Skip to main content

North Carolina at the Cross-Roads

ISSUE:  Winter 1930

After half a century of orderly industrial development, the last decade of which materially has been phenomenal, North Carolina within recent months has been rocked by labor disturbances whose violence has reverberated throughout the country. Strikes in textile mills at Gastonia and Marion have resulted in eight homicides; three unrestrained demonstrations of mob lawlessness; three mobilizations of the militia; the State’s most sensational and expensive trial in which twenty lawyers took part; more than three hundred arrests involving numerous other court cases; eviction or planned eviction of more than a hundred families from their homes; and inflammation of public sentiment to a degree seldom equalled in the history of the State. Beside this record, the strikes at Charlotte, Kannapolis and Concord in 1921 during the post-war period of deflation pale into comparative insignificance.

The root of the recent trouble was an attempt to organize textile operatives in a State where a large majority of these operatives have never had any form of labor organization and where a favorite advertisement has smugly proclaimed them “the most contented labor working under the best conditions in the United States.” This was carried on at Gastonia by the National Textile Workers Union, a Communist group which is outlawed by the American Federation of Labor; and at Marion by the United Textile Workers of America, a union affiliated with the American Federation. Comparison of the local reactions to these two opposed labor groups shows that although general opposition was louder and more continuously excited at Gastonia which had been invaded by the Communists, the actual toll in human life was exactly three times greater at Marion where the comparatively conservative U. T. W. was active. There was no appreciable difference in the attitude of the employers toward members of the two organizations, so far as compliance with their requests was concerned, When the Communists first came to Gastonia a wave of popular tenderness toward the A. F. of L. was noticeable, but when representatives of the Federation appeared a little later at Marion they were no more welcome than the radicals had been at Gastonia. At both places the strikes resulted in defeat for the workers, regardless of their affiliation.

On April 1 at Gastonia the National Textile Workers Union called a strike at the Loray mill, owned by, the Manville-Jenckes Company of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and approximately half of the twenty-two hundred workers employed there walked out. This strike was practically simultaneous with those at Elizabethton, Tennessee, and at Greenville, South Carolina. In February Fred Erwin Beal, a Communist labor organizer from Lawrence, Massachusetts, had been sent to Gastonia by the N. T. W. U., and organization of the Loray workers had been secretly in progress for some time before the strike began. Later Beal was joined by other Northern organizers.

The union considered the Loray mill, “the biggest tire fabric mill in the world under one roof,” as the key to Gaston County, and Gaston County, in turn, where there are more than a hundred mills, as the key, to the South. Dissatisfaction among the Loray workers made the time ripe for action, the chief grievance being the “stretch-out sys-mill had cut the pay-roll drastically while increasing tern.” By this method a very unpopular manager of the production, and although he had been supplanted several months before the strike began and conditions had improved somewhat, the workers were still nursing deep grudges. The “stretch-out system” which was likewise the cause of several minor strikes in towns near Gastonia means, in brief, that an operative is required to do more work either for the same pay or with an increase in pay entirely disproportionate to the increase in labor.

Abolition of this system was one of the main demands of the Gastonia strikers. Others were: elimination of all piece-work, hank or clock systems, and substitution of a standard wage, with a minimum of $20.00 for a forty-hour, five-day week; equal pay for equal work for women and youth; sanitary working and housing conditions; fifty per cent reduction of rent and light charges; and recognition of the union. Loray officials claim that the average weekly wage paid at the mill is $18.50—decidedly higher than the average of $13.28 for North Carolina, according to the U. S. Census of Manufactures—and that the minimum weekly wage is $10.20. An unbiased investigator, however, states that the average claimed by the mill includes wages paid all employees, counting many foremen, and that the minimum does not apply to piece-workers who are numerous and who receive from $7.00 a week up— occasionally as high as $30.00. The mill is supposed to observe the sixty-hour week allowed by the North Carolina law, although the strikers said that they worked longer.

