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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with David Burgess, September 25, 1974. Interview E-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Blacks and pro-white unionists accuse Burgess and the CIO of racial bias

This passage exposes larger racial tensions and the tensions between local Packinghouse unions and the national Committee for Industrial Organizing (CIO) union. In 1953, Burgess applied his political education to the clashing groups as a CIO representative at a Marietta Lockheed plant. However, the pro-Communist Packinghouse union accused Burgess and the CIO of being racist. Pro-white auto unions also distrusted Burgess and the CIO. With the pending merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and CIO, Burgess left Lockheed to avoid further racial and inter-union friction.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with David Burgess, September 25, 1974. Interview E-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

BILL FINGER:
Were you in touch with the . . . I mean, was most of your contact with these other middle class organizations?
DAVID BURGESS:
Part of the time and also I helped in the Marietta campaign, to organize the Lockheed plant there. Here the UAW and the machinists agreed that the machinists should organize that plant . . . Lockheed . . . I was helpful with the C.W.A. organization campaigns, but mostly it was education in politics as over against organization. That was the major emphasis, and I think we did a very good job, in terms of political education. There was one interesting movement that I ought to mention in '53. President Ralph Helstein of the Packinghouse Workers Union sent down a communist by the name of Tony Stevens. A former Christian minister representing the Headquarters came down to take over the packing house workers regional office. And myself and a man by the name of McKinney, who was the regional director of the Packinghouse Workers Union, stood in the door, plus a steel worker guy named Charles Mathias, prevented them from taking over that regional office.
BILL FINGER:
The local packing house workers gang?
DAVID BURGESS:
Yes.
BILL FINGER:
Yourself and the steel workers?
DAVID BURGESS:
Yes, and we said, "Look, you're not going to get in here." We were temporarily successful. I then called the CIO headquarters and was told that President Walter Reuther was in Europe. So I called up Bob Oliver, and I said, "What the hell shall I do?" His administrative assistant told me, "Take all the treasuries of the unions in escrow."
BILL FINGER:
Packinghouse workers were still in the CIO in '53?
DAVID BURGESS:
Yeah. And therefore they gave . . . then I . . . with practically all but the predominantly black unions, like packinghouse locals, gave me their money, and I put it in escrow. Then later Walter Reuther retreated from this position when he knew that he couldn't get a non-Communist group of leaders to kick out the head of the packinghouse workers union. Helstein later fired Stevens and other communists and fellow travelers. They amalgamated with Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen. But during the fight I saw how the communists from Chicago were able to convince the blacks that I was a "nigger-hater," I was only for the white man, I was Uncle Charlie type. But we lost because we couldn't get up power to defeat, and Walter Reuther gave in, in this case, because he couldn't muster a strong enough slate to beat Helstein. But it was quite a blow to me, I mean, to return the money to the locals.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why did black locals not give the money from their treasuries to you?
DAVID BURGESS:
Because I was white. And, at the same time, you had heat from, of all things, the auto workers who were just strictly white, and sometimes against me. I remember going once with the Urban League representative from Atlanta by the name of Thompson with an Indian-India group through the General Motors Chevrolet plant just to look at it. And those workers raised hell, said, "What do you want to do, put a nigger in each one of our jobs?" . . . and so I was getting heat from that side.
JACQUELYN HALL:
This was the local auto workers . . . Atlanta?
DAVID BURGESS:
Oh, yeah. At that time Walter Reuther was hesitant to discipline anyone in the Atlanta UAW locals, particularly Local 34, then headed by a man named Slim Hensley. He gave Walter a terrible time at those conventions. Then there was a fight in the auto workers. A man by the name of Champa defeated Sparling for the post of Regional Director. As a staff man he had done the unforgivable act of running against his own regional director. And eventually Chanpa was defeated. Eventually I decided to leave Atlanta for two reasons. One, the coming merger. I could have stayed down there a couple more years but the A.F. of L. were dominated by some racists, the carpenters were very strong, the building trades were very strong, and I knew that though I had done most of the legislative work for both the A.F. of L. and CIO, in that combination, that my days were numbered if I stayed...