After World War II organized labor began to penetrate into some industrialized areas of the South where it inevitably confronted the issue of race. Unions such as the Food and Tobacco Workers affiliated with The Congress of Industrial Organizations, promoted racial integration and helped develop a group of African American labor activists who either led or supported parallel efforts for civil rights. Moranda Smith (1915-1950) of Winston-Salem, North Carolina was one of these leaders. Her address at the CIO’s national convention in Boston in 1947, combines the issues of civil rights and labor organizing.
I work for the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston Salem, North Carolina. I want to say a few words on this resolution for the reason that I come from the South and I live in the South. I live where men are lynched, and the people that lynch them are still free.
The Taft Hartley Bill to Local 22 in Winston Salem is an old, old story. The Taft Hartley Bill was put before the workers in Winston Salem about four years ago when the CIO came to Winston Salem to organize the unorganized workers in the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco plant. We were faced at that time with a lot of court actions. They tried to put fear into the hearts of the workingmen in Winston Salem.
One of the things in the Constitution of the United States is a guarantee to a human being, regardless of his race, creed or color, of freedom from fear. I say the Taft Hartley Bill is nothing new to us. When men are lynched, and when men try to strike and walk the picket line, the only weapons that the workers in America, especially in the South, have to protect themselves is action. When they are put in jail, they must protect themselves. If that is the protection of democracy in the United States of America I say it is not enough.
I want to emphasize a few of the things that you have in this resolution. Too long have the Negro people of the South and other workers in America heard a lot of words read to them. It is time for action, and I am now wondering if the CIO is going to stop and do some of the things by action. You talk about political action and you talk about politics. How can there be any action when the Negroes in the South are not allowed to vote? Too long have the workers in the South stopped and looked to Congress for protection. We no longer look to the government in Washington for protection. It has failed. Today we are looking for an organization that says they are organized to fight for the freedom of all men regardless of race, creed or color, and that is the CIO.
I will tell you this and perhaps it will interest you. To the Negro workers in Winston Salem it means a great deal. They told us, “You cannot vote for this and you cannot vote for that. ” But last May in the city of Winston Salem the Negro and white workers, based on a program of unity, were able to put in their city government two labor men. I am proud to say one of those was a Negro. The other was a white labor leader. (Applause.) Yes. We are faced today with this word that they call “democracy.” I want to say to this convention let us stop playing around. Each and every one of you here today represents thousands and thousands of the rank and file workers in the plants who today are looking for you to come back to them and give them something to look forward to: not words, but action.
We want to stop lynching in the South. We want people to walk the picket lines free and unafraid and know that they are working for their freedom and their liberty. When you speak about this protection of democracy, it is more than just words. If you have got to go back to your home town and call a meeting of the rank and file workers and say, “This is what we adopted in the convention, now we want to put it into action,” if you don’t know how to put it into action, ask the rank and file workers. Ask the people who are suffering, and together you will come out with a good program where civil rights will be something to be proud of. When you say “protection of democracy” in your last convention, along with it you can say we have done this or that. The people that lynch Negroes in the South, the people that burn crosses in the South, the people who put men in jail because they wanted 10 or 20 cents an hour wage increase will learn that the workers can walk as free men, because we have done something in action.
One thing more. I have looked over this delegation, and I wonder if you cherish the word “democracy. ” I say to you it means something to be free. It means a great deal. I do not think you have ever read or have ever heard of a Negro man or a Negro woman that has ever been a traitor to the United States of America ….
They can lynch us. They can beat us. They can do anything they want to, but the Negroes of America who have always been true to the American flag, will always march forward. We are just asking your help. We are not asking for charity. We do not want charity. We belong to America.
Our forefathers fought and bled and died for this country and we are proud to be a part of it just as you are. When the civil liberties of Negroes in the South are interfered with [and] you do nothing about it, I say to you, you are untrue to the traditions of America. You have got to get up and do something in action, as I have said before and not by mere words. So we are looking forward to your help and we call on you, because we have called on you before and you have given us aid. We will call on you again, and we ask you not to fail us.