It could never happen today

During the 1990s, a documentary titled “Uprising” about efforts by workers in the South to unionize textile mills was made. It was a factual account about events taking place in 1934 at a 6-25 Page 4A.inddtextile mill in Honea Path.

There was so much concern about having the film aired on SCETV, a decision was made not to air it. This was 20 years ago. But it happened.

Despite the resistance by the powers-that-be, the documentary was shown at the Easley Library on a rainy night with perhaps a dozen people in attendance, counting the team from Columbia that presented it.

Why was the film so controversial?

In September 1934, textile workers at the mill in Honea Path were protesting low wages, unfair work schedules and work conditions. This was taking place all over the Carolinas.

Workers were encouraged to take action because of Roosevelt’s New Deal. They thought they had the right to unionize and improve conditions for mill workers.

This was during the time when mills owned the homes workers lived in, owned the mill stores where they shopped, controlled the mill schools and the curriculum taught there and controlled mill churches located on the “mill hill.”

Several hundred workers assembled in the mill yard in Honea Path to protest. The mill superintendent had stocked the mill with guns, including a machine gun mounted on the roof. They opened fire, killing seven men. All were shot in the back.

Workers participating in the protest were evicted from their homes and fired. Widows of the murdered men were threatened with the same treatment and told not to ever talk about the murders or they, too, would lose their homes and jobs.

The mill churches were forbidden to have funeral services for the slain workers, and a mass funeral for all seven men was held in a field.

Those who shot the protestors got off scot-free and never served a day for their part in the murders.

The surviving widows and their children suffered untold hardships after this. It was difficult enough for two parents to support a family, much less a lone parent, when the company store charged what it liked for goods and mill script took the place of real money.

No one seemed to think these events were unusual, and for the next 60 years it wasn’t discussed. Fear was a powerful motivator. It was as though it never happened — that is, until the grandson of the mill superintendent, a Honea Path native who became a New York journalist, learned about this legacy. He wrote a book about it and created an uproar at home. He was called a traitor by some and threatened at least once.

This led to the documentary. Even in the ‘90s, there was a knee-jerk reaction to the implied power of textile magnates — enough to make people nervous about airing the film and perhaps putting sponsorships and funding sources at risk. That’s nothing new. In our country, survival is determined by profit and loss.

During the heyday of the textile industry, mill owners naturally wanted to make profits. Controlling wages and production numbers were a key part of this. Controlling workers by limiting education and having power over every aspect of their lives created a large dependent pool of workers. The South, still staggering from the losses of the Civil War and the Great Depression, was the ideal region to set up shop. When people are desperate, they accept unacceptable conditions.

Several generations accepted the status quo. But then textile jobs disappeared. An entire generation of workers were left hanging without skills or sufficient education to compensate for the altered economy.

The new need for an educated work force led to the creation of technical schools and community colleges, affordable solutions for an economically challenged population.

Those who long for the good old days to return might not really like all the baggage that would come with having that dream come true. In many important ways, we are living in a better world.