippi Delta

Mississippi journalist Bill Minor’s early career tracked in new documentary

(Journalist Bill Minor during a birthday celebration in 2012)

The documentary Bill Minor: Eyes on Mississippi premiered at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., June 14 with hundreds on hand to celebrate a legendary journalist who has been covering Mississippi politics since 1947. Among those in the crowd were former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, Civil Rights-era leader Ed King, and former black state legislator Robert Clark.

Minor, 93, who reported on Mississippi for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, his own publication Capitol Reporter, and in his statewide syndicated column, covered every major event during the tumultuous 1950s, 1960s and beyond, including the 1955 trial of Emmett Till murderers J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the 1962 Ole Miss riot, and the 1964 murders of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner.

Unlike much of the Mississippi press, Minor covered these events with a sharp eye on and total commitment to truth and telling it like it is.

Produced by veteran journalist Ellen Ann Fentress and edited by Lida Gibson, the documentary follows Minor’s career through the Neshoba County, Miss., murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. A sequel is tentatively planned. The documentary included lengthy interviews with Myrlie Evers, the wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and the late journalist Claude Sitton, among others.

Minor continues to keep his “eyes on Mississippi” in his weekly columns. At the event this past Sunday, he told the crowd, “Let’s hope we elect the kind of leadership Mississippi needs to enjoy the kind of progress the rest of the nation has seen.”

Blaze Starr, famed mistress of Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, dies at her West Virginia home

Fannie Belle Fleming, 83, better known as burlesque performer and stripper Blaze Starr, died at her home in Wilsondale, W. Va., this week. She had been experiencing heart trouble.

As Blaze Starr, she became nationally famous in 1959 because of her involvement with Earl Long, the populist three-time governor of Louisiana who has been featured in Labor South several times. She had been a performer at the Sho-Bar club in New Orleans.

Starr's relationship with Long was depicted in the 1989 movie "Blaze" featuring Paul Newman as Earl Long and Lolita Davidovich as Blaze.

Starr later confided to friends and relatives that Long was the love of her life. She must have been a great source of comfort to Long, who had major battles with family members, including his wife, as well as with political opponents in the tumultuous last year of his life.

UAW victory at auto parts plant in Mississippi

A strong majority of workers at the Faurecia Automotive Seating plant in Cleveland, Miss., voted in favor of joining the United Auto Workers earlier this month.

The workers have complained of low wages, poor working conditions, and the French-owned company’s practice of hiring temporary workers.

 The UAW continues to mine the potentially rich soil of the U.S. South with an ongoing campaign at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., and a continuing presence at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and other plants across the region.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Labor South roundup: Steve Stern's tales from a "East European enclave in Memphis"; the South's Medicaid gap; anti-union secrecy in Chattanooga; and B.B. King singing "poor people's music"

Here’s an early summer round up from Labor South that includes an account of Memphis-born writer Steve Stern’s recent visit to Burkes Book Store in Memphis, a glance at anti-union secrecy in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the South’s Medicaid gap, and finally one more look back at the late great B.B. King.

(Author Steve Stern reading from his new book, The Pinch, at Burkes Book Store in Memphis)

Finding an “East European Enclave” in Memphis, Tennessee

Steve Stern, author of The Book of Mischief (reviewed in Labor South back in May 2013) and other novels and stories about Jewish life in Memphis, the Catskills, the Lower East Side in New York, and Europe, stopped by for a reading and signing of his new book, The Pinch, at Burkes Book Store in Memphis last week. An overflow crowd welcomed him, so many fans that the store ran out of copies of his book.

“I can’t believe people are so nice to me in this town,” the Memphis native said, recalling how as a young man he “shook the dust off this town” but then later “washed up again on its shores” to do the basic research on the city’s old Jewish district, the Pinch. For the past 28 years, Stern, 67, has taught creative writing at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“When I first saw it, it was this moonscape,” he said of the old district just beyond the levees to the Mississippi River along downtown’s North Main Street that once was home to succeeding waves of Irish, German and Jewish immigrants. “I learned it was a self-sustained, very vital, East European enclave with artisans, fishmongers, tailors. Yiddish was the lingua franca of the street.

The burgeoning writer stumbled upon literary gold. “I guess my stories were looking for a home.”

Indeed, Stern’s wonderful tales put him in a league with the great Jewish writers Isaac Babel (whose stories were an inspiration to him), Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Asch, and Sholom Aleichem. Like those writers, Stern writes of poor shopkeepers and ragmen who live their lives in a world constantly threatened by the larger world outside that neither understands nor tolerates them very well.

The Southern Medicaid Gap

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation, the Southern states of Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina are home to 61 percent of the approximately four million people denied Medicaid coverage in this country.

“And it’s people in the South who are predominantly left out because Republicans refuse to have anything to do with President Obama,” the Texas-based Progressive Populist recently reported.

Anti-union secrecy in Chattanooga

As the United Auto Workers continues to try speak on behalf of workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., even without official collective bargaining status, the rival group set up to counter the UAW’s presence there operates in relative secrecy.

The American Council of Employees, claiming 381 members compared to the UAW’s 816 members at the plant, boasts of local roots and independence of outside groups but refuses to reveal its funding sources, according to the Associated Press. Plus, “the lawyer who recently filed the group’s overdue disclosures with the U.S. Department of Labor touts his expertise in `union avoidance,’” the AP reported recently.

The group’s filing only listed about $15,000 in “other receipts,” according to Mike Cantrell, president of UAW Local 42.

The UAW’s Local 42 receives its funding entirely from the union’s national office.

