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LABOR AND THE CHURCH
by
John B. Isom

A Speech Given At A Union Meeting Probably Around 1946

A selfish person cannot be a good member of a church or a labor union because those who join a church or union for purely selfish reasons do more harm than good.  If I were only interested in myself and willing to advance my selfish interest at the expense of my neighbors I would not join a progressive church or a progressive labor union.  The person who makes a good member in a labor union is one who desires to improve the living conditions in this world for himself and FOR HIS NEIGHBORS.  If you are willing to forget your neighbors, and think only of yourself, there is no more place for you in a labor union than there is in a Christian church or Jewish synagogue.

The moral and spiritual foundation of the labor movement is the sense of brotherhood among men.  The work of organizing labor was begun and is carried on by people who cannot forget their neighbors - people who want to advance with their neighbors and not at the expense of their neighbors - people who are not willing to sell their neighbors down the river for personal advancement.

As far as human relations are concerned the Christian attitude is summed up by Jesus in two brief sentences.  Most of us know them by heart _ "You must love your neighbor as you do yourself" and,  "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."  The person who really feels that way towards other people will make a good church member as well as a good member of a labor union. 

I gladly accepted the opportunity to speak here today, because I feel that the attitude of the church toward organized labor has been wrongly represented by a few people who call themselves preachers of the gospel.  From their pulpits and in their smear sheets they have assumed the authority to tell the workers of the South what preachers think of organized labor.  I'm making reference to those who follow the line of such smear sheets as "Militant Truth," edited by Sherman A. Patterson and published in Chattanooga, Tenn., and "The Trumpet", edited by Parson Jack Johnston, and published in Columbus, Georgia.  Both of these publications speak in the name of religion.  They would have you believe that all preachers and church people are against organized labor; that organized labor is atheistic and Communistic, and that organized labor's attitude towards Negroes is unchristian. In many of our industrial communities, somebody has distributed these smear sheets among the workers.  Somebody insulted me by sending them to me for a number of weeks.  I say insulted, because anyone would have to have a very low conception of a person's religion, and common sense, to expect him to believe the propaganda in either "The Trumpet" or "Militant Truth."

While such ignorant, blind stooges have been speaking for religion against organized labor, most preachers who think otherwise, for one reason or another, have maintained a silence.  A silence that is unfair to ourselves, to the church, to our community, and to the worthy cause of organized labor.  Therefore, I feel it not only a high privilege, but a moral duty, to take advantage of every opportunity to speak for labor - to encourage workers to take advantage of their civic rights, and assume the moral responsibility of organizing themselves for the purpose of improving the living conditions of all people.

I speak here for no one except myself, as a private citizen.  I came on my own without the approval, or disapproval of my own church.  However, some of the members of my church came with me.  I cannot speak for the Baptist, Methodist, or any other group of preachers.  I will venture to say you could not get many of them to approve of the propaganda of the "Militant Truth" or "The Trumpet."  I do know all the larger church groups of the South have gone on record, approving the efforts of workers to organize themselves for collective action.  The Southern Baptist convention in Richmond, Virginia a few years ago, passed a resolution recognizing the right of labor to organize, and encouraged the workers to do so for their own sake, as well as for the sake of the community.  The Methodist and Presbyterians in their conventions have taken similar actions.  The Methodist church, last year, appointed a Labor Chaplain to work in cooperation with organized labor.  The Catholic Church has held a positive attitude toward organized labor for years, and has given concrete support to workers who are trying to organize.  As far as I know the religious leaders of the Jewish communities have been for organized labor from the time of the building of King Solomon's Temple.  So you see, all the major religious bodies believe in organized labor, and do not hesitate to say so in their conventions.  It seems to me that it is high time we say so in the local communities where workers are trying to organize. 

The church and organized labor are dedicated to the task of raising the spiritual and physical well being of all people.  If organized labor fails to cooperate with the religious forces to raise the moral and spiritual culture of the people, it will fail to raise the living standard of the workers.  On the other hand, if the churches fail to cooperate with organized labor to raise the physical well being of working people and advance the cause of economic democracy, the churches will fail to raise the moral and spiritual well being of people.  The church and organized labor must, can, and should be mutually helpful to each other. 

