A united work force

(Excerpt from Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987)

1940 or ‘41

Daniel often paused outside International Harvester gates at the end of his shift to listen to Jack Carpenter, a union organizer from Chicago. Black metal lunch pails in hand, weary men congregated, a few, like Daniel, clustering around Carpenter. Most, though, lurked in the background lest they be identified as opposed to management. The company’s goal was to make as much money as it could, Carpenter said, and it didn’t give a hoot about the workers. By uniting, organizing a union, the workers could unshackle themselves from the absolute control the company had over them.

There was little doubt in the men’s minds that Carpenter was right. Factory laborers had to work six days a week with no paid vacations, no paid holidays, and no benefits. Anyone unfortunate enough to get sick was quickly replaced by someone who was healthy. Conditions at the plant were hazardous, particularly in the foundry, where men worked with molten hot iron, and out on the tracks, where they did back-breaking tasks without the help of machinery. Workers were often severely burned or injured. Sometimes the company hired a new man, and a month later, without giving any reason, fired an employee who had been on the job five years. There was nowhere to go for redress. Wartime production had not yet begun, and the fact that people still desperately needed jobs made them subject to the whims of business.

At first Daniel didn’t approve of unions, but every day, when he got off work, exhausted and covered with grime, he couldn’t help but think that a united work force was the only means to better conditions and better pay.

Daniel: “Here I was, a college graduate with little hope of using my skills or reaching my potential. As long as laborers were afraid to organize, they were powerless. Besides, if I joined the union, what did I have to lose?”

On a Sunday afternoon in late spring, four workers from Harvester met with Carpenter. Three weeks and four meetings later the smoke-filled room was packed, mostly with men but also with a few women. Sitting on kitchen chairs, footstools, and the floor, they strategized into the early morning hours about organizing a local. In this setting a person’s color wasn’t as important as what he or she could contribute to the cause.

The Richmond plant was the first Harvester plant to organize. Aware that if one factory unionized others would follow, the company tried to frighten and isolate leaders.

Calling the strike in ‘41 was risky. The union was new and still unsure how much support it had among the workers. Its representatives spent hours at the negotiation table, trying to reach a contract with management, but couldn’t get anywhere. Finally, on a Tuesday afternoon union leadership informed Harvester that a vote would be taken that night and a strike was inevitable.

 

(Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987) is the story of an independent white woman, a talented black man, and the times in which these two remarkable people lived. The book is available wherever books are sold.)

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Thoughts about Confederate monuments

I pulled out a tissue at each box placed in the dimly-lit room. The sounds of sniffling surrounded me. The exhibit at The Rooms—a St. John’s, Newfoundland, museum—used artifacts, letters, and families’ remembrances to tell the story of the Caribou Regiment. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1916, World War I), the Caribou engaged the enemy at Beaumont-Hamel. As part of the British Empire, Newfoundland sent 780 men into that battle. The next morning 68 survivors reported for roll call. A hundred years later the loss of a generation of men remains a deep sorrow in Newfoundlanders’ collective memory.

A young German woman was staying at the same B & B as my husband and I. What would she think of the exhibit at The Rooms, I wondered, her ancestors having been the enemy? Had her great-grandparents also mourned the death of a brother, a father?

The victors of war have permission to publicly grieve our fallen. We have symbols and monuments, holidays even. How do heirs of those who fought for unjust causes deal with their grief? How do they reconcile sins of the past with a profound sense of having lost thousands, if not millions, of lives?

My husband’s great-uncle fought for the Confederacy and at 18 died of dysentery as a prisoner of war. We know little about him. Like many on both sides of the Civil War, he was probably a farm boy who had never killed anything other than animals for food.

Isn’t that who fights most wars? Young men and women, some barely adults. They are conscripted, indoctrinated, and sent to kill an enemy designated by the powerful. In the 1860s owners of large plantations bought and sold human beings, worked them mercilessly to increase the owners’ wealth. Seeing their way of life threatened, prosperous slave holders sent young men who had nothing to gain to fight their, the land owners’, war.

I return to my earlier question: How do descendants of those who fought for unjust causes deal with a grief that time does not heal?

