Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Eric Arnesen

Dr. Eric Arnesen
Eric Arnesen is the James R. Hoffa Professor of Modern American Labor History and Executive Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in GW's Columbia College of Arts and Sciences
February 24, 2016

What inspired your interest in the labor movement, particularly focusing on the intersections of Race, Politics and Civil Rights?  Inspiring teachers and an inspiring subject. In 1980 as a student in a masters program in Afro-American Studies at Yale, I took a course taught by David Montgomery, one of the country’s finest labor historians.  I found myself immersed in a rich and growing literature that, up to that point, I had not known existed.  And with my grounding in African-American history, it seemed a logical step to work in both black and labor history, two fields that had, to an extent, developed along parallel paths.

Why did you want to tell the story and write about Black railroad and waterfront workers, particularly the Pullman Porters and the Waterfront workers in New Orleans?  What set me down this path was a single essay by another central figure in labor history, Herbert Gutman.  Gutman penned a sprawling, creative, and provocative article about a man named Richard Davis, an African American coal miner who, in the 1890s, was for a time an itinerant labor organizer and vice president of the United Mine Workers of America.  How was this possible, Gutman asked? After all, this was the age of Booker T. Washington and Samuel Gompers.  Washington was a powerful black political figure who rejected unions (and the vote) for black workers; Gompers presided over the young American Federation of Labor, a body hardly known for racial egalitarians. So how could Davis be a dedicated labor activist, one who tried to bring the gospel of unionism to black miners and the gospel of interracialism to white miners?  Gutman suggested that there was more to the story and that Davis might not be such an anomalous figure, and he called on historians to explore race relations in labor not from the top but from the grassroots.  This “call” led me to New Orleans, where it was clear that in some years black and white workers had joined together in a powerful alliance that produced substantial results; in other years, whites turned on their black counterparts and sought to minimize their presence in the labor force or drive them from the docks altogether.  How to explain these experiences? What led to racial conflict over employment? What led to the creation of genuinely impressive (if imperfect) alliances? These became my questions for a decade of research and writing.

The railroad workers whose struggles I chronicled had very different experiences.  If longshoremen were open to alliances, white craft unionists on the railroads were not.  My book, Brotherhoods of Color, is both a history of employment discrimination in transportation and a history of African-American responses to that discrimination.  Pullman Porters were one part of that story I tried to tell.  From1925 on, they constructed a pioneering black union that simultaneously pursued labor rights and civil rights, and in their eyes, the two issues were inseparable.

How has the Labor Movement Changed? The labor movement today is incredibly diverse and inclusionary, a sea change from the labor movement of a century ago.  Historically, craft unions excluded black workers and opposed immigration to the United States.  The labor movement today is often at the forefront of struggles for social change.  Of course, this simplifies a much more complex story. But I think it captures the essence of how the labor movement has evolved.  I should also add one important caveat: Even in the era of discriminatory unions, the labor movement was never the sole property of whites.  African Americans from the Reconstruction era onward built their own labor organizations and used them to pursue higher wages, access to jobs, decent treatment in the workplace, and a degree of dignity in the labor market.  In struggling to make these goals a reality they were pursuing what really needs to be seen as an economic civil rights agenda.

Most people think the Civil Rights Era started in 1954, but you have pointed out that it started much earlier, more like the early 1900s.  Can you explain? Historians have never suggested that it had a “beginning.” Yet many people believe that the movement began in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education case outlawing segregation in public education or, more commonly, with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956.  Both of these were important, of course, and the boycott did launch a new stage in the struggle for racial equality.  But the men and women who boycotted the busses were, in many instances, no newcomers to civil rights.  In the case of several of the leaders, several decades of immersion in civil rights politics preceded their efforts in 1955-56.    Some academic historians suggest that the World War II years were the vital turning point; others suggest the upheavals of the 1930s. Still others push the clock back even further.  I’m not interested in providing a “starting date” for the movement – I don’t think that’s possible; what’s important is that broader sweep of struggles upon which activists in later years could build. It is a mistake also to think of a “civil rights” or “black freedom” movement per se.  There were many movements, some of which cooperated, others of which pursued different goals.   All of these are crucial parts of African-American history and they cannot be reduced to a “starting point” or even a single movement. 

What motivates you as a history scholar? How do you balance being a scholar with your administrative position, as a Vice Dean? My love of history is stronger today than it was when I started out in this business decades ago.  When I am immersed in the archives or glued to a chair in front of a microfilm machine that our understanding of the past is always incomplete, always tentative, always changing.  That very process of discovery animates me.  As for balancing scholarship and administration, that is a challenge, no question about it.  The demands of my administrative job seem never ending and time seems to vanish before my very eyes.  But I’ve learned to work on my scholarship in short bursts of time and I try – not always as successfully as I’d like – to dedicate a part of every week to my scholarship.  That means saving some evening hours and a weekend day to research and writing.   I am most content when at least part of my week – even a small part – gets reserved for “my work.” It doesn’t always happen, but I try.

You are working on a political biography of A. Philip Randolph. What do you hope to highlight? I hope that this biography will introduce Randolph to Americans today.  While he is hardly a household name now; half a century ago his name was well known in most black households across the country.  His activist career spanned over a half century, beginning in the 1910s and extending into the 1970s.  He opposed US involvement in World War I, ran for public office on the Socialist Party ticket, edited a marvelous and iconoclastic journal called the messenger, led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to a union victory in the 1930s, pioneered a militant civil rights trade unionism, fought employment discrimination during World War II, campaigned successfully against segregation in the armed forces, aided the new civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s; was the inspiration behind the 1963 March on Washington; and pursued an agenda that stressed both civil rights and economic rights for all Americans. Randolph was arguably the most important black labor leader and civil rights activist in America in the mid-20th century, certainly before the emergence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the mid-50s. In 1965, Reverend King explained to an interviewer that he felt that “the greatest leader of these times that the Negro has produced is A. Philip Randolph,” a man “whose total integrity, depth of dedication, and caliber of statesmanship set an example for us all.” Over the years, Randolph earned many titles: an “American Gandhi,”  “the ranking hero of the race,” “Mr. Black Labor,” an “Elder Statesman,” a “Great American Labor Hero,” and “a legend in his own time.” 

What thoughts or recommendations do you offer to our GW community (students, faculty, staff and alumni) who would like to influence, shape, transform or change the understanding of race, labor, politics, and civil rights? I am a scholar, not an activist, and it is not my place to tell the GW community, or anyone, how to be politically engaged.  My job is to research, write, and teach within my discipline, to produce the best work that I can and to share that knowledge.  I am not one who believes that “history teaches us lessons” and is a clear guide to action.  History is more ambiguous, more complicated than that.  That said, I do believe that knowing history is essential to any modern politics and that good history should inform modern activism.  So my advice simply is…. Read! Immerse yourselves in the vast and wonderful literature on race, labor, politics, and civil rights.  The past is not a simple place; it’s vast, complicated, messy…. and fascinating.  Any efforts to engage or change the world today needs to be grounded in an understanding of the forces that structure the world, of what came before, and how we arrived at this moment.  For that, history is indispensible.

As we recognize Black History Month, what thoughts would you share with the GW community? Given my own work, every month is Black History Month; not a day goes by – even when packed with administrative meetings – when I don’t think about some aspect of civil rights history.  I would offer the GW community my  ‘must-read’ list: 

Beryl Satter, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black America

William P. Jones, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights

Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68

Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison: A Biography

James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics

Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

Greg Grandin, An Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World