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Fresh insight into racism in U.S textile mills

A modern historian, who has spent several years investigating previously untapped legal records and oral interviews, has revealed a fresh insight into the rights of black workers in the American South.

“Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry 1960-1980” shows that, despite the introduction of the civil rights movement, blacks had to fight to get decent jobs long after Martin Luther King’s death in 1968.

Dr Tim Minchin, who teaches American history at the University of St Andrews, argues that the role of a labour shortage in spurring black hiring in the textile industry has been over- emphasised, pointing instead to the federal government’s influence in pressing the textile industry to integrate. He also highlights the critical role played by African American activists.

Encouraged by the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, black workers filed anti-discrimination lawsuits against nearly all of the major textile companies. However, Dr Minchin discovered that, even after the integration of the mills, African Americans still faced resistance – black women faced continued hiring discrimination while black men found themselves shunted into low- paying jobs with little chance of promotion.

Published in the USA, the book is principally aimed at those interested in the history of the civil rights movement, the labour movement and the American South in general. It has recently been awarded the Richard A Lester Prize for the Outstanding Book in Labor Economics and Industrial Relations, an annual prize awarded by Princeton University.

Dr Minchin said, “The experience of black men and women in the southern textile industry was completely different. Black men had been hired before the 1960s but only in low-wage, labouring jobs. Their problem after 1960 was to get access to the higher- paying “white” jobs. Black women, in contrast, were almost never hired in the southern textile industry before 1960. Instead, most worked as domestic helps for whites, allowing many white women to work in the mills alongside their husbands. The problem for black women after 1960, therefore, was to get any jobs in the mill, especially as white workers and management were often reluctant to hire them. White workers did not want to lose their domestic servants and executives often bowed to pressure from them.”

One of the examples given in Dr Minchin’s book relates to the textile town of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, where the main textile company J P Stevens argued that whites were better qualified for textile jobs. However, the legal testimony of one of their own officials highlighted that the company had traditionally donated textile equipment to the local white high school but not to the black school. This ensured that many white youngsters learned textile skills at school and were therefore better qualified than the blacks. The records also showed that some companies had personnel policies which favoured applicants who were referred by their workforce, which was usually all-white, another very difficult barrier for black applicants.

Dr Minchin, who teaches 20th century American history, has worked at the University of St Andrews for three years and was also an undergraduate from 1987 until 1991. He gained his PhD from Cambridge University in 1995.

ENDS

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email cg24@st-andrews.ac.uk Ref: timminchin/standrews/chg/4oct2000

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