I’m not defending the Confederacy. Neither do I want to defend our “heritage.” Our white Southern heritage is embroiled with enslavement, Jim Crow laws, lynching. The list of atrocities is endless.

As we tackle the Confederate monument controversy, we need to think creatively. Perhaps we can find a way to grieve the deaths of young farmer-soldiers, denounce the treason of the region’s political and military leaders, and build monuments that recognize the contributions of slave ancestors of African Americans.

 

Nancy Werking Poling is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).

Since Charlottesville

As a white girl growing up in the 1950’s South, I was socialized to suppress my anger. “Smile though your heart is aching,” Nat King Cole (a frequent target of racists) sang. “If you can’t say something positive, don’t say anything at all,” my mother taught.

When Trump was elected, I was devastated. I recognized the evil his new status as president had unleashed. Since then my heart has been aching. I am terrified. I am furious.

Not wanting to dump my anger and all the negatively I’ve been feeling on social media, I’ve taken a break from blogging. On Facebook I’ve mostly “Liked” and “Shared” what others post about the political and social climate under the Trump administration. Besides, plenty of excellent writers have been expressing my feelings much more eloquently than I can. Let them speak for me. I even set a new goal: find positive stories to post on my website (which I never got around to).

I thought I was doing the right thing, being silent these past seven months. Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville challenged that notion.

I may not have profound insight. I may not have profound words. That doesn’t mean my voice is worthless. I plan to express my anger and fears on my site in coming days.

For now, let me just say—not with eloquence—that as a white woman, I abhor the racism displayed this past weekend in Charlottesville.

 

Nancy Werking Poling’s most recent book is Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987). It is available in paperback and on Kindle.

Trump’s take on Andrew Jackson

President Trump’s May 1 remarks about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War may point to something more problematic than a lack of historical knowledge. “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War….he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said ‘There’s no reason for this.'”

Trump is not just uninformed; he is promoting a revised history, and I doubt that it’s accidental.

Educated in a southern high school, I learned that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but over states’ right to secede from the Union. A friend, an intelligent woman, recently said she graduated from high school uncertain about who had won the Civil War. Only a year ago I listened to a young libertarian/survivalist couple enthusiastically tell about a writer popular with them and their friends. The Civil War was not fought over slavery, the author has written.

We’ve seen Trump’s ability to creative alternative facts: his inauguration was attended by more people than any other in history; President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. The news on TV is mostly fake news.

Maybe it is not ignorance, but a strategy for concentrating political power. “A totalitarian makes war on truth, perverts the assumptions that underlie critical thinking, and masters the dark art of propaganda” (Cynthia Tucker, http://www.pressconnects.com/story/opinion/columnists/2017/03/20/trumps-supporters-still-back-himregardless-debunked-lies/99274946/).

Is Trump deliberately promoting a revisionist view of history? If so, to what end? Who will benefit? Who will be the losers?

Nancy Werking Poling is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).

Why this old lady blogs

“Blog about a day in the life of an author,” a site on marketing books suggests. Okay. I get up, do a Sudoku, read the newspaper, go sit at my computer for several hours.

“Blog about the writing process,” another site recommends. Okay. I compose a sentence, go get a snack, return to my computer, delete the sentence, go to the bathroom, return to my computer, write another sentence.

“Avoid blogging about politics.” Oh-oh.

My new book, Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987), is due out soon. It’s time to promote it through blogging and tweeting, leave politics to the real pundits.

I doubt that I’ll be able to.

In 2007 I started blogging for the fun of it. I wrote about finding an old photo at a garage sale and having my Sunday afternoon nap interrupted by evangelizing teenagers.

Then came the 2008 election primary. Herman Cain, the pizza guy, promoted his 9-9-9-Plan. Michele Bachmann owned a Christian counseling center claiming to transform gay clients into heterosexuals. Rick Santorum, Senator-in-a-Sweater-Vest, promoted teaching intelligent design along with evolution in schools. I felt compelled to bring an older woman’s wisdom to the political discussion. A dose of common sense, I’d like to think.

In the current political climate, which is even more frightening than the 2008 Republican primary, I probably won’t write much that is unrelated to what our government is doing.

