New book explores how St. Louis' black working class forged civil rights movement | St. Louis Public Radio

New book explores how St. Louis' black working class forged civil rights movement

Feb 21, 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 21, 2010 - Much is made of the civil-rights movement in northern cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit, or southern cities like Atlanta and Memphis.

Clarence Lang, an associate professor at the University of Illinois in African-American Studies and history, argues in his new book that the civil-rights histories in border-state cities like St. Louis offer a clearer window into the nation's longstanding struggle over race.

Lang's book, "Grassroots at the Gateway," seeks to detail the birth and growth of the civil rights and black political movements in St. Louis during a key 40-year period, from 1936-75.

That period in the city, he says, coincides with the national rise in clout of working-class African-Americans, who the professor argues were the real muscle in expanding minority rights.

Lang embraced the topic, which subsequently became the theme of his doctoral thesis, during his years here in the early 1990s while a graduate student in history at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

A Chicago native, Lang explained, "I became involved in a St. Louis organization led by Jamala Rogers called the Organization for Black Struggle," which at the time was actively engaged in police-brutality issues and several local political campaigns.

"In that context," Lang recalls, "I often heard many activists comment on or complain about the fact, relative to black communities in other cities, that black St. Louisans tended to be pretty apolitical or not as politically sophisticated or adept."

As a result, he continued, "For me, as a historian, it became a natural research question: Is this true?"

Lang says he soon found out that it was not.

"I set out to basically try and get at the history of black social-movement activity in St. Louis," he said. "I found very quickly there was in fact a long and rich tradition of black civic engagement, resistance, organizational mobilization in the city" going back to the 1800s.

The truth about St. Louis' civil rights struggles, as he recounts them, are riveting -- and should not be forgotten.

Key civil rights events in St. Louis

The 40-year period highlighted by Lang in his book casts a spotlight on several major episodes that get little attention among many contemporary civil-rights groups and activists. 

In fact, Lange says the often-talked-about Jefferson Bank protests in 1964 -- aimed at pressuring local banks to hire African-Americans for jobs other than janitors -- actually built on several other, earlier civil-rights protests that arguably were even more dramatic.

Most notably, Lang points to the Funsten Nut Pickers Strike in 1933, when 500 African-American women workers in St. Louis walked off the job to protest their working conditions. They were paid less, and assigned longer hours, than white women at the Funsten Nut Company's four local factories.

The protest was particularly risky because all Funsten factory workers had seen their pay slashed during the previous four years because of the Depression. At the time of the protest, two-thirds of the city's African-American adults were unemployed. (For more see, "In Her Place," a book by Katharine T. Corbett.)

Over the course of eight days, the striking women were joined by at least 700 others -- including some white colleagues. With the aid of allied groups and civic leaders, a settlement was reached in which the all the women nut pickers, regardless of color, were granted equal pay.

In the 1940s, local African-Americans -- notably lawyer David Grant -- were prominent in organizing the St. Louis contingent of the March on Washington Movement. St. Louis' branch of the movement was one of the "most active and militant in the nation," says Lang, and was a clear "antecedent to the postwar civil rights movement." 

And in the 1950s, Grant and labor activist Ernest Calloway helped lead the local NAACP in a major confrontation over City Hall's plans to revise the city charter, amid an urban redevelopment movement that some saw as unfairly targeting black neighborhoods for demolition, but not necessarily for renewal.

Such gutsy incidents set the stage for the successful Jefferson Bank effort, said Lang, and prompted him as a historian "to appreciate the uniqueness of St. Louis as a particular place."

What sets St. Louis apart

"St. Louis is really kind of this in-between city," Lang said. "It's Midwestern in terms of industry and in terms of geography. But also, there is also a very strong Southern quality there as well."

The point the professor made to potential publishers was that his book was not just about one city's black history, but more significantly focused on "how St. Louis as a border state city is a microcosm of trends you will find all over the nation."

Examining St. Louis' civil-rights struggles, he said, "opens up a window to understanding not only black community development, understanding social movements, understanding patterns of racism, understanding quest of economics -- but in a way, helps us understand these dynamics in the nation overall."

Echoing the border-state theme, said Lang, are recent books by others on the civil-rights movements in similar cities like Louisville, Ky., and Baltimore.

"Far from being a marginal kind of place," he said, "actually, St. Louis became in my mind a very significant place."

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Black influence on St. Louis city government

Lang writes that St. Louis city politics -- and the party in power -- changed dramatically with the defection of local African-Americans from the Republican ranks in the 1930s, a trickle down from their national embrace of Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president.

The switch in African-American allegiance led to the 1933 mayoral election of Bernard F. Dickmann, who was the first Democrat to take over St. Louis City Hall since 1909, a turning point in black voting patterns.

"Keep in mind, too" said Lang, "that Dickmann had run on a promise to follow through on building a full-service hospital for African Americans, which the Republicans had failed to provide for about a decade."

Although Republicans retook the mayor's office in the 1940s, the rise in the city's African-American population helped Democrats recapture and retain control of City Hall for the past 60 years.

That 1933 mayoral election also brought to prominence two African-American political activists who became household names for decades to come:

* David Grant, a tall, dignified young man who -- after years of various jobs -- had graduated from Howard University's School of Law and become a leader of St. Louis' Young Negro Democrats Committee. Grant was "part of an emerging generation of black St. Louisans who didn't have sentimental attachments to the Republican Party, who grew up seeing the GOP fall terribly short in delivering jobs, services, and other forms of patronage to black voters. And honestly, there may not have been a lot of room among the established black Republican politicos for an ambitious young upstart like Grant."

