Mississippi: The Next Stage for Progressivism? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Mississippi: The Next Stage for Progressivism?


Joe Atkins

CAMERON, N.C.—This tiny town on tobacco road in central North Carolina looks much like it did back when my father grew up here in the 1920s—a gathering of stores and homes with wrap-around porches between the railroad tracks and Plank Road, piney woods and fertile fields in the distance.

Scratch the surface, however, and what you find is deep, fundamental change—the homes are nearly all antique shops now, some with smart, little cafes and coffees shops that serve espresso. The residents are artists and collectors, local and transplant, not farmers and seed merchants.

A lot is changing in my home state, and the change here says much about the South today. Hard-right Republicans control this once Democratic haven, and their impact includes: refusal of Medicaid to 500,000 people, slashed federal unemployment benefits and state earned-income tax credit to more than a million, deep cuts in public education funding and new tax breaks for the wealthy.

A progressive populist movement has risen up, however, and challenged the conservative junta in the state capital of Raleigh. Led by the Rev. William Barber II, president of the state NAACP, the multi-racial Moral Monday movement has been in action April 2013. Hundreds of supporters have been arrested for opposing the junta's restrictions on voting and abortion rights, gerrymandering legislative districts and gutting of the safety net for the poor.

The movement has spread across the South, including Mississippi, and beyond. Now, members have aligned with a wide range of progressive activists, including the "Fight for 15" fast-food workers seeking union representation and $15-per-hour wages. Movement leaders like Rev. Nelson Johnson of Greensboro, N.C., and the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson of Washington, D.C., were early supporters of the effort to bring a union to the Nissan plant in Canton.

"The South has been one of the greatest purveyors of death and destruction," Nelson said at a pro-labor rally in Memphis, Tenn., in 2006. "We come here to join in the struggle. People are being mistreated on their jobs, getting injured on their jobs, and being cut from their health care, individuals on temporary work and who'll never have any kind of retirement income, people who work 40, 50, 60 hours a week and don't make enough to put aside to help their children go to college. That's our congregation."

An old friend of mine in North Carolina, Vietnam and Afghanistan war veteran Bob Mayton, told me during a recent visit that Mississippi may be pulling ahead of North Carolina in the wake of the Republican takeover there. I told him Mississippi should never be a model, not with a governor like Phil Bryant who can refuse Medicaid to 350,000 in the nation's poorest state.

Despite mainstream media's general avoidance of any positive news about the labor movement, workers are gaining ground in the nation's least unionized region. The 712-626 vote against union representation at Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., in February may have caused anti-union Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans, to pop champagne, but it also opened the door to a new kind of organizing that may prove a model for unions in the South. The United Auto Workers decided to forego an appeal of the vote to the National Labor Relations Board—an appeal justified in view of Haslam and Corker's obvious interference in the campaign—and establish Local 42, a voluntary, members-only union that will fight for workers' rights in Chattanooga and hopefully grow large enough to get official recognition.

Last month, a federal judge ruled that the Michigan-based Kellogg Co. violated the labor rights of the 226 Memphis, Tenn., workers it locked out after a contract dispute. The 10-month lockout ended with workers returning to their jobs, and Kellogg's multi-millionaire CEO John Bryant exposed as a paragon of greed in corporate America.

In many ways, the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference in Jackson in June was a landmark event in all this southern activism. The conference drew activists from across the region. More importantly, the conference brought young people together to pick up the banner for social justice in the South.

Some 400 students participated in a pro-union rally outside the Nissan plant at the conference's end, waving placards, singing labor and civil rights songs, and shouting their approval when the Rev. Isiac Jackson of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan told them: "Union today! Union tomorrow! Union forever!"

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began with black students' protest at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Mississippi later became its most heated battleground. Is Mississippi the next stage for today's movement of progressive activism?

Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist, and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. He can be reached at jbatkins@olemiss.edu.


js1976 3 years, 11 months ago

"Some 400 students participated in a pro-union rally outside the Nissan plant at the conference's end,"

I saw this rally as I was driving by and noticed all of the church busses bringing in people were from areas other than Madison County. Why don't you tell us how many employees were protesting outside UnionJoe!


multiculturegirl37 3 years, 11 months ago

Seriously? My daughters were at that rally and no they don't live in Madison Co. but neither do many of the people who work at Nissan if you want to be honest. Oh and my children and I also don't belong to any of those churches. It is common to borrow church vans and buses for social justice organizing due to lower costs than renting from companies or did you not know that? I think the author's general point was that 400 students even CARING about labor organizing in MISSISSIPPI a state very hostile to union organizing is a very big deal.


js1976 3 years, 10 months ago

Yes, I'm very serious! I'm fully aware that many employees of Nissan do not live in Madison County, but it's obvious that church busses from outside of the area are not bringing employees to the rally. I think you asnwered my question though regarding just how many actual employees were rallying outside that day.