I am a grandmother. I am a woman who pays attention to what is happening beyond my home. I feel an urgency to be in conversation about the potential erosion of our democracy, the reality of global warming, the danger of a blustering, confrontational foreign policy, and the marginalization of groups because of race, religion, sexual orientation, or developmental difference.

I can’t be superficial. Neither, I guess, do I want readers who are.

For those who have been Feeling the Bern

If you’ve been Feeling the Bern, I share your heartache over not winning. For I have memories.

1968. Images still clear in my mind: the film clip of a South Vietnamese officer putting a gun to the head of a young Viet Cong and pulling the trigger; a sign saying, “The Vietnamese didn’t fight in our Civil War.” President Lyndon Johnson had escalated a war in southeast Asia that many Americans, especially young people, demonstrated against. In opposition to the war, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota had the courage to challenge the incumbent Johnson for the presidential nomination. Male students cut their long hair and shaved so they could go door to door rallying support for McCarthy. Largely because of young people’s passion, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

Who knows what might have happened had not the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., been assassinated four days after Johnson’s announcement? Or had Robert Kennedy, who had entered the Democratic race, not been shot and killed in San Francisco?

Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic candidate. Many young people felt so disillusioned they refused to vote. Richard Nixon was elected, and we all know how that turned out.

What did I learn from this period of disillusionment? That Americans will elect a crook before they’ll elect anyone veering far to the left.

This doesn’t mean we should disengage from politics. It means we need to find new ways to bring about change. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Work for progressive candidates down list. Even school boards are political entities. In North Carolina, where I live, our state representatives have enacted legislation abhorrent to anyone concerned about justice issues. A Democratic president and democratic governors need legislators who will work with them, not obstruct them as Republicans in Congress have done.
  2. Get informed on issues you care about and work for the candidates who share your concerns.
  3. By working I mean contact candidates through their staffs, ask what needs to be done.

In 1968 many of my generation lost our innocence. But we came out of the tragedies and disappointments wiser. And of course, older.

Is Hillary so dishonest?

Mom was the nurturer, greeting us when we came home from school, preparing our meals. Dad was the boss, the enforcer of rules, often with the palm of his hand. This clarity of roles gave us a sense of security.

Nowadays Mom goes to work and Dad has relinquished much of his authority. The old order has shifted in other ways. If we’re white or heterosexual we’ve lost assurance of our superiority. Black and white intermarry; homosexuals marry. On the global stage the clear issues of the Cold War have vanished, replaced with a militant Muslim enemy that strikes unexpectedly. Our lifestyle of big cars and unlimited use of electricity is affecting Earth’s climate, a science beyond our comprehension.

We older folks yearn for Mom and Dad—as they once were. Enter Donald Trump, the authority figure who’ll return our country to how it used to be.

But Hillary—she doesn’t behave the way a mother’s supposed to. She’s not a national nurturer but a trained lawyer who as a senator voted on complex issues; who as Secretary of State negotiated with leaders of other countries. She’s been hardened by battle.

Anyone who’s seen TV commercials, even if they’re muted, recognizes the little green creature advertising Geiko and associates the Statue of Liberty with Liberty Mutual. The purpose of repetition in advertising is to keep a product in the viewer’s mind, to repeat an idea so often that it’s finally accepted as truth

So it has been with Hillary’s reputation. Since 2008 Republicans have anticipated her candidacy in this election and committed themselves to eroding the perception of her character. They exploited the Benghazi attack, sponsoring multiple investigations and repeating the message that she couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth. They exploited her using a private email server, though other government officials have done the same. All the while the press allowed itself to be manipulated into continuously analyzing opinions about her integrity—until her dishonesty was taken as fact.

I’m not suggesting Clinton is beyond reproach. Her experience is so broad there’s something in her voting record or foreign policy actions to offend anyone. I am convinced, though, that public perceptions of her dishonesty are the result of a non-stop propaganda campaign.

Our job as voters in this election isn’t to choose the most nurturing mother or the most intimidating father. It’s to select an individual who understands and supports the Constitution, who appreciates the complex web of international relationships, whose knowledge is respected worldwide.

A person who firmly believes in “liberty and justice for all.”