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Bob Korstad: A history of insurgency in the South

Jeremy Sprinkle
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Let's make history again

"North Carolina has been the scene of some of the most important labor struggles in American history," says Robert Korstad of Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy, author of the book Civil Rights Unionism and who spoke at our Feb. 17 panel at Duke about how a southern workers movement can change the nation. "There's a rich labor history here and a lot to learn from."

As early as the late 19th century, women and black farmers here began organizing with the Knights of Labor, the precursor to the AFL.

It was the organization of workers at Reynolds Tobacco Company in the 1940's that proved to be a "really stunning moment in North Carolina's history," says Korstad.

"On one Wednesday, you've got about 20 active members of a union. There's a sit-down strike on Thursday. By that next Monday, you've got six to seven thousand workers, mostly black but several hundred white, who've signed union cards, paid their union dues, and are in the process of creating a militant, black-led, interracial union in the heart of a coming 'Right to Work' state."

These organized workers went on to elect the first black candidate to public office in North Carolina, and one of the first in the South, since the 1800s. In 1947, they led a major strike at Reynolds that garnered international attention.

From tobacco workers, sharecroppers, domestics, and textile workers to farm laborers and autoworkers today, the struggle to organize in the South is well-established here. We need only to seize this moment to make history again.

Full remarks by Robert Korstad at the Organize the South panel at Duke University are available on YouTube.