Operation Dixie: Notes on a Promise Abandoned

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II. It's important to reflect on the moment that this anniversary represents, for the war’s ending opened a watershed period in modern world history.

In a sense it formally marked the end of the years of the Great Depression: American industry had expanded, wartime restrictions had built up a great reservoir of purchasing power, and the talk was of “sixty million jobs” -- the equivalent of full employment. The war's end was the beginning of a period bursting at the seams with hope and ripe with possibility.

This article will explore the sources of that hope and possibility -- and one brief vision of fulfillment, "Operation Dixie," crushed by the reactionary offensive of the Cold War.


During the Depression years, a new center of working class strength had been built in the factories and ports of the nation: the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). From its beginnings, the CIO accumulated great authority and public prestige because of the unifying mission that distinguished it from the old American Federation of Labor (AFL).

The African-American community, especially, saw in the CIO a strong ally as we struggled to arouse the nation to put an end to the racist Jim Crow practices that disfigured the American landscape. When the opportunity offered, we joined the CIO in great numbers and with great pride, and our community contributed dozens of gifted leaders, men and women who worked alongside their white counterparts as organizers -- sometimes despite obstacles within the CIO itself.

In the two years following the end of the war, the CIO launched the greatest strike wave in the history of the United States. Millions of workers in the steel, auto, railroad, mining, maritime, and tobacco industries were among those who took part; Oakland, California, produced a General Strike. Workers had kept their “no-strike” pledge during the war as an act of patriotism, but now the war was over, a new era was beginning, and these industrial workers were determined to shape it.

In 1947, emboldened by hard-won successes in the strike period and committed to continuing the progressive policies of the Roosevelt “New Deal,” the CIO set its sights on a new vision: organizing the unorganized in the South. The dream was code-named “Operation Dixie.”

A number of developments in both the South and the North had encouraged the boldness of this vision. The “four freedoms” that President Roosevelt had named in his 1941 inaugural address had become the stated moral basis for U.S. involvement in the struggle against Fascism. The Supreme Court had outlawed two Southern practices -- the poll tax in federal elections and the Democratic “white primary” -- that had excluded blacks from participating in the electoral process.

During the war years, the NAACP had become a truly nationwide organization for the first time since its founding in 1909. Alongside the NAACP chapters emerging across the South, Southern Negroes formed statewide grassroots Voters' Leagues that challenged every effort to disenfranchise them.

The Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), forerunner of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the 1960s, held the largest convention in its history -- some 1,500 delegates -- in 1946 in Columbia, South Carolina. Paul Robeson, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, and Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker spoke in the state capital's municipal auditorium, opened for the first time to the state's Negro citizens.

The energy and optimistic determination of the period were reflected in the arts and in sports. Duke Ellington composed a jazz poem entitled “New World A-Comin’,” dedicated to the new United Nations. The Brooklyn Dodgers had hired Jackie Robinson; in 1947 he was leading their farm team, the Montreal Royals, to its first pennant.


So there was good reason for the boldness represented by the proposed Operation Dixie -- but it was also part of the resistance to a threat that appeared after the death of President Roosevelt in April 1945. The men of big business had consistently fought against the New Deal during the years of the Great Depression. Now they were pursuing their own effort to reshape the postwar years. Operation Dixie was designed to be among the fronts of activism addressing this challenge.

All of these developments together constitute the moment in history to be celebrated when we observe the anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

Now imagine it's October 1947: autumn in New York. A group of us have gotten together here in our home port, headed for the National Maritime Union (NMU) convention at Manhattan Center.

Jesse Gray is in off the brand-new SS America, the flagship passenger ship of the United States Line that makes the run to England and Le Havre, France. Jim Malloy is in off the SS Argentina, a passenger ship running down the east coast of South America to Montevideo and Buenos Aires. I'm back from a six-week trip on a freighter to Gothenburg, Sweden, and Newport, South Wales. We're part of a new generation of union activists taking up our responsibility.



