Multidimensional Addie Wyatt was an accomplished labor leader, musician, community organizer, pastor, visionary, factory worker, campaign advisor and matriarch. She was African American, female and poor in a nation that consistently relegated people like her to second-class citizenship. Her life story and quest for a fully inclusive America makes for essential reading.
In 1942, Wyatt was eighteen years old, married and a mother in Chicago. She made ends meet by putting lids on cans of stew at Armour & Company. She was a skilled typist, but only white women were allowed in the front office. The canning department paid better than the office, because it was covered by a contract negotiated by the Congress of Industrial Organization’s Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee. When Wyatt was arbitrarily replaced by a white woman, the union was there for her. Union steward Van Johnson, another black woman, encouraged Wyatt to file a grievance.
Experiencing the power of collective bargaining was an epiphany for Wyatt. “I was impressed. How could two young black women meet with two white bosses and achieve the success that we had achieved at that time?” Wyatt went on to become a shining star in the labor, women’s and civil rights movements until her death in 2012. This highly readable biography by historian Marcia Walker-McWilliams gives this influential figure the attention she deserves.
Although “Reverend Addie Wyatt” had its genesis as Walker-McWilliams’ dissertation at the University of Chicago, this book is meant to introduce Wyatt and her times to a broad audience (“tell the story,” implored Wyatt to the author). It succeeds as a well-written narrative that, far from academic, brings broad movements and personalities alive in an engaging combination of straight history and anecdotes. Wyatt herself emerges as a likable, intelligent and devout woman with astounding stamina. Wyatt provides a perfect prism through which to understand why, when and how courageous individuals and coalitions achieved our social safety net, worker protections and civil rights guarantees—all of which could be dismantled in the coming years.
Here, we learn about the Chicago Wyatt experienced. Her family fled Mississippi first to a slum, then the new and inviting Altgeld Gardens public housing development. The book covers her role as an organizer of Operation Breadbasket, now PUSH, the Chicago economic justice campaign, as well as the short-lived implementation of the long-dreamed-of goals of the Harold Washington administration. The book chronicles Wyatt’s tenacity in pushing for the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment, reveals her experience as a female minister in a man’s world and her theology of social justice.
As Walker-McWilliams states, Wyatt’s “is not a story of the death of racism, sexism, discrimination and poverty, but rather a blueprint of a philosophy of equality.” She placed her wager on collective betterment rather than narrow self-interest. The Addie Wyatt we see in this book is a Renaissance woman, whose rich, balanced and purposeful life remains inspiring. (Gail Schechter)
“Reverend Addie Wyatt: Faith and the Fight for Labor, Gender, and Racial Equality”
By Marcia Walker-McWilliams
University of Illinois Press, 292 pages, $28