Marcia Walker-McWilliams's Reverend Addie Wyatt is a deeply informative biography of a nationally renowned labor, civil rights, and religious leader based in post–World War II black Chicago. Walker-McWilliams has discovered more about Rev. Addie Wyatt's life than any other scholar, ranging from stories about Wyatt's background in Mississippi that Wyatt herself had not known to her role as elder stateswoman in the late twentieth-century labor movement. This is a much-anticipated, important biography of a key figure in postwar U.S. history. In Walker-McWilliams's treatment, Wyatt's life provides a unique view of how big historical forces—the Great Migration; the development of women's roles in black churches, mid-twentieth-century labor, civil rights, and feminist movements; the growth and decline of the New Deal state; the evolution of gospel music; the rise of independent black urban political organizations; and workers' responses to the deindustrialization of cities—grew out of and profoundly shaped the lives of seemingly ordinary people. Wyatt's life shows, for instance, how essential good public housing, unionized workplaces, and federal support for workers' and women's rights were to working-class progress in the postwar era. With such support, Wyatt advanced from rank-and-file worker during World War II to local union representative in the late 1940s to the highest echelons of organized labor by the early 1980s. Her rise was not easy. As a working-class black woman she faced multiple overlapping forms of discrimination. Yet in the postwar context, she was able to go from being a young mother struggling to make a life in the big city to leadership roles in interconnected movements against these intersectional forms of exclusion and exploitation. Wyatt's story, as presented here, forces a reckoning with how different her times were from our own deunionized, hyperindividualistic era. Her career highlights the immense amount of collective, often-tedious work that went into building social movements and working-class institutions. It also demonstrates how important those institutions were to workers in the postwar food-processing industry, where hundreds of thousands of workers found good union jobs in occupations from meat cutting to canning to retail grocery work. In the years since Wyatt retired from the labor movement in the early 1980s, those unions have been destroyed and those jobs have become increasingly more dangerous, more precarious, and lower paid. Wyatt supported a life as a minister, community leader, parent, musician, and political activist through industrial work and paid activism. How many potential Reverend Wyatts are working in similar food-processing jobs today, without the institutional support to become similar kinds of leaders in their local communities? Although generally well written, the book never reaches the heights of a great biography. Readers may wish for a more acute sense of contingency in the narrative and a more intimate view into Wyatt's life. Though Walker-McWilliams draws on interviews with and oral histories of Wyatt, she often resorts to conjecture about Wyatt's motivations and the finer textures of her personal and working relationships. Nonetheless, Wyatt's life is historically important, and Walker-McWilliams has distilled her narrative into a rich resource for scholars and graduate students in the fields of black studies and civil rights, urban, and women's histories. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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