If you would read the endless number of articles written by UnionJoe, you could easily see that his point is strictly pro-unionization. The hostile union enviroment in the South is one of the primary reasons for the majority of automotive growth occuring in states such as ours.

What I find humorous is, I interact with Nissan employees everyday. Everyone that I have asked from supervisors to line workers have all been against unionization. That is my general point.


js1976 3 years, 10 months ago

Speaking of UnionJoe's previous articles, I notice he didn't bring up the Volkswagon Plant in Chatanooga again. The UAW is chomping at the bit to get their claws into that plant, even after the employees voted against it. They are now trying to establish a local union to keep the UAW out of that plant because VW wants union representation.

The UAW is going under, and they are looking to the factories in the South to save them. Their membership has dropped from a peak of 1.5 million in 1979 to 391,000. However, since they now represent casino workers, school teachers, and goverment workers I'm not sure how many of those are actually automotive employees. Two days ago, the UAW announced that they would be raising dues 25% because they have had to dip into their strike fund to cover operation costs.


tomhead1978 3 years, 10 months ago

js1976, the Chattanooga vote wasn't legitimate; Corker threatened the plant to make sure workers voted the way he wanted, and facing the choice between joining a union and keeping their jobs, they decided they'd better keep their jobs. I recognize you probably know this already (and omitted it for strategic reasons), but I'm saying it for the benefit of people who don't. When you threaten to have people fired for not voting the way you like, you don't get to then turn around and cite their votes as evidence of anything.


js1976 3 years, 10 months ago

I'm aware of the outside involvement, but that doesn't change the fact that employees are still fighting the UAW. Even after VW has threatened to cut production if the employees don't unionize. Which is just as crooked in my book.

So I still stand by my comment toward the situation in TN, because the employees obviously know they won't be fired for unionizing that plant. Considering that's what VW wants.


js1976 3 years, 10 months ago

Personally, what I consider "progressive" is allowing "employees" to make these decisions. I have such a strong distaste for unions because for so many years they had a stranglehold on employees in so many large industrial states. Forcing workers to join and pay union dues without the ability to opt out.

Industry in the US needs to move forward to be considered progressive, and the automotive industry has been moving forward in the state of Mississippi.


Duan 3 years, 10 months ago

@ js1976 - and I quote you

"I have such a strong distaste for unions because for so many years they had a stranglehold on employees in so many large industrial states. Forcing workers to join and pay union dues without the ability to opt out."

That's a legit beef for being anti-unions. However, when there is no collective bargaining for increasing wages for employees, fringe benefits, time-off, etc etc - you will have a company that becomes one sided. Pro-management - Anti-subordinates,

No manager actually cares about giving an employee a pay raise out of the kindness of their own heart. I am a firm believer on that. Regardless of how bad the economy is doing and how well the company is profiting! Look at the salary inequities and disparities in today's work force? The statistics are all over the place to prove that. Company's are stashing away hordes of money, threatening to leave the country, with whiffs of threats about tax increases or unions coming their way.

All that is due to unions being targeted and shut down across this country.

I know unions have their bad points, like anything else, but they have their strong points as well.


js1976 3 years, 10 months ago

@Duan, I will agree with you that unions have their strong points. Hence the reason I believe that decision should be left up to the employees.

I do however disagree that companies outsourcing their manufacturing is a result of unions being targeted and shut down across the country. Trade agreements and high wages(due to unions) have pushed manufacturers to look elsewhere. Hence the reason for the recent increase in production in the south.


Duan 3 years, 10 months ago


"Trade agreements and high wages(due to unions) have pushed manufacturers to look elsewhere."

Agreed with you on the trade agreements - NAFTA has its ripple effects on they are definitely were a hurting on our economy. On the flipside - its raised quality of life for numerous countries.

As far as "high" wages - that's a two way street. Because now, we are under paying people and over paying executives at poor performing companies!? Go figure.


js1976 3 years, 10 months ago

Duan, I cannot argue that people are being underpaid in some of our manufacturing sectors. I can't say that Nissan in Canton is one of those though. That factory brought living wages to a large number of people within the surrounding area, and continues to do so. However, if the employees want to unionize so be it. They employees can decide that on their own without the assistance of students,actors, and journalists that have never spent a day in their life working in a facility such as this.


Duan 3 years, 10 months ago

@ js1976 - I see where you are coming from.

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