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Black Freedom Fighters in Steel is a beautiful story of five black union organizers,

long-distance runners who were indispensable to building the steel workers union

as well as the civil rights movement in northwest Indiana.

 

 

 

Black Freedom Fighters in Steel

The Struggle For Democratic Unionism

By Ruth Needleman

 

Thousands of African Americans poured into northwest Indiana in the 1920s dreaming of decent-paying jobs and a life without Klansmen, chain gangs, and cotton. Black Freedom Fighters in Steel: The Struggle for Democratic Unionism by Ruth Needleman adds a new dimension to the literature on race and labor. It tells the story of five men born in the South who migrated north for a chance to work the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs in the steel mills. Individually they fought for equality and justice; collectively they helped construct economic and union democracy in postwar America.

George Kimbley, the oldest, grew up in Kentucky across the street from the family who had owned his parents. He fought with a French regiment in World War I and then settled in Gary, Indiana, in 1920 to work in steel.  He joined the Steelworkers Organizing Committee and became the first African American member of its full-time staff in 1938. The youngest, Jonathan Comer, picked cotton on his father's land in Alabama, stood up to racism in the military during World War II, and became the first African American to be president of a basic steel local union.

This is a book about the integration of unions, as well as about five remarkable individuals. It focuses on the decisive role of African American leaders in building interracial unionism, and deals with the African American struggle for representation, highlighting the importance of independent black organization within the union.
Publisher

 

This remarkable book reveals the hidden history of long-forgotten black steelworkers and their seminal role in the struggle for union democracy and workers' rights on the shop floor. Ruth Needleman's book is a critical text in the history of black industrial workers' struggles and their contributions to working people regardless of where they may have toiled.Studs Terkel

 

Black Freedom Fighters in Steel is a beautiful story of five black union organizers, long-distance runners who were indispensable to building the steel workers union as well as the civil rights movement in northwest Indiana. And they never stopped struggling, despite having to battle generations of white racism and intransigence in their own union. Ruth Needleman proves once again that African American workers have consistently sustained the most inclusive, radical vision of working class solidarity the U.S. labor movement has ever known.Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2002)

 

Inspiring and thought-provoking, Ruth Needleman's book reveals an often overlooked segment of black working-class history. This compelling analysis provides a foundation for considering strategies of labor renewal and black worker power.Bill Fletcher, Jr. President, TransAfrica Forum

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Cornell. University Press 305 pp.$47.50 cloth; $19.95, paper. www.cornellpress.cornell.edu

Contact: Jonathan Hall at 607.277.2338 x252 / jlh98@cornell.edu / Sage House, 512 East State Street, Ithaca, New York 14850, Phone (607) 277-2338, Fax (607) 277-2374

Author: Ruth Needleman is Professor of Labor Studies at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, where she created a special college degree program, known as Swingshift College, for steelworkers.

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Ruth Needleman, professor of Labor Studies at Indiana University since 1981, has been engaged in labor and civil rights struggles for decades. Beginning in 1969 Ruth taught Latin American literature and studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. In the early seventies, she left UC to work for the United Farmworkers Union, writing and distributing their bimonthly newspaper El Malcriado. She co-authored the book Los gremios nacionales, which deals with the right-wing counter-revolutionary strikes in Chile, and published by Allende's Quimantu. She also organized as a rank and file Teamster in a New York plastics sweatshop and later at UPS in Detroit.

For two years (1990-92) Ruth served as education director for SEIU. In 1993, back in Gary, she founded Swingshift College, a customized college degree program for workers. She has collaborated with the Steelworkers since 1981, teaching district and international programs, including their 4-year leadership program. Her publications address issues of race, class and gender, from her articles/chapters on leadership development, coalition-building, and women and unions, to articles on the importance of caucuses and independent organization within unions. Her recently published book is Black Freedom Fighters in Steel: The Struggle for Democratic Unionism. She is beginning a project on race relations and  strategies for solidarity among working women.

For interviews, please contact Professor Needleman at 219.980.6835 or via email at rneedle@iun.edu.

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Working in the Shadows

A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do

By Gabriel Thompson

Thompson spent a year working alongside Latino immigrants, who initially thought he was either crazy or an undercover immigration agent. He stooped over lettuce fields in Arizona, and worked the graveyard shift at a chicken slaughterhouse in rural Alabama. . . . Thompson shines a bright light on the underside of the American economy, exposing harsh working conditions, union busting, and lax government enforcement—while telling the stories of workers, undocumented immigrants, and desperate US citizens alike, forced to live with chronic pain in the pursuit of $8 an hour. Gabriel Thompson has contributed to New York, The Nation, New York Times, Brooklyn Rail, In These Times and others. He is the recipient of the Richard J. Margolis Award, the Studs Terkel Media Award, and a collective Sidney Hillman Award. His writings are collected at Where The Silence Is .

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The Warmth of Other Suns

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Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man's turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners' plans to give him a "necktie party" (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by "the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn't operate in his own home town." Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's magnificent, extensively researched study of the "great migration," the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an "uncertain existence" in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind.

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The White Masters of the World

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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update 3 June 2012

 

 

 

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