Gastonia, North Carolina
GASTONIA, NORTH CAROLINA
The strike in the Loray Mill, in Gastonia, North Carolina, which began in April 1929, had lasting repercussions for the community. Though not the most violent of that year's industrial outbreaks in the South's textile mills, it has passed into the mythology of the American left, largely because its leaders were not from the country's homegrown textile unions. Rather, they were young activists from the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU), an adjunct of the Communist Party of the United States.
The immediate cause of the strike was the steady deterioration of the Loray Mill's working conditions as management attempted to cut costs to deal with the industry's massive overproduction. Quickly the NTWU leadership pictured it as a symbol of capitalism in its death throes. Their propaganda bore little relationship to reality, and the strike was largely ineffective. Nevertheless the climate of tension in the town soon led to violence against the NTWU leadership, who fought back. National guardsmen were deployed, vigilante groups patrolled the streets, and in June the town's chief of police, Orville Aderholt, was fatally shot during a fracas between deputies and strike leaders. For the rest of the year the repercussions of his death kept the town divided. The NTWU leaders were all charged with Aderholt's murder, and vigilantes took their revenge, murdering one of the local strike leaders, twenty-nine year old Ella May Wiggins, a mill worker, mother of nine young children, and the strikers' balladeer. Convicted after an emotive and highly politically charged trial, and freed on bail pending appeal, most of the strike leaders escaped into the vastness of the Soviet Union. No one was ever convicted of Wiggins's murder, though mill management was generally believed to have been behind it.
The strike at the Loray Mill was celebrated by the American left as a serious challenge to capitalism, and both Wiggins and the convicted strike leaders became its martyrs. In fact, the strike was a comprehensive failure. Never again did Communist union organizers venture below the Mason-Dixon line. The territory was deemed too hostile. Moreover, the violence they had provoked made the task of organizing southern textile mills even more difficult for those who followed the NTWU. The events in Gastonia cast a very long shadow.
Draper, Theodore. "Gastonia Revisited." Social Research 38, no. 1 (1971): 3–29.
Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd; James Leloudis; Robert Korstad; Mary Murphy; Lu Ann Jones; and Christopher B. Daly. Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World. 1987.
Salmond, John A. Gastonia 1929: The Story of the Loray Mill Strike. 1995.
John A. Salmond