Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Flashback: Moving Toward the Common Good, or Slouching Toward Dystopia?

[While I am working on another project, I am re-posting some of my favorite essays. This post originally appeared on March 25, 2011]

And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

                         ~William Blake (from "Jerusalem")

[This is my second essay inspired by reading Wayne Flynt's book. The first essay can be found here.]

In Wayne Flynt’s Dixie’s Forgotten People: the South’s Poor Whites, he offers a clear picture while providing some understanding of the poor white culture that has been marginalized from mainstream society in the South. Describing something like a caste system in the South, Flynt portrays the historical and sociological developments that contributed to their plight. While agriculture was dominant in the earliest days of the English and Scots-Irish settlers, beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, the textile industry did much to shape southern life. At one point Flynt quotes from The Wasted Land, by Gerald Johnson to show that the textile industry in the South was as much a social endeavor as it was a commercial enterprise. The South offered cheap labor for the textile industry as it moved from the Northeastern factory establishments. There were some textile entrepreneurs who hoped to revitalize the decaying and gloomy prospects of the lower class whites of the South.

Southern Mill Towns

Textiles, poverty, and the South all strike a deep chord with me. I grew up in Alabama’s Tallapoosa County. My home was in Jackson’s Gap before the family moved into the metropolis of Dadeville (population 3,000). Many of my school classmates came from mill working families. Russell Mills, later to become the Russell Corporation, was perhaps the largest employer of the area. They were located in the neighboring town of Alexander City, along with another large textile manufacturer, Avondale Mills. Down the road in the other direction was another large employer of unskilled labor, Pepperell Mills in Opelika. In addition to these large industrial giants there were many smaller textile mills in the area. Indeed, from one county to the next, small villages and valleys were scattered with numerous small textile plants, each specializing in a particular product.

There were no unions in our area. Mill owners were known to make benevolent contributions to the community in the building of a school or a hospital or other community improvements. They provided employment for countless citizens, but never any guarantees. Alabama was (and still is) an “at will” state, which means that employees are hired at the will of the employer and can at any time be terminated if the employer has no further need of the employee’s services. If you saw the movie, Norma Rae, you saw something of the milieu of my childhood and the people I knew growing up. [That movie was filmed in Opelika, used many locals as extras, and the producers were very happy to find a mill in place that so perfectly fit with the story they wanted to tell – I’m not sure the mill operators realized what story the film was telling.]

Beginning in the 1860’s, the textile industry brought scores of people off the farm and into the towns and cities. Millwork was hard and tedious, but it offered a steady income that was more reliable than farming for the landless poor. When I was coming of age, I had classmates who were looking ahead to a life in the mills. Some quit school at age 16 to work in the mill, some began working after graduation from high school, glad to have a job that required no further education. There were others of us who had no desire for the routine grind of unskilled labor and we set our sights on life beyond the textile valleys of home. Some of us opted for college as a stepping stone, others gravitated to the military, but none of us ever imagined that the huge textile industry that surrounded us would not always be there for generation after generation.

Though mill work was not what I envisioned for myself, I looked around at the community and saw that the mills gave many people meaningful, productive work. They were able to have a roof over their heads, provide for their families, go to the ball game on Friday nights, and take time off to go fishing on the lake. Indeed, the mill was an integral part of southern life in three productive shifts. There were churches and schools that for all practical purposes served as adjuncts to life in the mills. I knew from talking to my classmates that at Russell Mills, you got a paid day off on your birthday, and after 25 years, you got a watch at the annual company picnic. Then when the Russell Corporation gained national prominence as the manufacturer of uniforms for the major sports teams, it became a source of pride for everyone in the community. But with no unions, there were no guarantees, other than the seemingly endless grind of the textile machinery that would always be in need of workers.

Capitalism Without Conscience

Then the unforeseen happened - the mighty spindles came to a stop. Mills that had been run by local families who had some connection and investment in the local community began to see stiffer competition in the global market. Warren Buffet’s conglomerate bought out The Russell Corporation and moved much of the production to Central America where unskilled labor was much cheaper than in Alabama. Avondale Mills went belly up trying to compete – they were bought out by another company which managed to keep 200 jobs in the community. Employment opportunities quickly drained, not only from Tallapoosa County, but from the surrounding counties as well. The Pepperell Manufacturing Company which had flourished in Opelika closed its doors in 2006. People with no specialized training or education were left with little opportunity. Mill work may have been bleak and mindless, but joblessness takes a much greater toll on the soul.

In my mind, what my hometown and the surrounding area witnessed was capitalism without conscience. In the past, wealthy mill owners at least felt some obligation to the community. Now the large conglomerates had no human face and no interest in the local community. They could pull up stakes and move to wherever they needed in order to increase profits, with no apparent remorse over the wounds left in the local community.

Perhaps what we experienced was what happened in the Northeast when the industry came South in search of cheap labor. At any rate, I can see a few lessons to be learned in the aftermath. One, it is shortsighted to attract industry with promises of cheap labor while doing precious little to educate and equip the citizens who will be the workforce. Two, companies will only heed the needs of the workers out of necessity – hence the need for workers to have a voice and some ability to broker terms with company management. A third lesson might be that perhaps we need more diversity in employment options - more small enterprises rather than one huge industry.These are lessons that my state seems still unwilling to consider. Alabama cheered when it attracted Mercedes, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota to build in the state, but is this not yet another example our state being at the mercy of large industries ever migrating from one labor source in search of cheaper wages?