Two days after the Loray workers walked out Governor Gardner dispatched five companies of the State militia to Gastonia at the request of the Mayor of the city and the Sheriff of the county. Estimates of the disorder which brought about the request for troops vary widely. Gastonia was greatly excited because of the activity of the radical organizers, excitement which steadily, increased as the strike progressed. The local paper, The Gazette, emitted daily tirades against the “Bolshevik invasion” and printed huge advertisements against the “Red menace” and in defense of one hundred per cent Americanism. Among the citizenry highly-colored reports circulated regarding the religious, social, political, and economic unorthodoxy of the invaders.

Bad feeling continued to brew hotly. Subsequent events at Gastonia are now so notorious that it is unnecessary here to review them in detail. They included: destruction of strikers’ headquarters under the very noses of the militia by a mob no member of which was apprehended; dispersing of picket-parades by police officers armed with bayonets and blackjacks who attacked and wounded a number of women; continuous arrests of strikers on flimsy charges and evictions of workers’ families from company houses; the shooting affray of June 7 when Police Chief Aderholdt was killed, for which seventy-one strikers were arrested, sixteen of whom were held for conspiracy to commit murder in the first degree; the prolonged, sensational trial interrupted by, the juror’s insanity; the unrestrained demonstrations of the mob on the night following the mistrial when union headquarters at Gastonia and Bessemer City were raided, three union members kidnapped, one beaten into unconsciousness, and defense counsel and defendants in the Aderholdt case threatened with lynching; the appalling climax of mob violence when Ella May Wiggins was shot down in flight on the highway; the shocking failure of the Grand Jury of Gaston County to indict anyone for her murder or for kidnapping and flogging the union men; and the conviction of seven defendants charged with the killing of Aderholdt, the brunt of the sentences falling on the four Northern organizers after a trial in which their unorthodoxy, religious, economic, and political, had been elaborated before the jury.


On July 11 about six hundred and fifty operatives of the Marion Manufacturing Company went on a strike which had been called by the United Textile Workers of America with Alfred Hoffman, who had been active at Elizabeth-ton, as chief organizer. Unlike the situation at Gastonia, at Marion the workers themselves had formed plans of organization and had applied to the U. T. W. for help. R. W. Baldwin, of Baltimore, is president of this mill, and most of the stock is held in that city. Incidentally, Mr. Baldwin is the gentleman who a few years ago hotly resented statements regarding mill conditions in the South made at a meeting of the Baltimore Open Forum by Paul Blanshard, then Field Secretary of the League for Industrial Democracy. Mr. Baldwin challenged Mr. Blanshard to find a single discontented man, woman, or child in his mill.

Strikers at the Baldwin plant, where about ninety per cent of the workers were organized, claimed that the mill was operating twelve hours and twenty minutes a day, in excess of the legal limit in the State which is a twelve-hour day and a sixty-hour week. Chief demands of the strikers were a ten-hour day for both night and day shifts without a corresponding cut in wages, which amounted to increased pay for the hours of work, and reinstatement of employees who, they said, had been discharged from the mill because of union membership. Mr. Baldwin immediately shut down the mill which remained closed for two months. He stated that the working hours did not exceed the legal limit and that the average weekly wage was around $14.00. Statements by strikers, however, are to the effect that a man operating sixteen looms received $10.80 a week, card hands $11.50, and card inspectors a maximum of $9.00.

Soon after the strike at the Baldwin mill a lock-out at the two Clinchfield mills in Marion was declared by, Mabry Hart, the president. Union members held that the lockout was called to prevent a strike, but Mr. Hart stated that it was due to business conditions. Workers here, who belonged to the same local of the United Textile Workers as those at the Baldwin mill, were only about forty per cent organized. There was no strike at the Clinchfield plant until an attempt to reopen the mill on August 19. Then the strikers’ demands were practically the same as those made by the workers at the Marion Manufacturing Company: fifty-five-hour week, twenty per cent increase in wages, reinstatement of discharged employees, and seats for women operatives in accordance with the State law. It was said that the Clinchfield mills also operated twelve hours and twenty minutes a day.

