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How Everyday Heroes Opened America's Workplace

February 14, 2006 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Plenty of people who usually don’t make it into the history books played pivotal roles in diversifying America’s workplaces, helping to dramatically transform the labor market that we take for granted today, according to a new book “Freedom is Not Enough: the Opening of the American Workplace.”  

That is an important part of the answer to an overarching research question of the book’s author, Professor Nancy MacLean, a Northwestern University historian.

Motivated by a well-informed hunch, MacLean began her research by asking how a society that for centuries took for granted the exclusion of the majority of its members (Americans of color and all women) from full-citizen participation turned into one that now highly values representation of once-excluded groups in prominent positions.

The groundbreaking book brings to the forefront the central yet largely forgotten place of the struggle for equal job rights in all the major modern movements for equality: the civil rights movement, the feminist movement and the Mexican-American struggle for full citizenship.

MacLean covers the vast and varied efforts that altered traditions that had been centuries in the making. She highlights both the work of formal organizations such as the NAACP and the National Organization for Women and the efforts of individuals who summoned courage to do what few had tried before.

Visiting 30 historical archives, MacLean drew from a multitude of dramatic stories about often anonymous rank-and-file workers, community leaders, trade unionists, advocates and lawyers to show the significant roles they played since 1955 in breaking down a long-entrenched culture of exclusion. Their stories offer a host of often chilling details about how the exclusion of women and of black and Latino men from higher-paying jobs in the 1950s was so universal as to seem normal to most Americans.

Unlike many social movement stories, the book also pays careful attention to the opposition. It reveals how today’s conservative movement has its roots in the white South’s campaign of “massive resistance” to school desegregation and in the fierce fight to prevent passage of the Civil Rights Act. Weighing in on a contemporary controversy, the book also offers provocative evidence of how the political right modernized itself in the wake of the civil rights movement. Using the issue of affirmative action to reach white working-class voters long repelled by the right’s hostility to equality, the right, MacLean says, fueled a stunning change in public debate and policy.

Pulled from the obscurity of dusty archive boxes, the grassroots activists featured in the book “don’t always fit the usual way we talk about history,” MacLean says. They include people who gathered informally in workplace caucuses and lunchtime gripe sessions, filed thousands of complaints against discrimination with government agencies, argued over dinner tables and demanded that a vision of work that previously had only been imagined be put into practice.

“Those grassroots efforts ultimately transformed American culture,” says MacLean. “They changed our common sense in a way that made possible first-class citizenship for all Americans for the first time in our nation’s history. That is a huge achievement.”

The book also offers a never-before-told story of the historic split over affirmative action among Jewish Americans and the civil rights organizations with which they had worked for decades.

It highlights the differences between the Mexican-American and black civil rights movements, noting both new cooperation and intense competition between the two as Latinos grew into the largest minority group at the opening of the 21st century.

And the book puts to rest the “hackneyed anti-feminist stereotype of a white, middle-class movement” with a dramatic account of how the most popular and successful feminist organizing of the 1960s and 1970s helped diversify the workplace, MacLean says.

MacLean opens the book with the life and death of Wharlest Jackson, whose haunting story motivated her to keep going with her research.

Jackson, a 37-year-old, Korean-war veteran, husband, father of five and treasurer of a branch of the NAACP in Natchez, Miss., was murdered in 1967 for being promoted to a previously whites-only, blue-collar job. He had just won promotion to mixer of chemicals after 11 years at the Armstrong Tire and Rubber Company.

When Jackson took the job, he told family and friends, “My wife and children should have a chance now,” MacLean says.

“Wharlest Jackson represents a whole generation of people who demanded that this country honor its most fundamental promise of hard work being rewarded with better jobs and better chances for their children,” she says.

Stories such as his helped MacLean to see how the diversification of American culture came about. Grassroots struggles of African Americans and later Mexican Americans and women for access to equal work for a time won powerful backing from the federal government with bottom-up and top-down strategies working together to create change. And those struggles took place not just in big cities but all across the country, she says.

“Activists are too busy trying to change the world to think about documenting their efforts,” MacLean says. “What this means is 50 years later we have the barest tip of the iceberg about what actually happened. But as I followed one lead after another, stories like Wharlest Jackson’s brought alive how profoundly our country was changed for the better by ordinary people trying to better their lives.”

The battles for better-paying jobs, she contends, should be at the center of how we remember the Sixties, because they created the most lasting change.

“One part of the struggle we’ve heard way too little about was the demand to have access to better paying jobs with a future,” she says. “The vision of justice that people like Wharlest Jackson took such risks for was much more robust than the phrase ‘civil rights’ captures.”

Topics: Research