Not Just a Regional Phenomenon

We are making and producing less and less, not just in the South, but throughout the United States. Remember when Walmart boasted “Made in America?” When was the last time you saw that slogan painted across a Walmart delivery truck? When my hometown saw The Russell Corporation shifting its workforce to the sweatshops of Honduras, the same thing was happening throughout the country. Manufacturing was leaving, moving to third world countries where goods could be manufactured for less money to bring companies and shareholders higher profits. Most of the U.S. population, while they may have wanted industries to stay, seemed perfectly willing to accept lower prices at the checkout line as a fair outcome. We heard no great unified protest from the public as individuals and communities throughout the South as well as across the heartland of America struggled with job losses and "vocational retraining" in the absence of real jobs.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I see many questions at hand. How are we doing? What are our prospects for the future? Do we have a citizenry equipped to contribute to the well being and the common good of the community? Are we training the next generation to be vocationally adept so that they can provide for themselves and contribute to the community? Will we start making things again? Will business and industry have any investment in the local community? Will what happens in my community (and in your community) ever be as important as profits for the huge corporations that our polititians remind us we need in order to have jobs? Will company bosses ever again feel any compunction to give back to the community? Will the U.S. worker be once again marginalized as has been the lot of so many working poor in the South throughout its history?

Unfortunately, for too long it has benefited society to have a readily available workforce that is poor and needy, and therefore willing to accept whatever menial labor we need done, at the lowest wage possible. We will placate the low wage earner from time to time with some token benefit: a gift watch here, a day off there, a Christmas bonus and a pat on the back. As long as society at large benefits from a permanent underclass we will always have the poor with us. Once they were in tenant farm shacks, then in mill villages and mining camps. Now we find them in urban housing projects, rural trailer parks, and rental housing with many falling prey to cheap whiskey, meth, and cable TV to pass the time in the absence of meaningful work.

I have hope for humanity because we carry with us the aspirations for justice, freedom and peace. We also carry with us a penchant for war, greed and oppression. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi says that "There is more good than evil in the world—but not by much." It is that little bit more that can lead us to a better world. Will we find a way to move toward the common good, or will we continue to slouch toward the dystopia which George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and others have warned us of?

                                                                                                                                                    ~ Charles Kinnaird

An added note: I would be remiss not to include a comment from a reader when this essay was first posted. She shares from her own experience and corrects some of my account of Russell Mills recent history:

Thank you for writing this. I, too, have a history that is heavily tied to textile mills in Alabama. My great-great grandfather, great-grandmother, great-grandfather, grandmother and grandfather all worked at the West Point mills in Langdale and West Point. I was also one of the first employees hired in Atlanta, when Russell moved most of their corporate offices.

There is one piece of history that you have a little off, though. It wasn't Berkshire Hathaway that offshored the mills. It was Jack Ward, the ex-CEO of Russell. I helped launch the Zt and assisted with the retail brand marketing to Wal-mart and others. Many of our team flew to Honduras and Mexico to view the textile processes there. Those years were between 1999-2002. Ironically, Mr. Ward is an "Executive-in-Residence" for The Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility for the J. Mack Robinson School of Business, Georgia State University.

Here's a piece of an article:

"Within months of Ward's arrival, Russell announced a major restructuring. Over a three-year period, the company planned to eliminate about 4,000 jobs, or 23 percent of its workforce; close about 25 of its 90 plants, distribution centers, and other facilities; and move most of the final assembly of garments abroad, to Mexico, Honduras, and elsewhere in the Caribbean basin. The company expected to take charges of $100 to $125 million during the restructuring period. Russell hoped these efforts would result in annual savings of $50--$70 million. Part of these funds would then be used to bolster the marketing and advertising of Russell's brands, including tripling the advertising budget to $25 million per year. Russell also established a second headquarters in Atlanta in February 1999, a move designed to make travel more convenient and to aid in recruiting efforts, particularly of marketing aces who did not relish the idea of living in the small town of Alexander City."  
                                                                                                  ~ Kim Martin Bannerman August 8, 2011


This photograph, taken by a photographer from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, shows a female employee tending the machines spinning cotton thread at the Pepperell Manufacturing Company textile mill in Lee County, Ala.

-- From Howard Washington Odum Papers (#3167), Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Photo from the
Alabama Department of Archives and History

  Avondale Mills in Alexander City

Avondale Mills, a textile plant, was a longtime employer in Alexander City until the company folded in 2006. Parkdale Mills purchased the plant, averting the loss of about 200 jobs.

Overseer and two doffer boys in front of machinery at Avondale Mills in Alabama. 

Photo by Lewis Hine
Children who worked at a textile mill in Pell City, Alabama, in 1910

This photo is from an insightful article, "The Legacy of a Cotton Culture," by Larry Lee, director of the Center for Rural Alabama


Recommended Reading:

“The Legacy of a Cotton Culture,” by Larry Lee. The Daily Yonder, March 26, 2010. Online at

“There Is Such A Thing As Rural Development,” by Larry Lee. The Daily Yonder, April 9, 2010. Online at

“17 Rules for a Sustainable Local Community,” by Wendell Berry, online at

Dixie’s Forgotten People: The South’s Poor Whites, by Wayne Flynt, Indiana University Press; New Edition (October 19, 2004)

Poor but Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites, by Wayne Flynt, University Alabama Press (November 8, 2001).

All Over But the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg, Vintage (September 8, 1998).


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