From the time of the Clinchfield lock-out until the massacre of workers at the gates of the Marion Manufacturing Company on October 2 there was constant trouble at Marion: dynamiting and shooting at night, with one explosion in an out-building of the Clinchfield mill; pickets molested and threatened; refusal of strikers to allow the Clinchfield plant to reopen on August 19 until troops were called; violent resistance to eviction of families of workers from the Clinchfield village, for which on August 31 seventy-four strikers were arrested on charges of insurrection and rebellion against the State. With the questionable example of Gastonia before them, the members of the Marion Board of Aldermen passed an anti-parade ordinance to forestall a proposed parade by the strikers on Labor Day. Evidently, the Gaston example also inspired the militia at Marion who allowed a drunken non-unionist to shoot up the strikers’ headquarters within less than a hundred yards of a patrolling sentry. The sentry refused to interfere on the ground that the shooting was out of his jurisdiction, an exclusive position in which he was later upheld by his commanding officer who stated that the troops were in Marion to protect mill property and not to help keep the peace unless requested to do so by the sheriff. Until the massacre the Clinchfield mills were the center of most of the trouble. Then, however, in sport parlance, the Marion Manufacturing Company “came up from behind.” From August 16 until September 10 Judge N. A. Town-send, the personal representative of Governor Gardner, had been almost continuously in Marion and had made every effort to settle the strikes through conferences by representatives of both factions, a method urged by the Governor. There had been a complete breakdown of negotiations on August 28, for which Judge Townsend unequivocally blamed the mill men. However, on September 10 the Judge was able to effect a settlement which represented virtually the defeat of the strikers. According to this agreement which affected both the Clinchfield mills and the Marion Manufacturing Company, the mills were to operate fifty-five hours a week at the same wage per hour as when they had run sixty, which meant less money for the operatives. At the end of six weeks the management was to submit to the employees the question as to whether they, wished to remain on this schedule or go back to the former one. It was further agreed that there was to be no discrimination against members of the union, and that the management would hear employees who had grievances. Under this agreement, the Marion Manufacturing Company reopened on September 11, the Clinchfield plants having resumed work with day shifts only on August 20. Later both mills voluntarily raised the pay of their employees by five per cent.

Violation of the agreement not to discriminate against unionists by officials of the Marion Manufacturing Company is said to have been the cause of a spontaneous walkout of workers there at 1:00 o’clock in the morning of October 2, and the killing of six strikers soon after when the shifts changed at 6:45. After the walkout and before the change of shifts a large number of strikers had congregated at the mill gates which were guarded by the Sheriff and ten deputies—it has been said, by special arrangement with one of the company officials. According to the Sheriff, when the strikers refused to disperse peacefully as he ordered them to do, he shot tear gas into the crowd. Whereupon John Jonas, a striker sixty-three years old, hit the Sheriff with a stick and they grappled. Accounts of what followed are confused, each faction claiming that the first shot was fired by, the other. But, according to a reporter for The Asheville Citizen who was an eye-witness, the officers with deadly aim shot into the crowd between sixty and seventy-five times, killing or wounding twenty-four persons as they tried to escape the tear gas. Six strikers were killed, all dying from wounds in their backs. “I can’t describe it,” said this reporter. “It was more like a nightmare than anything else. Here these poor devils were running for their lives and the officers were shooting them down like dogs.” This newspaperman and another from the same paper, who also was present, both say that they saw no firing by the strikers.

The Sheriff, the Superintendent of the Baldwin mill, and sixteen deputies and mill employees were arrested, eight of whom were held for trial on a charge of second degree murder and conspiracy. The Sheriff and the Superintendent were among those released. Thirty-two strikers were arrested, charged with insurrection and rebellion. While the hearing on the wholesale killing was in progress Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Hart renewed their efforts to evict eighty-nine families from the two mill villages. These families include about three hundred persons, more than one hundred of whom are children.


Such is the bloody story of Gastonia and Marion, a fearful story of passion and death, a story of the efforts of workers, not always well-advised, to lift themselves and their children into a fuller life, only to be met with blackjacks and bayonets, some to be halted forever by the shots of a mob or the bullets of the law in their backs. It is a story which has sickened many citizens of the State in which the tragic events occurred, as it has shocked thousands throughout the country.

