In Memoriam: The Rev. Addie Wyatt

The Rev. Addie Wyatt (on left)

By Alan Bean

Until I read this article in the Chicago Tribune, I had never heard of the Rev. Addie Wyatt.  That’s a pity.  Wyatt was a Christian pastor, a champion of women’s rights, a civil rights activist, and a union organizer.  Quite a package.  I’m not sure a single person could wear all four hats in the 21st century.

Some might see this as a good thing.  Last week I posted an article from the Associated Baptist Press on the silence of white pastors regarding the Trayvon Martin case.  This prompted a curt response from a reader: “There is nothing in Scripture,” he said, “that supports the claim that pastors are to serve as prophets or politicians.”

I suspect the reader also believes there is no biblical support for women pastors.

The Reverend Addie Wyatt would have been our reader’s worst nightmare: a politically active prophet with an iron in every fire.  I hope we see more women like her; but I fear we will not.

5-foot-4 activist stood tall on labor, civil and women’s rights

Dawn Turner Trice

April 2, 2012

Often when people think of black women activists who were deep in the trenches, they recall Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer. Chicago’s Rev. Addie Wyatt, who died last week at 88, should also come to mind.

Wyatt stood a modest 5 feet, 4 inches tall. She was often impeccably dressed — though not overly fancy — and when she spoke it was with such precision that you’d have to listen closely to detect a hint of her native Mississippi.

What made Wyatt a giant is that she was one of the few people who had a tremendous influence on three of the most important movements of the 20th century — the struggles for labor, civil and women’s rights. She was a fervent believer that the three were interconnected and that everyone’s fate rose and fell on the same tide.

As a union representative, she was fearless and didn’t mind entering the offices of white male management officials in 1950s Chicago and challenging them about discriminatory practices against women and blacks.

As a civil rights activist, she helpedMartin Luther King Jr.organize events in Chicago and in the South. But she wasn’t shy about reminding the male-dominated standard-bearers that women weren’t just window dressing and needed to be included in leadership roles.

As a feminist, Wyatt was an ardent supporter of the National Organization for Women. But she didn’t hesitate to chastise the female leadership when the movement seemed more concerned about the needs of white women and failed to embrace the black female perspective.

And yet Addie Wyatt was also the Rev. Addie Wyatt. With her husband, the Rev. Claude Wyatt, who died in 2010, she founded and was co-pastor of Vernon Park Church of God, on south Stony Island Avenue. Being a godly person, she often said, was synonymous with fighting for the rights of people. She expressed her theology beautifully in rousing sermons and in song.

You could argue that she started along this trajectory in 1941, when she took a job at the Armour & Co. meatpacking company. She went there hoping to land a position as a typist, but she was offered a job as a meatpacker, canning stews for the army.

She worked on the assembly line until about 1953 when the United Packinghouse Workers of America pulled her out of the plant to become a full-time union organizer.

Back then, manyAFL-CIO-affiliated labor unions had clauses in their constitutions saying that blacks couldn’t be members. Wyatt, along with labor organizer A. Philip Randolph, was among a group of people who started the Negro American Labor Council to fight for the rights of blacks to join unions and reap their rewards.

In the beginning, workers were unsure whether Wyatt could negotiate adequately on their behalf. Even management didn’t take her seriously. But she fought to make sure that companies paid workers according to federal regulations and didn’t force them to work excessive hours or under inhumane conditions.

Marcia Walker is a University of Chicago doctoral student who helped process the “Rev. Addie Wyatt and Rev. Claude Wyatt Papers,” which opened in 2010 at the Chicago Public Library‘s Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection.

Walker said that when the meatpacking companies were shutting down or downsizing in the late 1950s, Wyatt negotiated with managers and workers to save some of the jobs of blacks and women, who were often the last hired and first fired.

“Rev. Wyatt would ask (company officials), ‘How can we redefine the work structure to make sure not all blacks or women were getting laid off?'” Walker said.

“In one meatpacking plant all the women were fired and she sat down with male workers and said, ‘It’s not fair that we’re losing women and I know you’re worried about your jobs, but how can you assume some of that burden so they aren’t all laid off?'”

Wyatt also encouraged women to become skilled in jobs that had been considered men’s labor, such as butchering hogs.

What Wyatt learned from the labor movement and on the shop floor, she took to the civil rights movement.

Michael Flug, former senior archivist with the Harsh Collection, said that Charles Hayes, a union man who would later become a congressman, recognized Wyatt’s potential as a union leader and asked her to go to Montgomery, Ala., to help with the Montgomery Improvement Association. It had formed to guide the 1955 bus boycott.

“She went to Montgomery and brought Dr. King back to Chicago and that’s how she got involved with his (Southern Christian Leadership Conference),” said Flug. “She was one of the leading organizers through the 1960s and was in close association with Dr. King on every initiative in Chicago.”

From afar, Eleanor Roosevelt was admiring Wyatt’s work with women in the labor movement, and in 1961 Roosevelt asked Wyatt to work with her on a commission for women in the Kennedy administration.

Wyatt would go on to serve on numerous commissions and fight for the rights of workingwomen in many other ways. I first heard about her in 2005 when I was in Mississippi covering a story about low-skilled workers competing for jobs in the catfish-processing industry.

I met a group of women who, 20 years before, had gone up against powerful catfish farmers and formed a union. The women had called Wyatt for support, and though she had retired in 1984, she went down to help them organize.

Decades later her name still had resonance.

And that was Wyatt — the epitome of the idea that one person can make a huge difference. Although her work often required her to make alliances, it also required her to stir the pot, and her elegant demeanor and her disarming smile made her an expert at both.