December, 1986

Vol.73 No.3
The Killing Floor
By James R. Barrett

Many of the important social conflicts tearing at the fabric of American society during the red summer of 1919 seem to have been concentrated on Chicago's South Side. The dramatic expansion of the meat-packing industry and the wartime labor shortage had created a new working class, bringing thousands of blacks from the Deep South to join earlier waves of Irish and Slavic migrants in the city's giant slaughterhouses. While racial antagonism grew with competition for scarce jobs, housing, and recreational facilities, rising labor militancy reached the boiling point. For a brief historical moment, Chicago became the focal point for racial and class conflict in the United States. Could organizers break the color barrier and create an interracial labor movement, or would racism triumph over class solidarity? The answer was by no means clear, and The Killing Floor brilliantly captures the drama of the moment as well as the historical forces that produced it. The film's success derives from its reliance on historical characters and situations that have been carefully developed through extensive research in primary sources.

The story follows Frank Custer, a young black man, from rural Mississippi to Chicago's Black Belt as he looks for work and a better life for his family. In the flush wartime economy, Custer hires on as a common laborer and saves enough to bring his family to Chicago. Like most of his fellow migrants, he is resistant at first to the Stockyards Labor Council recruiters but soon joins the union and throws himself into organizing, for reasons that are not entirely clear. With the armistice, unemployment and labor conflict become endemic, and on the killing floor itself, Custer senses "somethin' waitin' to happen." read more>>
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