What will come of it no man can tell. There are those who prophesy that this is only the beginning of serious and long-continued labor troubles in North Carolina unless the State will quickly learn its lesson. Absorbed in the materialism which its new industrial prosperity almost inevitably has brought, North Carolina has neglected the human problems of the Industrial Revolution which has been its economic salvation. It has ignored the history of other sections where this great change has taken place and by whose experience the State might have profited. It has not been sufficiently, interested in the welfare of the men and women and children who operate its machines. But the worm is beginning to turn, and if Gastonia and Marion are prophetic, the turning will be a violent convulsion. There is prospect of increased efforts to organize the Southern textile workers through drives in this section planned by both the American Federation of Labor and the Communists. The presence of the latter aggravates the situation. Although there seem to be comparatively few of them, they have made rather surprising headway among the much-advertised Anglo-Saxon workers, and they loudly proclaim that they are in the South to stay. It may be, however, that their revolutionary views and their extravagant methods will serve to turn the currents of dissatisfaction which now agitate this conservative Southern labor into saner channels of organization through the American Federation.

At any rate, if she is wise North Carolina will begin to put her house in order. The laxity of the labor laws in this State is well known. Mills in North Carolina legally may run twelve hours a day and sixty hours a week, and there is no State agency, responsible for the enforcement of even this requirement. Night work for women is permitted, and children who have finished the fourth grade in school may work as long as eleven hours a day, the eight-hour child labor restriction enacted by the N. C. General Assembly of 1927 applying only to children who have not finished that grade. It was only the Assembly of 1929 which passed a Workmen’s Compensation law sponsored by Governor Gardner.

Throughout the recent disorders the Governor has shown a disposition to be fair and a desire to improve conditions, though no great heart for setting about the task. But he himself is a mill-owner, and many of his most influential friends are members of this group. He has, however, publicly declared himself as favoring the fifty-five hour week and its rigid enforcement with strict penalty for violation, as well as discontinuance of night work for girls under eighteen years old. “We cannot build a prosperous citizenship on low wages,” he has said, but he thinks that before the problem of wages can be solved in North Carolina it may be necessary to work out some plan in joint conference with other manufacturing States in the South where mills are in competition with those here. During the Marion strikes the Governor spoke of the necessity, of a board of arbitration for settlement of industrial disputes, but as yet he has taken no steps towards its establishment.

It is very likely that Governor Gardner will urge at least some of the measures which he favors during the session of the General Assembly of 1931. Almost certainly some form of improved labor legislation will be enacted by the Legislature at its next session. The State, no doubt, has been shocked out of its complacency. The minority, including several State-wide organizations of women, which previously has vainly urged more progressive labor laws, is now more than ever aware of their necessity. Although organized labor in North Carolina, represented by the State Federation of Labor, is comparatively weak, it has been profoundly stirred by the Marion tragedy, which may, result in a more aggressive policy. The Federation kept hands off at Gastonia where the Communists were in charge of operations, but has been in close touch with the situation at Marion where the “regular” United Textile Workers were active.

During the industrial riots, the North Carolina press has, on the whole, been unprejudiced, with a tendency toward moderate liberalism, although there have been conspicuous exceptions here and there, notably at Charlotte and Gastonia where bad feeling was most intense. The Raleigh News and Observer has taken the lead in championing the rights of the workers.

Certainly the situation as it stands presents one of the most serious challenges ever thrown down to the State. On the one hand, under a policy of wisdom and justice, there is the possibility of orderly industrial development whose benefits are shared by both workers and employers and where the rights of both are recognized. On the other, with continuance of a policy of laissez-faire, there is the prospect of sad repetition of the disorders which have followed the Industrial Revolution in other sections. The people of North Carolina must definitely choose now between these two roads. Says the Governor: “This State has within its citizenship the intelligence and the will to bring about a constructive solution of the problems arising in the change from a predominantly agricultural to an industrial commonwealth in the relation of employee to employer, and in the building of a democratic citizenship on law and order. We have the will to succeed and succeed we will.”

Will we? This is a question which vitally affects not only North Carolina but indirectly the South and the whole country. Only time can answer it.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading