"You Have to Fight for Freedom" (1973)
was born March 15, 1909. My father was a roofer. In those days they
put slates on the roofs and he was a slater. It was a very skilled
job. You had to nail the slate. They used to make a fancy diamond
with different colors....
he was a union man. There was a dual union—one for whites and
one for blacks. He said we should have one big union but a white and
a black is better than none. He was making big money—eight
dollars a day. I used to brag that "My father makes eight
dollars a day." But he taught me that "You got to belong to
the union, even if it's a black union. If I wasn't in the union I
wouldn't make eight dollars a day." ...
i was maybe ten years old, i changed schools. On the way to school, i
had to go through a park that was for white people only. We could
walk through the park but we couldn't stop at all, just pass through
it. There were swings in this park and, oh, I so much wanted
sometimes to just stop and swing a little while, but we couldn't
because we were black. I would walk through this park to my school
where there weren't any swings.
morning all the kids would line up according to classrooms and we
would have prayers and sing the Star Spangled Banner and then we'd
march to our respective groups after this business.
decided I wasn't going to sing the Star Spangled Banner. I just stood
there every morning and I didn't sing it. One morning, one of the
teachers noticed that I wasn't doing it. So she very quietly called
me over and asked me why didn't I sing the Star Spangled Banner. I
said I just didn't feel like singing it. So she said, "Well then
you have to go in to the principal and explain that to him. All of
the children in the school take part and you've got to do it too."
OK, I went in to the principal and he asked me why I wasn't singing
the Star Spangled Banner....
I told him. "Because it says 'The land of the free and the home
of the brave' and this is not the land of the free. I don't know
who's brave but I'm not going to sing it any more." Then he
said, "Why you've been singing it all the time haven't you? How
come you want to stop now?" And I told him about coming through
the park and if I could not swing in those swings in the park, and I
couldn't sit in the park, and I could only walk in Shakespeare Park,
then it couldn't be the land of the free. "Who's free?" He
didn't say anything.
he said, "Well, you could pledge allegiance to your flag."
I said, "It's not my flag. The flag is with freedom. If the land
is free and the flag is mine, then how come I can't do like the white
on] I [moved to Chicago and] got this job in a laundry. The first
morning I went there, this guy asked me, "Did you ever work in a
laundry before?" I said, "No." He said, "Well
there's no point in your coming here because we only I hire people
who know how to work in a laundry." I said "OK" and I
left. The next morning I went back because I didn't know any place
else to go. "Weren't you here yesterday?'' "Yes." He
said, "Well, I told you that we don't hire people who don't know
how to work in a laundry." I said, "Well, maybe you'll need
somebody one day. I'll come back tomorrow.'' So the next day I came
back. When I walked in the door he said, "Come with me." He
took me upstairs and he said to the foreman, "Teach her how to
had to shake these clothes out and put them on long poles. You know
how things look when they come out of a wringer. You had to shake
them out so that they could run them through the mangle. Two girls
put the things through the mangle. One girl did the sheets and the
other did the small things like towels and pillow slips. I worked
really hard. I kept those poles full. The women would say, "You
mean you never worked before?" I'd say, "I never had a job
day [a friend]... called me up at home. "Hurry up and come on
over here. There's a man here says he'll hire you." We always
thought that this guy had some connection with the Communist Party.
He hired everything black that came in. Martina went to him and she
said, "I have a friend who wants to work in the factory and
she's been coming and coming and they never will hire her." He
said, "Tell her to come. I'll hire her." So he hired me.
When I walked in the door of the plant I said, "I'm going to
make you sorry for every day that I walked around to this shop hoping
to get hired!"
worked on the carburetors. I was on an assembly line that had two
sides and a belt ran down the center and I was burring—taking
all of the burrs off the carburetor. Right across from me was a young
Polish woman named Eva. She was going to show me how to do it. We did
about ten of them. Then I said, "You don't have to help me any
more." She said, "Do you think that you can keep up with
the line?" "I can keep up with the line." So I did.
