By Gerry Scoppettuolo
On a hot dusty day in September 1949, 34-year-old Moranda Smith strode bravely down the main street of Apopka, Florida. The Klan was after her and she knew it. The night before, a group of Klansmen had kidnapped a Black man and tried to force him to reveal where she was staying. They threatened his life and forced his face into the ground, but he would not reveal her whereabouts. They left his beaten body on the streets for all to see as a warning. When “Sister Smith”, as she was known, learned of this she marched alone through the city the next day, to show that she – and her union, Food and Tobacco Workers CIO (originally the United Cannery Workers Union, UCAPAWA) – were not afraid.
At the time, Moranda Smith was the Southern Regional Director of the Food and Tobacco Workers Union CIO (FTA), a union with over 100,000 members and a powerhouse in the Jim Crow south. At the time (1949-50) Smith was the highest elected African American woman in organized labor and likely, the highest elected woman in labor, overall. Her union was led, like her, by a cadre of dedicated communists Black and white, revolutionaries who unafraid took on the prevailing political power of the ruling white supremacist establishment in Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina and other localities throughout the south.
Sister Smith had been traveling throughout the region visiting her many union locals, trying to defend the FTA from raids and hostile takeovers by both the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Often traveling by bus and eating in segregated restaurants she would find overnight accommodations in the homes of her rank and file, usually Black and white women. She was on a desperate mission to save her union which by that time did not have access to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ballot or its legal protections after the passage of the Taft-Harley Right to Work law in 1947 which required union leaders to sign a non-communist affidavit in order to access the protections and rights guaranteed in the 1935 Wagner Act.
Although the CIO had been the beacon of progressive labor and the civil rights movement since 1936 during the Popular Front era, by 1947 it had new cold war leadership led by longtime anti-communist Walter Reuther of the UAW. The CIO began purging its own ranks by way of the loyalty oath in 1946 even before Taft Hartley was signed into law in 1947.
The assault on the FTA by the CIO and the NLRB government apparatus, followed the collapse of the CIO’s Operation Dixie in1946 which had been touted as a campaign to organize the south on a non-racial basis. By the end of that year, it was apparent that this effort had mostly failed. Operation Dixie director Van Bittner refused to allow radical unions like the FTA to take part despite their successes in organizing. Instead, the campaign focused on white workers who worked in the racially segregated textile industry. Their union, the old AFL Textile Workers, had been routed in the massive textile workers general strike of 1934, but only after a rank-and-file prairie fire of 400,000 workers defied their backward AFL leadership organizing mill after mill from Maine to the Carolinas. The biggest strike in U.S. history would only be put down by US army machine guns and the murder of ten strikers.
By 1936 John L Lewis and the United Mine Workers had successfully challenged the racist, craft-oriented AFL and launched a historic campaign in basic industry uniting Black and white workers as never before on an inclusive industrial basis with the full cooperation of the National Negro Congress (1936-1947). In 1937 Lewis gave a CIO charter to the communist-led Cannery Workers Union, UCAPAWA, soon to be renamed the Food and Tobacco Workers Union CIO.
In 1941 the union sent Black organizer Owen Whitfield to begin organizing the 10,000 workers, 60% Black and 40% white at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Moranda Smith was one of those workers toiling as a “slave by another name” as a stemmer tearing tobacco leaves off their stalks with her bare hands all day. She was in her early 20’s and destined for a meteoric rise from the factory floor to national leadership in the labor movement in just a few short years.
Smith, Velma Hopkins, Robert Black and Theodosia Smith were workers who became undisputed leaders of their union, Local 22. FTA had an intentional communist program of advancing into leadership women of color, a practice begun in the beet fields and canneries of California among migrant Filipino, Japanese and Mexican workers. Some, like Moranda Smith, Velma Hopkins and Joe Black joined the communist party because of its fierce anti-racist reputation in all-out struggles to defend, Black workers like Angelo Herndon and the Scottsboro 9.
Moranda Smith would soon become the fiercest and bravest Black communist labor leader of them all, after first becoming the Educational Director of the Union and then in 1949 the FTA’s Southern Regional Director. She led voter drives that registered thousands of first time Black voters and elected Willie Grier, alderman in Winston-Salem in 1946, the first African American since Reconstruction to be elected to such a position. Her co-workers referred to her as “aggressive” and militant, someone who would never back down from a fight.
Ed McRae, a fellow communist organizer of the union in 1943, (and friend of the author) knew her to be a same gender loving woman although she never publicly defined herself in terms of her sexual orientation. At first, white Reynolds company negotiators would refuse to even speak to her during contract talks. Soon her coworkers would instruct those white men to “address your remarks to Sister Smith” during negotiations.
But by 1950 then Food and Tobacco workers and nine other CIO unions were expelled from the CIO at the height of the national state-sponsored purge of communists and progressives from organized labor. Despite that action, the FTA remained an organized force and Moranda Smith never stopped organizing her rank and file until her untimely death at the age of 34 in April 1950. Under constant pressure from red-baiting and racism, she suffered a stroke at a union meeting. She had known her health was in jeopardy. Friends had urged her to give up her two pack a day smoking habit but to no avail. The great Paul Robeson sang at her funeral in Winston Salem, attended by an overflow crowd of five thousand. Her accomplishments stand today as a beacon to all revolutionaries.
Conversations with Ed and Bea McRae, Nashville 1989-1990 Black and White Together: Organizing in the South with the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers Union (FTA-CIO), 1946-1952, Karl Korstad,
Civil Rights Unionism, Robert Korstad. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Civil_Rights_Unionism/5MOtXyGrG7IC?hl=en
Moranda Smith. Black Past https://archive.org/details/redfeminismameri0000weig/mode/2up
Red Feminism, American Communism and the Making of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Kate Weigand
Women and the Anti Ku Klux Klan Movement. 1865-1984, Patricia A, Gozema and Marilyn Humphries