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Emmett Till’s mangled face is seared into our collective memory, a tragic epitome of the brutal violence that upheld white supremacy in the Jim Crow South. But Till's murder was more than just a tragedy: it also inspired an outpouring of determined protest, in which labor unions played a prominent role. The United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) campaigned energetically on behalf of Emmett Till, from the stockyards of Chicago to the sugar refineries of Louisiana. Packinghouse workers petitioned, marched, and rallied to demand justice; the UPWA organized the first mass meeting addressed by Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley; and an interracial group of union activists traveled to Mississippi to observe the trial of Till’s killers, flouting segregation inside and outside the courtroom. In addition to revising our image of a signal event in African-American history, this article contributes to wider scholarly debates over the relationship between organized labor and the black freedom struggle. The growing “whiteness” literature has documented European-American workers’ assimilation of racist ideology and the complicity of labor unions in the subordination of African-Americans. But whiteness scholarship has done little to illuminate the contexts and strategies that have fostered durable interracial working-class solidarity. Analysis of antiracist unions like the UPWA can help address this lacuna. A second body of scholarship, more attuned to the diversity of racial practices within the labor movement, has highlighted the destructive impact of anti-Communism on unions with impressive records of challenging white supremacy. The UPWA, which managed to survive the red scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s relatively unscathed, represents an important link between the “civil rights unionism” of the 1930s and 1940s and the civil rights movement of the mid-1950s and 1960s.
Nichter, Matthew, "“Did Emmett Till Die in Vain? Organized Labor Says No!”: The United Packinghouse Workers and Civil Rights Unionism in the Mid-1950s" (2021). Faculty Publications. 239.
Labor Studies in Working-Class History