Eva and I became real good friends because when she got stuck I would
reach over and help her.
night she said, "There's a union meeting tonight. Will you go
with me to the union meeting?" And I said, "Ahh, I'm
tired." She said, "Aw, come on and go." She said, "I
want to buy you a drink anyway," because I had helped her. I
said, "OK, you can buy me a drink but I don't want to go to a
we went to this tavern and then we started talking union. I got kind
of high, you know, and "OK, we'll go to the union meeting."
was United Automobile Workers. I was the only black there. All the
stewards were coming in and saying how they couldn't organize the
workers: "I can't get anybody to join"; "So-and-So
said the union is no good...."
said, "You know why you can't get anybody to join? Because you
don't have anything to sell them. You aren't selling them union.
You're letting them sell you non-union from what I hear you saying
here. You'll never get the workers to join the union if you let them
tell you the union isn't any good. I wouldn't join a union that's no
good either." A steward must sell the union, telling the workers
how much strength they have when they are organized.
looked at this guy who was the organizer and his face was just
lighting up. "Union! What do you mean? I'll bet you if I was the
steward I could sign them up." The next day I was elected
steward of my department. Two nights later everybody in that
department was signed up.
only joined the union for what it could do for black people. I didn't
care anything about whites. I didn't care if they lined them all up
and shot them down— I wished they would! I had no knowledge of
the unity of white and black. I had no knowledge that you can't go
any place alone. The only thing that I was interested in was what
happened to black people....
night I would have departmental meetings. The women were coming off
the night shirt at three o'clock in the morning. They didn't have to
go home, so this was some recreation for them. We'd have beer and
sandwiches and coffee and cake or whatever. We'd sit there and eat
and talk. People would voice their grievances about the shop, home,
family or whatever. They'd love to come. Every night we met,
department by department. This kept us organized.
had good union meetings too. We would have speakers. Either I would
speak or Mamie [Harris] would speak or we would invite a speaker to
come in. We would talk about trade unionism. How were trade unions
organized? What was the very beginning? How come they were organized?
We would talk about the structure of the international union, how it
was set up and how it worked and why it worked like it did, how the
CIO was bom. We would have a question period where the workers could
ask questions. We would discuss current events.... Two years after
the plant closed up, we still had union meetings. We would have full
crowds. We were fighting for [unemployment] compensation. We made
ninety cents an hour and some, of course, made more. You would go to
get your compensation and they'd offer you a job. You weren't
supposed to take a job that was less than the rate you had been
getting. We would fight these cases. They would throw them out and we
would go down to the arbitration board and fight the cases and win
them. We could call a union meeting and bring in maybe 75 percent of
our plant two years after it closed down. We had representation in
the international because we still had the workers together.
main thing that I would say is that you have to have faith in people.
You know, I had very little faith in white people. I think that I had
faith in black people. But you have to have faith in people, period.
The whites, probably a lot of them feel towards blacks like I felt.
But people, as a rule, come through.
have to tell people things that they can see. Then they'll say, "Oh,
I never thought of that," or "I have never seen it like
that." I have seen it done. Like Tennessee. He hated black
people, A poor sharecropper who only came up here to earn enough
money to go back and buy the land he had been raiting. After the
plant closed he went back there with a different outlook on life. He
danced with a black woman. He was elected steward and you just
couldn't say anything to a black person. So, I have seen people
change. This is the faith you've got to have in people.
big job is teaching them. And I was not patient. That is another
thing, you must be patient. I just didn't have any patience. If a
worker did something, "To hell with you. You didn't come to the
last union meeting, so don't tell me when you have a grievance. You
just handle it the best way you can by yourself." But you can't
do that. "You better go talk to Mamie Harris because I don't
talk to non-union people and folks who don't come to .the union
meeting. Don't talk to me." This I learned was wrong. You have
to be patient with people. People have to learn and they can't learn
unless we give them a chance.
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