“Raise Up Charleston”: Sneak Peek from the Upcoming Newsletter

The Spring 2015 newsletter will be emailed out to members soon, but for now, here’s a sneak peek of a member’s contribution, “Raise Up Charleston,” by Bob Korstad, Professor of Public Policy and History at Duke and nominee for SLSA Vice President. (Don’t forget to send your ballot to Jennifer Brooks by May 4th!) Korstad offers some reflections on the history of labor militancy and current labor activism in Charleston, and his own family’s history there.

Raise Up Charleston
by Bob Korstad

I’m spending the spring in Charleston, SC, where my wife Jacquelyn Hall is the Mark Clark Chair in History at the Citadel.  Charleston is a second home for me.  My mother was born and raised here, and I spent many holidays and vacations in town and on the islands.  This was also the place where my parents met and fell in love.  My father, a native of northern cigar-factoryMinnesota, was stationed at the Army Hospital and my mother was a social worker for the county welfare department.  Not long after they married, they became involved in a support group for strikers at the American Tobacco Company’s Cigar Factory.  The union, Local 15 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers (FTA), was comprised mostly of black women, but included men and white women.

It was a life-changing moment for both of them.  At the end of the war, they moved to Memphis where my father became the business agent for FTA Local 19 and my mother continued her career in social work.  A few years later they moved to North Carolina when my father became FTA’s Southeast Regional Director.
One of our first excursions this spring was to the Cigar Factory where the 1945-46 strike took place.  It is now being renovated for “upscale” businesses. The developers claim that this will “revitalize” the surrounding neighborhoods, which are mostly black and often poor.  Gentrification is soon to follow.

On the evening of April 2, I appeared on a panel for the Charleston People’s Assembly.  The event was held in the impressive hall of the International Longshoreman’s Union, Local 1442, and was in part a preparation for the April 15 protests by fast food workers, “Raise Up for $15,” in Atlanta.  My comments were brief, and my message was simple: South Carolina, like North Carolina, might have the lowest unionization rates in the country, but it also has a history of militant struggle by slaves, black and white farmers, and industrial workers.

raise-up-speakers-at-the-charleston-peoples-assemblyThe people that Raise Up represents are not that different from the tobacco workers my parents joined with in the 1940s, and I couldn’t help but be moved by the passion and militancy of the other speakers and the audience.  Here we were sitting not far from the Cigar Factory seventy years after the strike that produced the anthem of social movements worldwide, “We Shall Overcome.”  Added to this echo of the past, was the fact that the moderator of the panel was a comrade from the student movement at UNC in the early 1970s, George Hopkins, an emeritus professor at the College of Charleston.

The workers’ struggles of 2015 aren’t the same as they were in 1945.  But it is clear to me that history has to inform the organizing strategy of today.  I’m not on the front lines in the same way that my parents were, but I keep trying to play my small historians’ part in what they and Jacquelyn’s mother, who went from working as a secretary to leading the Labor Action Coalition of New York, would have called the “good fight.”