David Montgomery, 1927–2011

Jon Wiener teaches history at UC Irvine and writes for The Nation.

David Montgomery, one of the founders of the “New Labor History” in the United States, who inspired a generation of activists and historians, died December 2. He was 84. David lived a remarkable life: blacklisted as a union organizer in the 1950s, twenty years later he was named Farnam Professor of History at Yale. Even as Farnam Professor he remained a deeply political animal, working with local labor activists, black and white, in New Haven and elsewhere.

I’ll never forget David’s story about how he became an academic. A communist labor organizer in the darkest days of McCarthyism, he spent “every single day through the 1950s” in factories—working primarily with the machinists’ union in St. Paul from 1951 to 1960. He started at Minneapolis Honeywell; the FBI got him fired....

He moved to smaller shops, always organizing, and always the FBI followed him and got him fired. “Finally,” he told me, “the only job I could get was in a shop with only one other worker. I organized that guy into the union—and the FBI didn’t get me fired.”

At this point, he said, “I realized they had me beat, so I quit and became a historian.”

He enrolled in grad school at the University of Minnesota and got a PhD in 1962.... Where historians focused on Reconstruction as a time when the North imposed its will on the white South, Montgomery showed how workers raised issues of economic power and economic justice in the North. Class conflict in the North, he concluded, “was the submerged shoal on which Radical dreams foundered.”...

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