The Indomitable Rev. Addie L. Wyatt

The Indomitable Rev. Addie L. Wyatt

The trailblazing Black labor leader and civil rights activist took her fight for equality from the packinghouse to the pulpit.


When she reported to work for her first day at Armour and Company’s meatpacking plant in 1941, Addie L. Wyatt was not planning on becoming a labor activist. She didn’t even really want to be a butcher, but after spending weeks applying for work as a typist and being rejected each time, the young Southern transplant was growing desperate. The meatpacking workers at Armour’s sprawling Chicago facility had a union, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), and drew a good wage; Wyatt had a family to support, so despite her lack of butchering experience, the five-foot tall, 100-pound 17-year-old decided to give it a shot. An exasperated foreman tossed her off the line, but as she was leaving, Wyatt noticed a group of white women waiting to apply for clerical positions. She slipped in and took the typing test with them, passing easily thanks to skills she’d acquired in a high school typing course. Those who had passed were told to report to work on Monday, but when Wyatt showed up, she was instead directed to the factory floor, and told to join the other Black women canning stew. At Armour—and in so many other places then—Black women were not welcome in the front office.

What happened to Wyatt that day was not unique, or even unexpected. During the 1940s, Black women across the country were forced to endure these kinds of humiliations just to earn a living. This phenomenon was not new then, and it is not new now, when Black women still make on average 63 cents to the white man’s dollar and continue to face racism, discrimination, and misogynoir (as well as classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and various other forms of oppression) on the job, in the courts, and throughout society. Wyatt’s politics and identity as a Black Christian feminist trade unionist drove her to push back against an unfair system, and she fought even harder because she had come up against it herself. If today’s union leaders can be criticized as too meek, too comfortable, too conservative, and too quiet on pressing social and racial justice issues, they need only to look back at trailblazers like Addie L. Wyatt. She was a poor Black woman born into the Jim Crow South who harnessed the power of solidarity, collective action, faith, and sheer grit to change the course of history. Every union should know her name, and every union leader should aspire to the example she set.

That incident at Armour had set off a series of events that saw a furious and determined young Wyatt channel her indignation and hurt into action. After she’d been shunted off to the canning department, she stayed at Armour because she needed the money; the pay for canning stew was 62 cents an hour. As she later told interviewer Joan McGann Morris, “If you were black like me and got hired at all, you might have earned something like $8 a week. Of course, $24 a week was more money than I had ever seen in my life.” Wyatt discovered that the UPWA not only did not discriminate against women or Black workers but had in fact put significant effort into becoming a model of militant, multiracial solidarity. (The UPWA required each of its union locals to have an antidiscrimination department, which must have been a relief for Wyatt to see after the rude welcome she’d been given by her racist employers.) She joined the union in 1941, and almost immediately began seeing the benefits of her decision. When Armour tried to fire her and hire a white woman in her place, the UPWA used its seniority clause to protect her job. When she became pregnant with her second child, Wyatt again feared she would be fired, but thanks to concessions bargained in the UPWA contract by union women before her, Wyatt found she was actually eligible for up to one year of parental leave.

Through her involvement with the union, Wyatt saw how rank-and-file unionized workers could improve their material conditions and build power in the workplace by coming together. By 1953, she had risen through the ranks to become the first Black woman to hold the office of vice president for Chicago’s UPWA Local 56. She was elected president soon afterward, representing workers across a five-state region. “Racism and sexism is an economic issue,” she later reflected. “It was very profitable to discriminate against women and against people of color. I began to understand that change could come but you could not do it alone. You had to unite with others. That was one of the reasons I became a part of the union. It was a sort of family that would help in the struggle.”

Wyatt was a child of the Great Migration. She was born Addie Cameron in Brookhaven, Miss., in 1924, and moved to Chicago with her large family when she was 6 years old. When Addie was 4, a mob lynched two Black men a short distance from her family home; two years later, when her father, Ambrose, got into a physical fight with his white boss, he took no chances and immediately left town, sending for the family a few months later. Like many other Southern Black families who’d left home to escape Jim Crow and landed in cramped, unfamiliar, chillier climes, the Camerons struggled to adjust. Though both of her parents were skilled tradespeople—her mother a seamstress, her father a tailor—the Great Depression made it difficult for them to find steady work, and they had to rely on relatives and supplemental assistance to get by. When her mother died in 1944, Addie took in her five younger siblings as well as caring for her own children with husband Claude, the high school sweetheart she had married at age 16.

