Marcia Walker-McWilliams correctly asserts in her fine study of trade unionist Addie Wyatt that “the role of black women as trade unionists and active members of the labor movement and their communities … remains woefully understudied” (6–7). Reverend Addie Wyatt makes a valuable contribution toward filling this critical gap in labor movement scholarship. Not only does this book shine a strong spotlight on black women workers at the very center of the American labor movement in the last half of the twentieth century, it also illuminates the complex relationships of faith, race, class, and gender in the human struggle for liberation from social and economic oppression of all people, regardless of race or gender. Walker-McWilliams’s story of Addie Wyatt’s remarkable life illustrates how all these categories intersected in the life of this one extraordinary woman. This is truly a story worth telling a new generation. The author, through her extensive research in archival repositories and collections, personal interviews, and oral histories, and in secondary source materials from a variety of historical disciplines (labor, religious, African American, and social movement history, to identify a few), tells this story extraordinarily well. Walker-McWilliams begins Addie Wyatt’s story in 1975, when she was the director of the Women’s Affairs Department of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, and had just been selected as one of Time magazine’s twelve Women of the Year. At that time in her life, Wyatt was well known as one of Chicago’s most outspoken labor activists. She had been the first African American woman president of Local 56 of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Walker-McWilliams then traces Wyatt’s life through seven transitional periods, each one focusing on a unique aspect of Wyatt’s activism and her commitment to working-class, civil, religious, and gender rights. Born in 1924, Wyatt participated in the “great migration north” around the turn of the twentieth century, when so many other African American people fled the harsh conditions of the South’s Jim Crow system. As a young child, Wyatt’s journey to Chicago from Mississippi reflected a familiar journey of these times. In order to escape the cycle of urban poverty, she married Claude Wyatt Jr., a migrant from Texas, at the young age of sixteen. The narrative affirms the important role that black churches played in enabling rural migrants to adjust to their new urban settings. As a young couple, the Wyatts found the Langley Avenue Church of God, a congregation associated with the larger Holiness-Pentecostal movement, a particularly helpful institution that enabled them to survive and thrive. As Walker-McWilliams asserts, “Decades later as an adult, Addie Wyatt would craft her own theology of gender equality informed by her early experiences in the Church of God” (31). Another interesting aspect of Addie Wyatt’s formative years in Chicago was her connection to the new experimental housing project for World War II defense workers, Altgeld Gardens. In this cohesive, progressive community and model public housing project, Wyatt blended her religious activities with her interest in local politics and community affairs. Walker-McWilliams argues that it was her “skill and ability to minister and lead in Altgeld” (65) that led to her later success as an effective organizer in the UPWA. Although her life centered on her church and family, Wyatt’s essential identity grew from the fact that she was always a working woman. But it was the strong foundation of family, church, and community connections that enabled Wyatt to increasingly take on leadership roles in her professional life. Walker-McWilliams tells this progressive story in the last five chapters, which focus first on Wyatt’s growing involvement with trade unionism; second on how she combined her interest in civil rights and women’s rights in her union activities; and finally on her fully fleshed-out identity as a “Black Christian Feminist.” This biography of Reverend Addie Wyatt comes at a crucial time in the United States’ ongoing experiment in a democracy “of the people, by the people, for the people.” As her biographer asserts, “the philosophical thread that held together [Wyatt’s] participation in the organized labor, civil rights, women’s rights, and religious movements was the desire for equality and a better way of life” (217). Walker-McWilliams correctly points out in her conclusion that all the things that Wyatt fought for throughout her life—women’s leadership roles in church and political institutions, women’s reproductive rights, fairer working-class conditions, and so much more—have come under increasing attack and restrictive setbacks. There is no doubt that this country could use a few more Reverend Addie Wyatts right now! © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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