A new exhibit at Georgia State University, Fighting for Freedom, explores the connected histories of labor unions and civil rights organizations in the South.

The archive contains documents from throughout the 20th century but focuses on the 1960s civil rights movement and its intersection with the labor movement. The exhibit also spotlights local leaders and activists from nationwide groups including the American Federation of Labor and Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

GSU archivist Lisa Vallen said she hopes the exhibit will help workers who are organizing for better rights today.

“We have some very heavy things in this exhibit and a lot of, just, racism that is exposed,” Vallen said. “And so, thinking about what was happening then, and how are we seeing any themes happening today that can relate?”

The exhibit — which includes photographs, newspaper clippings, departmental records and audiovisual recordings — suggests that politicians and employers in the South used race as a tool to divide working-class white people from their Black co-workers. This kept large-scale efforts to integrate and unionize the South from succeeding.

Vallen said some labor historians recognize that the root of opposition to labor unions in the South began long before the 1900s.

“The anti-union sentiments in the South, you can trace back to slavery, and we've carried this with us, and making all of these Southern states 'right-to-work' states definitely has put a chill on it,” she said.

The exhibit was opened with a panel of local experts talking about the history of challenges to labor unions in the South. Speakers included associate professors Dr. Maurice Hobson and Dr. Robert Woodrum, as well as Eric Richardson, the executive director of the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council, and Deborah Scott, CEO of Georgia STAND-UP.


Fighting for Freedom: Labor and Civil Rights in the American South exhibit opening and panel discussion.

Scott said young people were key organizers in the 1960s, and they are still important today.

“Tapping into the rage that our young people have and getting them educated and organized is the key,” she said. “It’s not about telling them the history and not being out there when they’re in the streets when George Floyd gets killed or anyone else in Atlanta gets killed.”

The archives will be available for viewing at the Georgia State University Library and digitally.