The heroic struggle of working women who attempted to organize a union at R.J.R in the 1940s will be honored Friday when the city unveils a plague near the site of the beginning of the labor battle. This strike has been mostly forgotten as part of local civil rights history, and it has not been recognized as part of the broader fight for equal justice. Scholars now argue that it was part of the “the long civil rights struggle” of blacks seeking justice, and fairness in the segregated South.
Duke University Professor Robert R. Korstad wrote in “Civil Rights Unionism” that the struggle by R.J.R workers, who were mostly black and female, against the corporate giant R.J.R aided the early civil rights movement in Winston-Salem, and had national implications on politics and economic rights. Many famous public figures such as Paul Robeson, and the Rev. Norman V. Peale and others recognized the significance of the struggle..
It started on June 17, 1943 in Plant Number 65 of R.J.R, the largest tobacco manufacturing complex in World War II America. The women became angry over oppressive working conditions — long hours, low pay, and abuse from foreman. After one foreman threatened to dismiss an elderly widower, the female workers staged a work stoppage, and the men later supported them in the protest. John C. Whitaker, vice president of manufacturing , was startled to find out that the women were very knowledgeable about labor rights, and were prepared to fight to improve working conditions in the plant.
The workers eventually lost the battle to organize a union at the company, but it was part of the civil rights continuum that laid the ground work for the modern day movement, as the workers not only fought for equity in the workplace, but fought Jim Crow laws, organized people to vote, and sought better education and housing opportunities for the local black community.
On Friday, the city of Winston Salem will be dedicating a plague to the memory of the black women who started R.J.R labor strikes. The ceremony will be held at what is now called Power Plant Circle Plant 64 –although it seems based on scholarly sources– the strike actually started in Plant 65. This event is part of the redevelopment by the city and Wake Forest University to attract younger, and more upscale people to the downtown area.