Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dorothy Day House in Memphis: Reaching out to homeless families in one of the nation's poorest cities

(To the right, the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality in Memphis)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The two-story, century-old house sits on a hill next to a vacant lot on Poplar near Cleveland, between downtown and midtown. A Buddhist temple is nearby, and so is the Sacred Heart Church, where masses are held in Vietnamese and Spanish. Beggars with rickety grocery carts wander the pockmarked streets, glancing up at cars that only stop when the light turns red.

When Memphis native Polly Jones walks into that house on the hill, she feels something she doesn’t feel anywhere else in the city. “There’s not a lot of love in my city,” says the 22-year-old homeless single mother of two toddlers, boys aged two and three. “This house, I would rather be here than anywhere else right now.”

Jones and her boys have been at the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality at 1429 Poplar Avenue since May. She plans to leave next February after getting her GED and a fresh start on a new life that includes a future career as a surgical nurse. “I want to better myself for my kids. … Everything they do for you here is for the better. When you come here, you come with a goal.”

The Jones family is one of three families at the Dorothy Day House, the only refuge for homeless families in this predominantly black city of 650,000, the nation’s poorest large metropolitan area and one of its poorest cities. Half the children in Memphis are poor. The city’s other missions limit themselves to either men or women.

(Sister Maureen Griner)

 “The whole idea of a Dorothy Day house is to answer a need that’s not being met,” says Sister Maureen Griner, executive director. “It’s the hope you bring to people who are really desperate. By the time people get here, they don’t have pocket change, evicted, probably living in a car. … People don’t think about homeless families. There are hundreds in this city every night.”

Jones came to the Dorothy Day House after a series of life’s blows. She lost both her mother, who had drug problems, and the grandmother who reared her in 2011. “That was a tremendous putdown, and I was pregnant with my first son. I didn’t know my biological father.”

She did factory work for a while but her younger son’s asthma kept pulling her away to take care of him. “It was hard. I kept getting discouraged. When you are a mother, you have choices to make. … I made my son my priority.”

The two-story house on Poplar Avenue is one of more than 185 Catholic Worker communities around the world. Each is independent in its commitment to voluntary poverty, prayer, and nonviolence, and in its outreach to the poor and marginalized of society. Other than the occasional grant, they all depend on private contributions with little or no support from government or sometimes even the Catholic Church.

Dorothy Day, who died at 83 in 1980, was the radical journalist who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement with French peasant-poet-prophet Peter Maurin. Inspired by the social teachings of Jesus and in Catholic tradition, they launched the Catholic Worker newspaper and first hospitality house in New York City at the height of the Great Depression in 1933.

(Dorothy Day in 1934)

“What we do is very little, but it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes,” Day once wrote.  “Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest. … Our work is to sow. Another generation will be reaping the harvest.”

In the mid-1930s, Day traveled to Memphis, where she championed the “dispossessed” members of the embattled Southern Tenant Farmers Union (see my Labor South post on July 14, 2015). “I saw men, women, and children herded into little churches and wayside stations, camped out in tents, their household goods heaped about them, not one settlement but many … children ill, one old man dead in bed and not yet buried, mothers weeping with hunger and cold.”

Sister Maureen, 68, a native of Louisville, Ky., who helped found the Dorothy Day House in Memphis 10 years ago, is keeping the flame of Day’s vision alive. The house is only big enough for three families, and she and her small staff have to turn away as many as 10 families a week.

Still, they’ve helped over 40 families get back on their feet over the past decade, and Sister Maureen envisions a “Dorothy Day Village” in the future where they can accommodate more of the needy. A 13-member board oversees the house’s operations, and hundreds of volunteers have come through its doors to help.

“It’s painful to turn people away,” she says. “Dorothy Day said put a pot of coffee on the stove and a pot of soup, and God will take care of the rest.”

A version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in the Arkansas Delta memorializes when the poorest of black and white Southerners stood together to "Roll The Union On"


(The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, Ark.)

TYRONZA, Ark. – The black and white sharecroppers of the Arkansas Delta in the 1930s were the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. They worked from sunup to sundown, buried in debt, a Southern peasantry every bit as bound to landowners as their medieval counterparts in Europe centuries before.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had them in mind when he declared the South “the nation’s number one economic problem,” yet the federal government botched its attempt to help them, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, allowing landowners not only to grab federal dollars intended for the peasants but even to evict them from their shacks and shotgun houses.

That’s when the lowest of the low finally stood in protest.

It was in 1934 when 11 white and seven black sharecroppers and tenant farmers gathered in what was known as “Red Square” in this tiny town in the heart of the Arkansas Delta, a combination dry cleaners run by H.L. Mitchell and gas station operated by local marshal Clay East. In that humble building, they established the headquarters of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU).

Inspired by the writings of Upton Sinclair and the speeches of Norman Thomas, Mitchell and East were both self-proclaimed socialists. Like many in the 1930s, they were disgusted with an unhinged capitalism that had plunged the nation into economic chaos and left their neighbors near starvation while plantation owners and their political cronies jealously guarded the status quo.

This rare moment in Southern history where black and white came together to stand for social justice against overwhelming odds is preserved in what must be the most humble of historic places, the nine-year-old, state and federally funded Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, located in the same building where Mitchell and East led the STFU.

