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 [email protected]