Some selfish, or ignorant stooges have worked night and day trying to get working people to believe the CIO, especially, is a Communistic organization is controlled from Russia.  It would take an awfully dumb preacher to really believe that.  It is for that reason that I say. without hesitation, that those who peddle such propaganda are either ignorant, or so selfish that they are willing to pick the pockets of organized workers and friends of labor by fighting organized labor in the name of religion.   

The CIO is called communistic by the enemies of labor because the national CIO has a progressive, and democratic organization that really helps workers organize, stay organized, and to work together to raise the living standard of the community.  Since 1917 the enemies of labor and real democracy have tried to use the fear of what they call "communism" to prevent the workers from organizing.  These days anybody who wants to advance the cause of real freedom and opportunity of the workingman is tagged as a communist.  The enemies of labor will tag any preacher as a communist if it leaks out that he believes in organized labor.  I agree with Mr. Henry Wallace.  He said, "If it is communistic to believe in prosperity for all, then I am a communists."  If a communist is one who believes in organized labor, and who thinks it would be in all our best interest if every worker in the south were organized, then I am a Communist. 

When you hear of someone being called a communist, look him up.  Ninety-nine times out of every one hundred you will find him to be a real American, who believes in real Democracy for everyone, including workers.  When you hear anybody trying to scare you with the idea that the CIO, or the AFL is communistic, just remember the fellow is a poor dumb stooge for those, who for selfish reasons, are trying to prevent you from organizing, or he is a selfish individual who is trying to advance himself at your expense. 

These same ignorant or selfish leaders have tried to turn the southern worker against the CIO and the AFL for their stand for democracy for the Negro citizens of the country.  If the CIO and the AFL were in the south to organize the workers for what they could get out of them - to exploit the workers - which the enemies of labor accuse them of - they would have followed the line of our old exploiters and appealed to race prejudice as an organizing tool.

The necessity behind organized labor's attitude for equal economic opportunity for the Negro in the South is simple.  The leaders of organized labor have sense enough to know that in order to help the workers in the South raise their living standards they must help all the workers.  In order to help white workers in the South they must help Negro workers as well. They know that as long as Negro workers are unprotected there is no way to protect white worker.  They know that in order to keep Negro workers down in the ditch of poverty all other workers must stay down there with him.  They also know that as long as the enemies of labor can appeal to the race prejudice of white worker and get his vote for their political and religious stooges there is no chance to establish and maintain a labor union in the South that will really help the workers.

But the attitude of organized labor toward Negro workers is more than just an attitude of necessity.  As I said in the beginning, the spiritual and moral foundation for organized labor is a sense of brotherhood that will not let a man forget his neighbor.  The vast majority of the people who make up our national labor organizations believe in the Constitution of the United States:  that all men are created equal; that all people, regardless of race, class, religion or sex should enjoy the inalienable right of equal opportunity.  Organized labor's attitude toward Negro workers is not only democratic, it is the Christian attitude.  Anyone who believes in democracy or Christianity can find no fault with organized labor's policy on the race question.  Anyone who tries to turn you against organized labor by appealing to race prejudice is not only an enemy of Negro workers but an enemy of white worker as well.  If we do not believe in, and are not willing to fight for, economic justice for the Negro worker we are unworthy of such justice for ourselves. 

Now I am aware of the risk that workers have had to take to organize themselves in times past.  I know that risk still must be accepted by the workers who seek to organize themselves today.  But that risk can be minimized if you will follow one basic rule of cooperation.  You must stand all together - united in solidarity.   (The text of the speech ends here with a note that said:  "Tell the story of a father who had three sons.  He gave them three sticks tied together.  They were unable to break the sticks as long as they were tied together.  When he untied the sticks and gave each son an individual stick it could be easily broken.)


johnbisom@yahoo.com

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