From the January-February 2021 issue of News & Letters
The movement lost a powerful voice for workers’ liberty, self-development and freedom when Sarah White died of a heart attack on Oct. 5, 2020. While educated to be a teacher, her whole life changed—as did the lives of workers in South USA—when she took a job at ConAgra catfish processing plant in the early 1980s and a few years later began working at Delta Pride catfish plant in Indianola, Miss. There, Black women, many of them single mothers, made $240 for a 40-hour week—$6/hr—where they killed, gutted, filleted, or skinned 50 to 60 thousand catfish—12 to 25 a minute.
SARAH LED HISTORIC STRIKE FOR DIGNITY
Sarah, who worked on the “kill line,” helped organize a strike that changed the relationship between catfish workers and owners. She saw helping other workers as her life’s work. She made the point many times to us that workers striking wasn’t all about the money, “It’s about dignity, about being treated with respect.”
When talking of the strike at Delta Pride, she said: “It came down to restroom breaks. We got another five or six cents an hour, but the strike centered on bathroom rights. Management told us they gave us six breaks [a week], but since we said no, [they said] we were going to have to go once a day–at lunchtime. They added five minutes to our lunch break and said we would have to go then. We couldn’t abide it. We tired of it. The workers couldn’t abide it anymore. I’ve had a [male] supervisor walk into the restroom and tell me, ‘Get up, Sarah. You’ve been sitting there too long.’ That don’t happen no more. The civil rights movement changed a lot of things.”
In 1990 the workers struck. A thousand and more walked out in a strike that lasted four months. It was the biggest labor action up to that time in Mississippi, and Sarah, as one of its leaders, took on responsibilities for traveling widely and speaking in public to get the issues known. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Oct. 8, 1990), she was cheered by a huge crowd when she said that the “plantation mentality, it still exists. We’re going down in history as Black women in Mississippi who tried to do something.”
But that life’s work was not confined to unions, of which Sarah had a deep critique. When asked how she felt about being a union organizer, she responded: “It will give me a chance to do what’s in my heart. I believe I can make a difference in the state of Mississippi, or wherever they send me, but especially here because this is my home. I know people have been struggling for years and years to make this an equal, just place for people to grow and not live in the poverty they are living in.
“If I could change Delta Pride—and that’s one of the toughest struggles I’ve been through—there’s other plants here I can change. Just think if people in Mississippi had those good benefits and the medical insurance for their kids. Do you see how good it would be? A lot of people took this union job because they could advance materially up the ladder. But if most of those people who took that job took it to change people’s whole minds and attitude, then Mississippi wouldn’t be so bad like it is.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-DEVELOPMENT
The union couldn’t satisfy Sarah because she recognized that what was important to her was the concept of self-development—her own as well as the workers she worked and lived with. That is what she wanted for them. When she gave the Welcome to the 1997 Plenum of News and Letters Committees, she put it this way: “I’m still going to work there [at Delta Pride], I’m the same. But it don’t make me happy because there’s no learning experience there. There’s nothing to do, there’s no taking on a task and fulfilling it and accomplishing it and putting it on the shelf and saying I’m going on. That’s the way I am.
“I think this is what Raya was talking about when she talked about the ‘quest for universality.’ I just want to see Delta Pride here and one day, News and Letters Committees will be sitting over here as far as in my head, and I will have accomplished learning what I need to learn and know the whole history. So if me and Franklin get to arguing I can shoot back what Raya [Dunayevskaya] said, just as well as he can. That’s an accomplishment and I’m the type of person who likes to achieve and it ain’t at Delta Pride no more. Marx talked about ‘the absolute movement of becoming.’ That’s what I mean when I talk about being self-developing.”
Sarah White, who wrote for News & Letters for many years under the name of Sarah Hamer to honor the Civil Rights giant Fannie Lou Hamer, wanted that self-development not only for herself but for every worker in the Delta and beyond. That’s what she devoted her life to as a worker, a union organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, an organizer for the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights, or as a member of News and Letters Committees.
That Sarah White died so young is a tragedy, not only for those she left behind, but for the future of the freedom movement that had so much to learn and gain from her actions and ideas. She changed the world and made it better and we can honor her by continuing that work.