B.B. King sang the music of “poor people”

OXFORD, Miss. – Blues music may be singing the “No Future Tomorrow” blues once B.B. King hangs up his guitar for good, Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer warned back in 2004.

(To the right above, the hearse carrying the body of B.B. King makes its way down Beale Street in Memphis en route to his burial site in Indianola, Miss.)

Speaking at a “Blues Today” symposium in Oxford, Iglauer, whose Chicago-based company recorded Hound Dog Taylor and other greats, called bluesman B.B. King the music’s standard-bearer. “Sooner or later he’s going to be forced to retire. He’s an icon. When he does, that blues is history. … I’m very scared about the future.”

To keep the music alive, Iglauer said, blues musicians must be “nurtured” to be able to connect with contemporary audiences. “If we don’t nurture the young musicians, we are talking about a museum.”

King, who died last month at the age of 89, got his nurturing from folks like his cousin, country blues artist Bukka White, and the music he heard along Beale Street in Memphis back in the 1940s. “I’m a self-taught man,” King told an audience in Oxford during that same blues symposium. “Every time I’d hear something I’d learn a little more about it, and I’d play it. It’s like learning a language.”
In an interview I had with the Mississippi-born blues great that same year, he said he was optimistic about the music’s future. “There is a young guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb Mo, Corey Harris. They don’t play what I play. I don’t play like Bukka did. I wish I could. What I’m trying to say is that each generation brings about their own musicians.”

 King was right. Compare the clean, soul-rending notes from his guitar Lucille on “Three O’Clock Blues” to the raw chords you hear on Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues” in the 1940s or Charley Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues” in the 1920s.  King’s lineage may be more evident in Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 classic “Dark Was The Night”. Johnson’s every emotion-filled moan is echoed by his bottleneck guitar.

(Blind Willie Johnson)

It’s all blues, just different kinds of blues, different generations of musicians with something to say to an audience that knew exactly what the musicians meant.

The nurturing Iglauer called for can be seen today in places like the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, where young local musicians get training that allows them to tap into their region’s rich cultural legacy.  The upcoming young blues prodigy Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is a product of that training.

The blues grew out of a South haunted by poverty, isolation, racial oppression, old-time religion, and intolerant, oligarchical rule. It was the music of poor people, a kind of rebellion against those crushing forces. It’s the same with poor people’s music everywhere in the world—flamenco in Spain, fado in Portugal, tango in Argentina.

It crosses racial and even class lines, however. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf liked to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. Bluegrass and country greats Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams all learned from the blues.

To some, the blues lost much of its poignancy when it left the backwater South and went commercial in Chicago. In the 1930s, Mississippian Robert Johnson’s blues laments about “hellhound on my trail” and “me and the devil … walking side by side” were existential cries of anguish. By the 1960s, Texas guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins once complained, practically every Chicago blues song was about a woman.

In many ways, B.B. King straddled those different eras of blues. From learning at the knee of Bukka White to singing duos with Eric Clapton, he was a part of blues’ evolution from the music that W.C. Handy heard at the Tutwiler train station back in 1903 to what the Rolling Stones were singing in the 1960s and beyond. That’s why he was, in Iglauer’s words, “an ideal spokesman for his music.”

“I think one of the things about the blues is truth,” King told me in 2004. “It’s truth without a lot of makeup. If we hear Frank Sinatra, he paints a beautiful picture. He sings about a girl in a beautiful meadow. He finally tells her he loves her. That makes the picture. In the blues, the guy doesn’t know all these beautiful lines. The blues singer just says, `Baby, I love you!’”

That’s a universal language, and people are going to want to hear those who speak it well for a long time, whether the words are about hellhounds, lost love, or loneliness and an empty bed at three o’clock in the morning.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A research graphic on "Modern Prisons and Their Predecessors" shows a stain on the nation's conscience

(To the right, a 1911 photograph of convict laborers at Mississippi’s notorious “Parchman Farm” prison)

Labor South has followed the incarceration issue in this country over the years, decrying in one post back in December 2013 how the United States has become “the world’s largest gulag.” Of course, the South, with Louisiana and Mississippi at the forefront, leads the nation in putting people behind bars and often throwing away the key. Twelve of the top 20 incarcerating states are in the South.

The obscenity of private, profit-making prisons is a plague on the land that contributes to the fact that this nation exceeds even China and Russia in incarceration rates. Corrections Corporation of America in Tennessee and the GEO Group, Inc., of Florida are the nation’s top two private prison companies.

Viviana Shafrin, a loyal reader of this blog, recently sent Labor South a research graphic she helped create that details just how big an issue this is. Below is the link to the graphic, titled "Modern Prisons and Their Predecessors:
I think you’ll all find it very interesting.

Here is a short write-up of the infographic Viviana sent Labor South: The United States has the most prisons in the world in order to house the highest number of incarcerated people in the world. In prison can be found 707 of every 100,000 people in the country. Out of every 100 citizens, three work in the justice system. One in nine state employees works in corrections. How this vast prison system evolved is examined by looking back at what was before modern prisons existed.         

Here in Mississippi, the prison system has been rocked by corruption at its highest levels with veteran Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps accused of pocketing $2 million in bribes related to no-bid contracts. Reports of medieval conditions with the state’s private prisons have also put the system’s reputation in shambles.

One would have to go back to the early 1900s to find an era as dark (or perhaps I should say almost as dark) as what is happening today. That was when then-Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman, racist though he was, had to weigh in and end the abominable practice of convict leasing in the state’s prison system. Convict leasing was "a source of cheap labor after the end of slavery" in the South, Chris Kromm of Facing South has written.