This is a story of unions, movies, and the Southern folks behind both of them, starting in the unlikely place of Gadsden, Alabama, in 1934. The now-sleepy town off of I-59 was once a hotbed of militant political organizing amid the rise of post-war industrialization. The Gadsden of today seems far from the prosperous community it once was, but in the first half of the 20th century companies like Dwight Manufacturing, Gadsden Car Works, and Goodyear opened up plants in the rapidly growing north Alabama town. With the opening of factories, thousands of workers moved to Gadsden in the hopes of finding secure work, but what they found instead were meager wages, managerial corruption, and unsafe work conditions.
Bolstered by Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 that provided minimum wage and collective bargaining powers, workers at these factories unionized and organized strikes in order to fight exploitation at the hands of private industry. Although these strikes and collective actions were largely repressed following a 1935 Supreme Court ruling that declared NIRA unconstitutional, Southern workers continued to fight. When this grassroots movement reached a fever pitch in the 1960s and '70s, worker-activists found an unlikely ally in Hollywood, an industry that was similarly forced to respond to the demands of workers because of the activism of labor organizations like the Writers Guild of America.
Although filmmaking itself was still in its infancy at the time of the Gadsden strikes, films in the 1960s managed to capture small towns like Gadsden in periods of transformation. Capturing the Southern labor movement through film offered a more urgent accessory to traditional media reporting on striking workers, portraying the labor movement and unionization as a necessity for the working class and featured the voices of Black and women worker leaders as catalysts for radical change.
Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning Harlan County, USA was set in a rural southeast Kentucky town that was home to Duke Power Company’s Brookside Mines and the impoverished workers they employed. In 1973, Kopple and her crew documented the Brookside miners’ long-term strike against Duke Power after workers unionized and rejected their new contract on grounds of negligently low wages, safety issues in the mines, and emerging cases of black lung in Brookside’s older workers.
Miners in Harlan County unionized swiftly, and their picket lines blocking non-striking workers (the “scabs”) became a battleground after Duke Power refused to listen to the demands of their workers. A year into the strike, a fight between strikers and scabs at the picket line led to the death of a young miner named Lawrence Jones. Captured by Kopple through interviews of the Jones family and searing images at his funeral, this tragedy is credited as one of the key reasons why Duke Power and the union ultimately agreed to begin contract negotiations.
Almost a decade before the release of Harlan, Madeline Anderson documented the 1969 strike at the University of South Carolina’s Medical College Hospital in I Am Somebody. The strike was triggered after the discriminatory firing of Black nursing assistants and lack of recognition for their 1199B Local Affiliate of the Retail Drug and Hospital Employees Union and the discriminatory firing of unionized Black nursing assistants. Compiled from newsreels and commissioned by the striking union, Anderson’s I Am Somebody shows the organizing and incorporation of racial justice issues that led Local 1199B’s months-long strike to be successful, even in the face of South Carolina’s National Guard and political pressure from state officials.
Capturing the Southern labor movement through film offered a more urgent accessory to traditional media reporting on striking workers, portraying the labor movement and unionization as a necessity for the working class and featured the voices of Black and women worker leaders as catalysts for radical change.
What makes films like Kopple’s and Anderson’s so important is how they underscore the importance of women and Black workers to Southern labor history, considering that many of the narratives surrounding working-class organizing center men and white workers. Women and workers of color have always been integral to labor activism, and having documentaries that focus on these organizers and activists is critical in establishing an archive of labor organization that considers all of the movement’s participants.
Harlan’s Lois Scott was the fiery matriarch of the picket line throughout the Brookside standoff, and like many of the women involved in Kentucky’s union advocacy, she became involved after seeing the mistreatment of the mine workers in her own family. Scott persevered through violence at the hands of scabs and the police, and with the help of her fellow women organizers, she effectively pushed the male leaders of the Brookside strike to fight for higher wages throughout the union-corporation negotiations.
Of the nearly four hundred hospital workers on strike at the University of South Carolina, “all but 12 were women. All of [the strikers] were Black,” according to Claire Brown, a nurse and Anderson’s central subject in the documentary. Brown’s fellow nurses Mary A. Moultrie and Rosetta Simmons were instrumental in establishing the Local 1199B and communicating with activists outside Charleston—such as Coretta Scott King and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—to gain financial support and awareness for the hospital workers. Charleston OBGYN nurse Naomi White organized the “Hell’s Angels,” who kept hospital employees in line with strike demands by confronting them during their shift schedules.
What makes films like Kopple’s and Anderson’s so important is how they consider the importance of women and Black workers to Southern labor history, considering that many of the narratives surrounding labor and progressive organizing in the South center men and white workers.
Along with scene of Brown and other nurses performing general household duties in contrast to their duties as union members, the intersectionality of the Local 1199B’s movement is best illustrated when Coretta Scott King—in the year following her husband’s death during the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike—visits Charleston and addresses the union at Emmanuel AME Church in an impassioned speech: “I also have another interest for being here and that is many of the hospital workers throughout our nation are women, Black women, many of whom are the main supporters of their families. I feel that the Black woman in our nation, the Black working woman is perhaps the most discriminated against of all of the working women.”
Today, the influence of Barbara Kopple and Madeline Anderson carries on, as filmmakers continue to analyze how manufacturing and labor struggles are not just individual struggles, but struggles for the community as a whole. Fraser Jones’ 2019 documentary Uniontown follows the citizens of Uniontown, Alabama, and their fight against Arrowhead Landfill and local manufacturing plants. Uniontown’s residents say that the unregulated plants and landfills in the area are endangering the health of the city, noting that farm animals have been dying at higher rates and the elevated levels of coal ash are leading to higher rates of kidney disease and asthma.
Jones films the members of the group Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice as they lead a successful campaign to elect a new county commissioner and spread the word about how the adverse effects of manufacturing are predominantly hurting Southern Black communities. Much like Anderson’s I Am Somebody, Jones frames issues of unregulated labor practices as a social and racial justice issue. Uniontown and other Southern labor documentaries are historical archives that prove the activist power of film. By showing on-the-ground footage that captures the emotional toll of activism, these films, filmmakers, and documentary subjects reassert a more complex, imaginative, and resilient history of the Southern labor movement that is so often neglected.
At the beginning of Harlan, Kopple interviews an older mine worker, who says that the strike “was when [he] learned [his] first real political lesson, about what happens when you take a position against the coal operators, against the capitalists... [He] found out that the union officials were working with the coal companies. [He] also found that the Catholic hierarchy was working with the coal companies. Here was a combination of the whole thing, you see: you had to bump against the whole combination of them.” By watching these films, we bear witness to not only the interconnectedness of American corporate greed but the ways these workers learned about centering the most vulnerable in their coalitions to fight the bosses; with new challenges on the horizon, these films can show us the way forward if we care to listen.