A Rich Man's War, A Poor Man's Fight
by Keri Leigh Merritt
March 26, 2021
This interview with Keri Leigh Merritt, the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South and a historian tackling issues of inequality and poverty in America, was conducted and condensed by franknews and Payday Report.
frank X Payday | One thing that I think is written out of the way we look at the South is that there's a long history of resistance of white southerners.
Right. Whether it is Appalachian foothills or parts of the deep South, many whites were either pro-union or were anti-Confederates. There's always been a lot of class conflict that has driven this divide.
One book that has been instructive for me is the People's History of the Civil War. Matt Cunningham says, what W.E.B. Du Bois says, which is that the largest labor strike in US history was when people walked off the plantation, and the second largest was when the Confederate army deserted.
Yeah — DuBois was completely right, and in our new Civil War documentary, we are centering our story around that thesis. In Masterless Men, I argue that the poor whites and a lot of lower-middling class whites did not join the Confederacy at all in the first few years. They were very much anti-Confederates. They did not want to fight for what they knew was a war to protect the property of really rich people — people who hated them.
Who hated them and also didn't have to fight, right?
Yes, exactly. So they passed The Conscription Act of 1862. Literally within months of that, they passed what was called the 20 Negro Law, which exempts the large slaveholders from fighting the war. They were literally conscripting all the poor whites to go fight.
This is when the famous saying, "A rich man’s war, a poor man’s fight" becomes popularized.
Then, within one year of conscription, you had such massive waves of poor whites going back home that by 1864, there were less than half, probably closer to about one-third, of the Confederate Army left — because everybody has just gone back home. They end up fighting turf wars in their own home spaces; it's kind of like just open guerrilla warfare throughout a lot of the deep South.
And one thing I always try to get people to understand about the South, is that when you think about the birth of the police in the South, it occurs just a few years after slavery ends.
Especially throughout the rural South, the police were always tied to labor suppression.
That's why immediately you have police instead of the old slave patrols. Entire departments of paid uniformed officers were financed to go around policing the labor contracts that newly emancipated men were often forced into signing. And these contracts basically put them into what some historians refer to as another, lesser form of slavery. I mean, they're basically unfree laborers.
It is important to know that violence and murder and the carceral state have been the keyway that elite white Southerners have kept the South as the poorest region and the deep South as the poorest region within that region.
City Worker Strike March, Atlanta, Georgia, April 18, 1970. Georgia State University Library.
We were talking with Morris Mock, one of the leaders of the 2017 Nissan campaign, earlier this month, and he told us about how people have tried to run him off the road in these campaigns.
There is a lot of harassment. I hope these organizers are going to be able to stay safe because historically that's not been the case.
I always say that up North, we talk about racism, but Northerners don't really address in the way that some Southerners really have gut checked.
Right. I mean, the one area that the 1619 project got push back on, that I do agree with is that there were always whites involved in the movement. Of course, there were not many. I mean, most whites were overwhelmingly white supremacist racists. But there were always whites involved, too from the Anne Bradens and the Howard Zinns to the Bob Zellners and the Lillian Smiths. I've been going back and reading some Lillian Smith stuff and it's very Freudian how she deals with the race question and how it involves sexuality.
I'm actually trying to work on a book right now, that looks as far back as the 1930s, on those white southerners who were speaking out about segregation and putting their lives on the line in order to help the movement. That's something that I think needs to be made important within the movement again. White people need to deal with so much psychologically about our past sins, our own racism, our racist family members and friends, and so on. But, I think it is also important to see examples of white people being involved in the movement. Examples of these white southerners, in particular, can give a lot of people, especially younger white activists, hope and encourage them to get more involved in the movement.
I have reported on and watched several union efforts in the South die. I think what is different about the RWDSU is that they are already coming in as part of the community, as Southerners. They can point up the road from the Amazon facility and say that they've got a union contract up there.
Yeah. I think this time is different as well because they are very much framing it as a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Civil Rights Movement in the late sixties essentially died as a labor movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. & Stokely Carmichael. Bob Fitch Collection — Stanford Archives.
