Sunbelt Civil Rights: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Fort Worth Aircraft Industry, 1940-1980

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Title: Sunbelt Civil Rights: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Fort Worth Aircraft Industry, 1940-1980
Author: Abel, Joseph
Advisor: Hobby, William P.
Degree: Doctor of Philosophy thesis
Abstract: This dissertation critically engages the growing literature on the "long" civil rightsmovement and the African American struggle for equal employment. Focusing on the FortWorth plants of General Dynamics and its local competitors, this study argues that thefederal government's commitment to fair employment can best be understood by examiningits attempts to oversee the racial practices of southern defense contractors both prior to andafter passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. From World War II onward, the aircraftfactories of north Texas became testing grounds for federal civil rights reform as a variety ofnon-statutory executive agencies attempted to root out employment discrimination.However, although they raised awareness about the problem, these early efforts yielded fewresults. Because the agencies involved refused to utilize their punitive authority or counterthe industry's unstable demand for labor through rational economic planning, workplaceinequality continued to be the norm. Ultimately, federal policymakers' reluctance to reformthe underlying structural causes of employment discrimination among southern defensecontractors set a precedent that has continued to hinder African American economicadvancement.This dissertation also reevaluates assumptions regarding southern unions and theresponse of white workers to the civil rights movement. Just as the economic relationshipbetween the federal government and defense contractors gave rise to early mandates on fairemployment, the unstable demand for labor and adversarial management style of the FortWorth aircraft manufacturers nurtured a form of unionism unique within the South for itsmoderate treatment of African Americans. Long before most labor organizations in theregion resigned themselves to similar philosophies, the local aircraft workers' unionsadopted a pragmatic approach toward racial questions based largely on their need to countermanagerial abuses and provide job security. Whatever their personal prejudices may havebeen, local white labor leaders nevertheless protected the economic rights of AfricanAmericans through forceful shopfloor representation and the negotiation of inclusionarycontracts. By demanding a workplace in which management's actions were constrained bya set of fairly negotiated contractual rules, Fort Worth's aircraft unions struck an importantif unintended blow against the arbitrariness of employment discrimination.
Citation: Abel, Joseph. (2011) "Sunbelt Civil Rights: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Fort Worth Aircraft Industry, 1940-1980." Doctoral Thesis, Rice University.
Date: 2011

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