The Deep South is not generally known for its labor agitation, which is why it might come as a surprise for some to learn that it is in Alabama where workers have mounted one of the largest and most aggressive efforts to unionize Amazon in recent memory.
More than 2,000 workers at a fulfillment center in the city of Bessemer, just outside Birmingham, have indicated support for a union election. An estimated 85 percent of the work force is Black, and their union drive — which ties labor issues to Black Lives Matter and issues of racial equality — illustrates the extent to which racism and class exploitation are tied up with each other.
The size, scope and sophistication of the union drive in Bessemer should complicate commonly held ideas of Alabama and the Deep South as backward and relentlessly hostile to progress. It should be a reminder of the ways in which the fight for racial equality has historically been one for the dignity of labor as well. And it stands, as well, as an opportunity to explore a side of the state’s history that gets worse than short shrift in our collective memory.
To many Americans, Alabama is a synecdoche for the worst of Southern reaction. It is George Wallace in Montgomery in 1963, pledging “segregation forever.” It is the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham the same year, where four young girls were killed in the name of hate. It is Jim Clark and his posse in Selma, ready to attack peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And in the present, men like Jeff Sessions and Roy Moore stand as living links to Alabama’s history of reactionary politics as well as its continued resilience.
But the strength of reaction in Alabama is a function, in great part, of the state’s tradition of Black politics and Black radicalism. In the wake of emancipation, formerly enslaved Blacks established Union Leagues, where they organized for self-defense and agitated for legal and political equality. League activists, the historian Michael W. Fitzgerald writes in “Reconstruction in Alabama: From Civil War to Redemption in the Cotton South,” “critiqued the ills of the plantation system and explained how Reconstruction could facilitate a more democratic social structure.” In secret meetings away from hostile whites, freedmen gave radical speeches that “politicized the prevailing discontent over the labor system,” speaking to frustration “over the holdovers of slavery.”