They were really expanding what began as a political fight into a fight for economic and labor rights, which, of course, was precisely when they killed Martin Luther King. That is when he became a real threat to the established order; he was literally killed leading a sanitation worker's strike in Memphis. So that civil rights movement left off just as they had created the Poor People's Campaign, and I think what we are seeing right now is the beginning of a new civil rights movement, one that is inspired by and connected to the Black Lives Matter protests this summer and is picking up where the last labor movement left off.
What role do you see Black women play between the original movement and today?
It's actually a really important aspect of the Civil Rights Movement that is often overlooked. There are actually going to be several good books coming out over the next few years, one from Keisha Blain about Fannie Lou Hamer(!), about several of the women who really organized the civil rights movement in the deep South, largely in Mississippi, but also Alabama. The work was exactly what people like Stacy Abrams are doing right now. They did the grassroots work.
[Barbara Jordan Being Handed a Bouquet of Flowers at the Tuskegee Institute], photograph, September 1976; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth843063/m1/1/?q=alabama: accessed March 26, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Southern University.
Even though they had male figureheads in almost all of these organizations, Black women were the ones who were really making things work at the grassroots level — literally going from town to town, from door to door. They were doing things like radicalizing other women, getting them to run these small groups, and pushing their menfolk to go register to vote.
So, in the deep South, politics has always been very much driven by Black women.
Of course they really couldn't run for political office back in the sixties, but now they can, so I think we are going to see a lot of deep South political offices being filled by Black women — and I can’t wait!
There's been a lot of like Stacey Abrams imagery that I have noticed. There are these signs leading into the warehouse of Stacey Abrams as Rosie the Riveter with a mask that says RWDSU.
Yeah. I have heard a lot about that. It’s amazing.
Why do you think Terri Sewell is embracing this so much, even as a moderate? Do you think she is worried about being primaried from the left?
Well, in the deep South, really progressive, really leftist candidates do very well. I mean, you see this in mayors of small towns and cities, throughout Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. All of these places have really leftist, progressive, usually Black, mayors.
Anne Feeney said that what union busters do is often manipulative men do in bad relationships. What is your perspective on the role of gender?
Oh absolutely. It's just different kinds of abuse from employers. One thing that is really important in thinking about Southern history is the idea of monopsony. In these rural areas like the ones surrounding Bessemer, there are just not many other really good options for a job elsewhere. In these rural areas, a company like Amazon can come in and say, "Well, we're paying you $15 an hour. That's still more than you're gonna make at Walmart or McDonald's or wherever the few other places where there are other actual employment opportunities." In the Deep South, the historical roots of monopsony are based on the fact that after the Civil War and the end of slavery, power and wealth never really did change hands. You’ve still got such incredibly concentrated wealth in these rural areas. If you look at the genealogies, you can actually trace it. The people that are still really in power in these areas are the descendants of the big slaveholding families.
Another layer, which is the Bethany Morton labor thesis regarding Walmart, is that these corporations often target hiring married women, because they know that their incomes are often secondary incomes in a family. They know that they can hire and fire at will, and they can underpay these women because they are secondary earners.
City Worker Strike March, Atlanta, Georgia, April 18, 1970. Georgia State University Library.
And think about it from a power perspective as well. It's only been really in the last 10 years, honestly, that a woman could be a laborer in a big corporation and not expect to be sexually harassed and sexually assaulted and have no recourse. Especially for laborers who were poor and/or women of color, if you were going to a job and working primarily for men, you could fully expect to be raped or assaulted. These histories about the pervasive sexual violence against women laborers throughout even recent history remain understudied and undersold.
For now, we need to especially focus on making the workplace safe for women, and oftentimes a union is the best way to accomplish this.
It is disturbing.
This seems like a unique opportunity to reenvision how our world operates. At large, we have been consuming Amazon in a ridiculous way amidst the pandemic and now we have to question where all this is all coming from? How is this all working?
This is absolutely a historical moment. If we do the hard work, this is one of the very few moments, maybe the only moment in most of our lifetimes, where there's actually a chasm where you have the chance to really, really change things.