Arkansas lesson: organize the South


My mother is laid to rest with my Vermont-born father in the Mississippi Delta region of the state of Arkansas. She rests not far from the family farm where she was born. We still produce rice and soybeans there and family histories that break through the simplistic narrative produced by the national media about Sen. Blanche Lincoln's Arkansas Democratic Party primary victory.

There are miles of Arkansas roads where tourists seldom go. The food, farming and duck hunting are good. The people are often generous and friendly. And poverty and abandoned factories are easy to see. The historic economic underdevelopment of the African American community is both a legacy of slavery, segregation and substandard schools and a result of generations of failed policies of tax cuts, deregulation and business-friendly governments in "the land of opportunity." African Americans and low-income European Americans or "poor white folks" suffer from low wages, low or no benefits, few unions and under-funded schools. Football, good Southern or soul food and Christianity unite most.

There are many faces of Arkansas, but outside of a few outposts of organization the majority of Arkansas workers are unorganized, disorganized, atomized as workers. Arkansas workers are organized around football, family, food, denominations and the military. This is, after all, the state where Bill Clinton ran for governor on a platform of opposition to the state teachers union. If you don't believe me, read Clinton's autobiography.

There was justice in the efforts of organized labor and in sending millions to Arkansas to defeat the betrayer of the "public option" in health care reform and the enemy of the Employee Free Choice Act, none other than the so-called Democrat, Sen. Blanche Lincoln. Although we came close to beating her, simply put: "close doesn't cut it." Many Democrats, disgusted with her performance, might just stay home in November. Arkansas is full of Republicans who won't.

The real issue is the unfulfilled historic legacy of organized labor's plans to organize the South. Millions for a primary might have been the winning ticket if a real grassroots "organize the South" campaign, coordinated with all of labor together rather than piecemeal, had been in place. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee's incredible victory organizing farm workers in North Carolina, and the United Food and Commercial Workers' victory at Smithfield's meatpacking "super plant" there, suggest the way forward. Total commitment on the ground, real coordination, an army of "do or die" grassroots skilled organizers willing to take up the struggle against racism within the working class movement, would be the soul of such a campaign. Nothing less will do.

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  • A great article. The CIO planned an campaign called Organize Dixie after World War II but it was derailed by the Cold War.

    Posted by Sean Mulligan, 06/20/2010 11:08pm (5 years ago)

  • I appreciated reading Phil's article. The spirit of the land and love for his people came through strong. That endearing connection makes the points made more poignant. The recognition of how racism kept many poor and Black families economically depressed is important to declare. The plight of the poor there is similar to the struggles of poor people in my neighborhood. Phil is calling for an organized South. We need a broad Poor Peoples Movement organized across this nation, in both rural areas and urban core neighborhoods, so that basic human rights and meaningful prosperity can be a part of everyone's families.

    Staying home in November even if the Democrats are disappointed, won't solve anything.

    Posted by Bonnie, 06/19/2010 12:19pm (5 years ago)

  • I have only been to Arkansas once, on my way to Texas for a family gathering. Whenever and wherever we go we always get off the beaten path for our breaks. We will drive several miles into a town off the interstate to find a local place to refresh ourselves. If we have plenty of time, we avoid the interstates altogether, following old US routes to our destination.

    On our trip through Arkansas we drove through a small town finding the old "Main" street and driving around several blocks near the main business district. We finally found a place for a late breakfast and, as always happens, we were not disappointed to be warmly welcomed and treated to a good meal.

    Phil's article references the economic difficulties most towns experience. Driving through the older towns one clearly sees what once was a thriving area at one time, but is no longer. It is sad.

    We live in inner city Cincinnati. A similar process of decades of disinvestment and abandonment is clear. Now, new money has arrived and the newer, more economically advantaged people are moving in and displacing those who have been here for years, struggling to make a way out of no way.

    We in the urban environments have much in common with our brothers and sisters in the rural areas of our country.

    Posted by Michael Flood, 06/18/2010 7:53pm (5 years ago)

  • this brother has scored a td i think it's the only way we r going to replace the corkers shelbys and others in congress who r standing in the way of a jobs bill and other progressive legislation let's hope the leadership of our unions can get their act together and organize the unorganized in solidarity jim

    Posted by , 06/14/2010 1:22pm (5 years ago)

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