Family and economic concerns were always on her mind, but even as she became more deeply involved in labor, she found herself consumed by the fight for civil rights and racial justice as well as the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. To Wyatt, all three struggles were intertwined; as she once said, “I was fighting on behalf of workers, fighting as a black, and fighting as a female.” By then, she had been called to serve as an international representative for her union, a post she would hold until 1974. Her experience as a Black feminist union leader inspired her to push for unions to take a more consciously intersectional approach when handling workplace issues and organizing an increasingly diverse workforce. In 1956, when she was working as a program coordinator for District One of the UPWA, hers was the first union to invite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to visit Chicago—to be presented with funds for the Montgomery Improvement Association, which had recently been formed to direct the boycott of segregated public buses in Alabama. “I had to cover five states to raise funds so that we would have our quota,” Wyatt remembered. “Thank God, we did very well because, number one, I had faith in God, faith in the movement, and faith in the people, white and black, that we were serving. We raised the largest amount of any district in our union.”

After that, she and Claude developed a close friendship and working relationship with King. They were arrested with him in Selma, and took part in the March on Washington; she was part of the initial cohort of MIA members who brought powerhouse queer Black labor organizer Bayard Rustin down to Montgomery. Thanks to her leadership and that of other Black union leaders like UPWA Vice President Russell R. Lasley, the UPWA also played a key role in the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, donating 80 percent of the organization’s first-year operating costs. The union also held fundraising drives to raise money for sit-ins and freedom rides, as well as furnishing legal support. Wyatt was later invited to serve as a labor adviser to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and she and Claude were founding members of the SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket in 1962, working alongside the Rev. Jesse Jackson to distribute food relief to 12 American cities. “The United Packinghouse Workers of America has set an example for every democratic organization in the nation,” Dr. King said in a 1962 address to the union. “Indeed, if labor as a whole, if the administration in Washington, matched your concern and your deeds, the civil rights problem would not be a burning national shame, but a problem long solved and in its solution a luminous accomplishment in the best tradition of American principles.”

While she was consumed by her civil rights work, Wyatt was also balancing her commitments in labor and the feminist movement, as well as her faith. She had become an ordained minister in 1955, and she and her husband founded the Vernon Park Church of God, where they acted as copastors, organized grassroots protests, and fundraised for civil rights causes. The Reverend Wyatt was determined to lift up all of her people as she continued to climb. In 1962, she was appointed to President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, and served on its Labor Legislation Committee on Eleanor Roosevelt’s recommendation. In 1966, following several years of talks inspired by those findings, she became one of the cofounders of the National Organization for Women and an outspoken advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment—a goal that, sadly, is yet to be realized.

Wyatt cofounded the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in 1972 and chaired its National Women’s Committee, working to open up more paths to union leadership for Black women. The UPWA merged with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America in 1968, but Wyatt kept her position as international representative until 1974. That was a busy year for Addie; not only was she tapped to lead the union’s first Women’s Affairs Department, she and Willa Mae Sudduth cofounded the Coalition of Labor Union Women, a nonprofit group that sought to forge strong connections between the labor and the feminist movements. In 1975, she was named one of Time magazine’s Women of the Year for “speaking out effectively against sexual and racial discrimination in hiring, promotion and pay” and in 1977 was similarly honored by Ladies’ Home Journal. When the Amalgamated and the Retail Clerks International Union merged into the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in 1979, Wyatt became the ​​first Black woman to be elected international vice president of a major American labor union. She held that post until 1984, when she retired from her union duties and returned to the Vernon Park Church of God to serve as its full-time pastor.

Wyatt’s life as a leader and activist can be broken down into a seemingly endless list of accolades and accomplishments, but those only give us so much insight into the real woman behind all of those incredible achievements (though I would recommend reading Marcia Walker-McWilliams’s excellent Reverend Addie Wyatt: Faith and the Fight for Labor, Gender, and Racial Equality for deeper insights into Wyatt’s faith and personal life). Her truest legacy may be in the work she did on the factory floor, on the picket lines, and at the pulpit. She spent years listening, organizing, and advocating with and for her fellow workers; allying herself with the poor, ignored, and oppressed; uplifting her fellow Black women; and forcing an industry, a movement, and, later, a world that seldom gave them a second thought to make space for them. She occupies an outsize place in American labor history, whether or not the history books care to show it.

“Our women’s movement started in the organized labor movement, because one of our greatest themes was to make life better for women,” Wyatt once said. “We had to stir them up and we had to talk to our women about why we were really discriminated against. It has nothing to do with who has to do the more difficult jobs. It was because we were female and it was profitable to discriminate against somebody, and the somebodies that were discriminated against were those who were of color and those who were female; also, those who lived in geographical locations that were in the South. We had to make a change.”

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