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David Chappell

Railroads and Civil Rights

Race and labor aboard the iron horse

Eric Arnesen is emerging as one of the most original and independent-minded historians of American labor. The author of a fine book on dockworkers in New Orleans and a famous article discrediting the jargon-clogged movement known as "whiteness studies," he is especially good at exploring the ideologically charged territory where race and CLASS overlap. In Brotherhoods of Color, recounting the history of black railroad workers and their union leaders, he fills in a vital chapter in the struggle for civil rights.

One of the principal figures in this history will be familiar to most survivors of American History 101. A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, has long been featured in textbooks and documentaries as the éminence grise of the civil rights movement, one of the organizers of the March on Washington in 1963 (a project Randolph began planning during World War II). Randolph is already the subject of an engrossing biography by Jervis Anderson, but Arnesen fills in the background and context that only hard time in the archives can provide.

Arnesen's story reveals important patterns in the history of race and CLASS. For instance, he presents cases where the initiative behind anti-black discrimination came not from capitalists but from the white working CLASS. In the revealing case of Memphis yard workers around World War I, labor shortages allowed white workers to take low-level jobs formerly defined as black. But after the war, black workers fought to reclaim their positions, and management complied. White rank-and-filers responded with wildcat "hate strikes," which forced union leaders and government officials to endorse new rules that excluded more black workers than before.

The older Jim Crow system of reserving admittedly unpleasant, low-paid jobs for black workers at least gave them a piece of the pie. But during industrial contractions, the "black" jobs became desirable to white unions, and a tool for controlling the higher positions. ...

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