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Black Freedom and Social Class in St. Louis, Missouri between the Great Depression and the Great Society

In the article below Clarence Lang, an associate professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas describes his book, Grassroots at the Gateway which explores the changes in 20th Century St. Louiss political, economic, and social landscape and how those changes both affected and were influence by local black activism.  

Between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the end of the Great Society in the late 1960s, working-class African Americans led St. Louis, Missouri’s black community in a political “historic bloc” that pursued fair and full employment, economic justice, open and affordable housing, equitable health care and education, a racially democratic trade unionism, meaningful participation and representation in electoral politics, progressive urban development, and equitable planning and investment policies. I argue in my book, Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75 that these battles generated both unity and conflict between black working-class and middle-class activists.

Grassroots at the Gateway employs the Gramscian concept of the “historic bloc,” which captures the dynamic alliances forged by working-class and middle-class African Americans to combat racial subordination, while also identifying the primacy of black working-class leadership in framing the issues these coalitions tackled.  Working-class freedom activists included individuals such as Cora Lewis, one of the thousands of black women nutpickers during the Depression who fought for better working conditions, pay, and union recognition, in the local food-processing industry; T.D. McNeal, local leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a founder of the militant St. Louis unit of the March on Washington Movement; Ernest Calloway, a leader of Local 688 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and once president of the St. Louis branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and Jean King, an organizer of the