THE JOURNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY
Vol.73 No.3

November 30, 1986

The Killing Floor

By James R. Barrett

Many of the  important social conflicts tearing at the fabric of American society  during the red summer of 1919 seem to have been concentrated on  Chicago's South Side. The dramatic expansion of the meat-packing  industry and the wartime labor shortage had created a new working class,  bringing thousands of blacks from the Deep South to join earlier waves  of Irish and Slavic migrants in the city's giant slaughterhouses. While  racial antagonism grew with competition for scarce jobs, housing, and  recreational facilities, rising labor militancy reached the boiling  point. For a brief historical moment, Chicago became the focal point for  racial and class conflict in the United States. Could organizers break  the color barrier and create an interracial labor movement, or would  racism triumph over class solidarity? The answer was by no means clear,  and The Killing Floor brilliantly captures the drama of the moment as  well as the historical forces that produced it. The film's success derives from its reliance on historical characters  and situations that have been carefully developed through extensive  research in primary sources.

The story follows Frank Custer, a young black man, from rural  Mississippi to Chicago's Black Belt as he looks for work and a better  life for his family. In the flush wartime economy, Custer hires on as a  common laborer and saves enough to bring his family to Chicago. Like  most of his fellow migrants, he is resistant at first to the Stockyards  Labor Council recruiters but soon joins the union and throws himself  into organizing, for reasons that are not entirely clear. With the  armistice, unemployment and labor conflict become endemic, and on the  killing floor itself, Custer senses "somethin'  waitin' to happen."

The race riot of  July 1919, one of twenty-five that occurred throughout the nation in  that year, presented men and woman like Custer with a personal crisis.  In the Black Belt Custer is denounced as a “white man’s nigger” for his  affiliation with the union. At the Stockyards Labor Council meeting, in  the heart of immigrant Packingtown, he is shouted down by Slavic workers  who believe that blacks have burned their homes. In the end, Custer  reenters the stockyards under military protection along with thousands  of other blacks.

The Killing Floor's most important achievement may be its realistic  description of the complex consciousness of black workers in that era. A  variety of antilabor elements within the black community emerge  clearly--institutions such as the Wabash  Avenue YMCA, which received  most of its support from the packers and other large employers, and  “race men” such as Austin  "Heavy" Williams who, whether for money or  for principle, agitated constantly against  "the white man' s union."  But the Black Belt was also home to such man as Robert Bedford, a  staunchly class-conscious, northern-born shop steward in the largely  white gang on the killing floor. In the film, as in real life, Bedford  and Williams represent ideal types; most black workers' attitudes were  far more mixed. Above all, blacks valued their new homes, their jobs,  and all that those meant for their families. In wartime, with the  economy and the government on their side, some of them saw the value of  organizing with whites.


Frank  Custer was not alone. During the 1919 riot, however, race consciousness  dominated thinking on both sides of the color line, and there was  little room for those, such as Custer, who straddled that line.  "Nigger," Williams shouts, "you done forgot where you come from!"  

The film's central theme--the tension between race consciousness and  class consciousness--transcends the situation of Chicago's workers  during the summer of 1919 and represents a key theme in working-class  history. The human drama of Frank Custer's personal dilemma will have a  very broad appeal, while the film’s sophisticated analysis will make it a  natural focal point for discuss any class dealing with modern American  society.