Eventually, Grant became a nationally known figure as a result of his involvement in a variety of civil-rights campaigns. Among them: He organized a 1931 picket by African-Americans against the Woolworth Co., which had built a new dime store downtown, to press the company to hire African-American workers; helped create the Colored Clerks Circle, to protest local firms that refused to hire blacks; filed suit in 1945 against Washington University, seeking to revoke its tax exempt status because the school then did not admit black students.

* Jordan Chambers, a former railway car cleaner and undertaker who had become a Republican powerbroker who could deliver thousands of African-American votes to GOP officeholders and candidates. By 1938, Chambers was a Democrat and held the offices of city constable and Democratic committeeman for the 19th ward. He arguably was St. Louis' most powerful African-American for decades.

In explaining why he shifted parties, Lang says Chambers was "a steely-eyed political pragmatist with sharp instincts. I think he sensed the political winds were shifting, and he acted appropriately. That doesn't mean he was a cynic, though. I think Dickmann's gestures toward racial liberalism resonated with him every bit as they did with Grant and other politically active African Americans who mobilized votes for the Democrats.

Was Chambers a transformational figure among St. Louis' major political players? Lang "wouldn't go that far," although he does give Chambers credit as a man who engaged in "very sophisticated black electoral politics."

Chambers, says Lang, "wasn't a social movement activist himself. He was a very pragmatic person'' who worked with the city's white political and civic leaders to gain power and influence for himself, and to provide jobs for local African-Americans.

Chambers' clout reflected St. Louis' power structure, then and now, where "wards operate almost as fiefdoms,'' Lang said -- adding that's both good and bad.

Chambers, he added, was not too engaged in the civil-rights activities targeting social segregation, but "did give aid to some who were" involved in the effort to allow African-Americans greater access to restaurants, theaters and other public places.

Lang also singles out:

* Margaret Bush Wilson, a local lawyer who was a leader on a local, regional and national level with the NAACP, as well as other civic groups. She served nine terms as head of the NAACP's national board. Wilson also was involved in the landmark 1948 Supreme Court case, Shelley vs. Kraemer, that ended the restrictive covenants used to bar African-Americans from buying homes in certain St. Louis neighborhoods.

* William L. Clay Sr., a political activist (arrested during the Jefferson Bank demonstrations) who rose from St. Louis alderman to become Missouri's first African-American elected to Congress, serving from Jan. 3, 1969 until he retired on Jan. 3, 2001. Clay wielded a powerful behind-the-scenes role in St. Louis (especially north side) politics for decades. 

* Ernest Calloway, a member of the Teamsters who led the local NAACP in the 1950s, as well as other groups. As Lang sees it, Calloway was arguably St. Louis' most influential African-American during the 40 years spanned in his book -- although the professor emphasizes that Calloway, like his contemporaries, had flaws that limited his success.

Calloway's ties to the Teamsters were important, says Lang, because the union was particularly powerful in the St. Louis area. While leading the local NAACP, Calloway opposed some controversial changes in the proposed city charter, and has been credited with expanding job opportunities at a number of local companies.

He managed the political campaigns to elect the first African-Americans to the city's School Board and to the state Senate. His wife, DeVerne Calloway, was the first African-American woman elected to the state House.

However, Calloway came under verbal fire during his later years from civil-rights activists who viewed him as too accommodating and too amenable to talk over action, Lang said.

As Calloway saw it, said Lang, "You mobilized people, you threatened to disrupt with an eye with bringing people to the negotiating table.."

Calloway often was at odds with Clay and others involved in the street protests in the 1960s who embraced, said Lang, "a new kind of politics...the idea is not merely to threaten, but also to actually disrupt. Calloway could never quite make that leap."

"In some ways, I wouldn't say he was a barrier to some of the mass mobilizations that were taking place in the mid-1960s," said Lang, "but he wasn't necessarily on board. In some ways, he was an antagonist to the younger group coming of age."

Still, Lang says his research -- and his book-- highlights the significance of Calloway because his achievements reflect "the importance of working-class politics."

Declining political role of the black working class

Since the mid-1970s, said Lang, St. Louis and nearby suburbs have seen the departure of blue-collar manufacturing jobs that helped build an African-American working class.

As those good-paying blue-collar jobs disappeared, he said, the urban core has seen a rise in low-income African-Americans. The economic losses, continued Lang, have contributed to the loss of political clout as well for the working class.

He praises the rise and expansion of middle-class African-Americans, but adds that they often are more likely to reside in the suburbs, and less likely to engage in civil rights activities seen as confrontational.

"The exact time when African-Americans are poised to take advantage of post-war employment, it's in decline. It's being eroded," Lang said.

Middle-class blacks, says Lang, often have different concerns and goals than working-class blacks, which is reflected in how they approach the issues.

For example, he says, "The struggle to build what became Homer G. Phillips Hospital is a good illustration of how the politics of class influenced black freedom struggles. ... Middle-class professionals saw the hospital chiefly as a training institution for black physicians and nurses; working-class people were more invested in the need for quality care within the confines of racial segregation. These interests were by no means mutually exclusive; it's important, however, to appreciate how the starting points toward the same goal could differ in significant ways."

The same goes for housing, says Lang. "Consider, for instance, the difference between public housing tenants who demanded controlled rents, tenant management, better amenities, and more dignified treatment from the housing authority; and more middle-class activists who sought to integrate upscale suburbs in St. Louis County where many working-class African Americans couldn't afford to relocate, even if the neighbors were willing to have them."

The professor added that the fact that he's a Chicago native was actually helpful as he probed St. Louis' civil rights past.

"It's significant that I am not a St. Louisan. I can appreciate things that might not be under people's noses," he said.

Lang added that as an outsider, he also "could ask questions others might not ask."