Some have called the STFU a predecessor to the Civil Rights Movement, Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, and today’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Ohio and North Carolina and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, each a shining light to the powerless of this nation.

“It took a lot of courage,” says Linda Hinton, director of the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, about the defiance of Southern tradition that the STFU represented. “One of the original members had been a Klansman, but whenever he started looking around and seeing how he was being treated, and saw the blacks were being treated the same way, he joined the union.”

Courage indeed. Earlier efforts by sharecroppers and tenant farmers to assert their rights had met with brutal suppression. An Arkansas Delta picker strike in 1891 ended with nine of the strikers captured by masked vigilantes and summarily hung.

What is probably the worst race massacre in U.S. history took place in nearby Elaine, Ark., in 1919 when black sharecroppers met in a church to organize for better wages. A band of armed white men launched a terror campaign against them that led to more than 100 deaths.

Members of the STFU, too, faced beatings, kidnappings, jail time, and constant threats from gun-toting night riders. However, a strike in 1935 led to several landowners agreeing to better wages. By 1937 the union claimed tens of thousands of members in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Oklahoma.

(To the right, an STFU call-to-strike poster on display at the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum)

“Meetings followed the pattern of religious revivals, with fiery sermons, passionate exhortations, and emotional hymns,” writes University of Mississippi historian Elizabeth Payne in her essay on STFU organizer Myrtle Lawrence.

Great labor songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved” and the classic “Roll The Union On”, written by STFU sharecropper-poet John L. Handcox, came out of the movement.

Takeover attempts by Communist-led unions, internal divisions and other pressures eventually drained the STFU of its original fire, and by the 1940s it was a mere shell of itself.

Decades later, the history remains controversial, museum director Hinton says.  “When I started working here, I spoke to a couple of elderly ladies at the church and asked them about it, they whispered, `yes, we do know about it.’ They felt they had to whisper.”

The museum, which gets about 4,000 visitors a year, is part of a four-site “Southern Heritage” tour sponsored by Arkansas State University that also includes the barn studio in Piggott where Ernest Hemingway worked on the novel A Farewell to Arms, Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, and Dyess Colony, the farm cooperative whose most famous resident was country music star Johnny Cash.

The STFU failed to realize its dream of equality and fairness in the Delta. The region remains poor and divided, its biggest change seen in the corn and soybean crops quickly replacing King Cotton. Yet a closing sentence in a 1937 STFU declaration of rights speaks to the hope that the STFU continues to inspire.

“To the disinherited belongs the future.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Workers complain of low wages at Mississippi plant where 600 undocumented workers were arrested seven years ago

Workers are complaining about low wages at a plant in Laurel, Miss., where an estimated 600 undocumented migrant workers were arrested by federal agents seven years ago and many of them sent to a Louisiana detention center without formal charges or even the opportunity to call a lawyer.

Most of Howard Industries’ 4,000-plus current workers are African American, and thus the NAACP also supported their plea before the Laurel City Council last month for higher wages at a company that not only enjoys local tax exemptions but also received a $31 million state taxpayer-funded subsidy back in 2002.

Laurel Mayor Johnny Magee, meeting with reporters after last month’s council meeting appearance by an attorney representing the workers and an NAACP official, said that the city can do nothing about wages at Howard Industries. He and Council President Tony Thaxton also agreed that the company’s local tax exemptions are not in danger.

The workers, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, earn between $3.55 and $6 an hour less than their counterparts in other nearby Mississippi plants, said Roger Doolittle, an attorney representing IBEW Local 1317. Contract negotiations between management and workers have been in a stalemate over the pay issue.

“For the type of work they do, (wages) are incredibly low,” Doolittle said. “It is a travesty that the city of Laurel supports hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax exemptions to that kind of employer. … It defies belief.”

A request was made to Howard Industries for comment but no response has come thus far.

The local newspaper, the Laurel Leader-Call, editorialized strongly against the union on June 17. Unions “are an impediment to good business,” the editorial said. “Unions fleece workers under the guise of working in their best interests.”

The editorial went on to say that the solution to the workers’ complaints is as follows: “If you’re unhappy with your pay or working conditions, get another job.”

Howard Industries, which produces electrical transformers, is the company where hundreds of immigrant workers were arrested by federal agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in August 2008. This was the largest raid at a work place in the history of the nation.

Howard Industries, a company with a reputation for gifts to politicians, pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the nation’s immigration laws and agreed to a $2.5 million fine. Federal prosecutors said the company hired undocumented workers even after receiving word from the Social Security Administration that their Social Security numbers were invalid.

Ironically the only conviction of an actual person in the case was of a Latino, company human resources director Jose Humberto Gonzalez.

Many of those arrested were sent to the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, La. They were held for weeks without formal charges or the ability to see an attorney. The migrant workers were dumped into single rooms holding as many as 250 inmates, according to the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance.

Their crime was working without proper documentation at a company that was fined in June of 2008 for 54 safety violations.

In 2012 the company agreed to a $1.3 million settlement of a discrimination lawsuit by four African American women who said Latinos got preferential treatment in hiring. The company also agreed to hire at least 70 rejected job applicants within nine months of the settlement.