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With 100,000 members, the NMU is the largest maritime union in the U.S., and one to be proud of. Our union-shop hiring hall maintains “no-discrimination” hiring practices. In most Southern ports the NMU hiring hall is the only desegregated assembly space in the city. Equal job opportunity is always the rule.

Brother Ferdinand Smith, the national Secretary-Treasurer, is the highest-ranking black union official in the New York labor movement.

At this convention Paul Robeson is to be awarded an honorary life membership for his outstanding contributions to the labor movement. In solidarity, our members on the ships and in port have responded to requests from the Indonesian Seaman's Union for financial assistance to their nation's independence struggle against Holland. We have recently pulled all Camel cigarettes off our union ships in support of the striking tobacco workers of United Tobacco Workers Local 22 in North Carolina.


What brings us to take time off from work is that the word is out that NMU's president, Joe Curran, is planning to launch a purge against the Communists and other progressives during this convention. The Cold War climate which the Truman Administration initiated two years earlier is now confronting the trade union movement in its many sectors.

Curran's primary base among the members for such a splitting program is among the white seamen in such Southern ports as New Orleans and Galveston. Union elections for national office are less than a year away.

In shipboard conversations after work, over coffee and a card game, “old-timers” had talked about the tough times they'd known in building the union. They repeatedly made the point that the Communists among the rank and file had set an example of consistently opposing race discrimination and strengthening the unity of all in the fight for the union. That's working-class morality, enshrined in the slogan “An Injury to One is an Injury to All.”

This background gave many of us a clearer understanding of what the Joe Curran program and its variations throughout the labor movement of that time really meant.

In the late 1940s, a handful of unions made sporadic, often courageous, efforts to carry out Operation Dixie. Two of the West Coast maritime unions, the ILWU and the Marine Cooks and Stewards, established a small base in New Orleans. The hotel and restaurant workers had done so on Miami Beach, and the Eastern Airlines skycaps had joined the TWU.

Beyond these, a number of unions in the South that had won bargaining rights during the war were able to stabilize during the brief postwar period of “Operation Dixie.”

Notwithstanding these initial efforts, Operation Dixie became an early casualty of the Cold War and its strategic objectives. Although the NMU Convention blocked the Curran steamroller for the moment, his machine later won the union elections. Ferdinand Smith was expelled from the union on charges of “malfeasance in office.” His offense had been to telegraph all NMU port agents to inform them of the murder of Bob New, their colleague in Charleston, S.C. A progressive white Southerner, New was assassinated in the NMU hall. The killer, who called Bob "a Communist and a nigger-lover," received an 18-month prison term.

By 1949, the Cold War had gained considerable momentum. At its Portland National Convention that year, the CIO expelled a number of progressive unions. Raids followed; so did NLRB decertifications.

Forays into the South by the House Un-American Activities Committee and its Senate counterpart added to the pressure. James Carey, who set up a “new” electrical workers union (the IUE), captured the spirit of the time when he reportedly said, “In World War II we joined the Communists to defeat Fascism; now we'll join the Fascists to defeat Communism.”

Though this statement was not enthusiastically received in the “House of Labor,” it represented an accurate picture of what often went on in practice. The CIO split doomed the project of organizing the unorganized in the South: labor's energy was dissipated in raiding its own organized ranks.

When twentieth-century “organized labor” ceased to be a movement, the liberation of the South from the shackles of institutional racism fell to the initiative, creative leadership, and dedication of the African-American community.

In our own century, when the challenge is to abolish institutionalized poverty and militarism, what will define the role of our country's working class in the struggle? We all recognize the old saying, “time will tell”; but ultimately, consciousness will inform time.

Jack O'Dell joined the Merchant Marine during World War II and was an active member of the NMU for six years. He directed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s voter registration campaign in the early 1960’s and later was an editor of Freedomways magazine and Director of International Affairs in the Rainbow Coalition.