The Work of Work: An Examination of Workers’ Rights in the Mississippi Delta

“We all do,” they said to the judge.

There were 17 families still living in the dilapidated Southside Garden Apartments on S. Broadway St. in Greenville, Miss., when Jaribu Hill began working with its tenants. In its best days, the complex housed more than 200 tenants. Originally, it stood welcoming residents, offering the simplicity of apartment life with the benefit of green grass, tall trees and plenty of space for children to play and pets to roam.  But in recent years, the property was no longer fit for human beings to live. The tenants were “working poor”— working for little pay, barely able to pay their bills. In response, the landlord neglected the property. One tenant didn’t have a working lock on her apartment door, so she slept with her couch pushed against the front door to prevent intruders from entering. Another tenant was bitten by a snake and nearly died, seeing snakes was a frequent occurrence. As things got worse, the tenants determined they would no longer allow the landlord to subject them to inhumane living conditions. They called Jaribu Hill.

At trial, Hill presented pictures of the dilapidated apartments and the judge, looking at the images in disbelief, asked the landlord how many people lived like this. Before the landlord could respond, all 17 tenants in the courtroom respond, “We all do.”

With Hill’s representation and the organizing efforts of her Workers Center for Human Rights, the court ordered the tenants to receive two free years of rent and the property owners lost their business certification to rent property.

Jaribu Hill, founder and executive director of the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, works with clients who are too often forgotten in the labor and union organizing work.

Making Choices
“People say they chose between the best of two evils.  Well, I don’t want the best of two evils. I don’t want any evils,” Hill says. “As we say in the southern hood, I want me and mine to be treated with dignity and respect.” There are lots of evils. She begins talking about recent work at the furniture factory of a major brand.  Her clients are mostly Black, poor and scared.

One of the clients in the workers’ compensation action reports two co-workers hoisted him up and hung him upside down from a piece of equipment on the factory floor. He was left there, blood rushing to his head.  After leaving him hanging, one of the white co-workers came back to pull him down, claiming it was a practical joke. Another client reported having peanuts thrown at him by white co-workers while they made monkey gestures and noises.  A final act of inhumanity came when the furniture employer committed what Hill terms theft of labor.

The employers decided to pay workers for the part/portion of the furniture they completed, instead of for the number of hours they had worked. This caused workers to get paid the least amount of money possible without compensation for hours worked.  With the support of Hill and the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, workers at the plant were restored their hourly wages and new policies and practices were put into place to protect employees from racist acts of violence and harassment.

Navigating the workplace in a right to work state, like Mississippi, especially in southern rural places like the Delta, where economic opportunities are far and few in between, is what makes work and those who advocate for workers’ rights even more difficult and brutal. It’s the reason this work and, most importantly, those who do it must be seen, heard and valued. The impact such economic insecurities and challenges have on the mental and emotional health of the workers, their families and the advocates (who are sometimes one in the same) is an essential, though often overlooked, element of labor rights work that needs to be interrogated further and invested in more significantly. An ethical framework of imagining the health of workers and of their defenders should be deliberately and unapologetically imagined and co-created by everyone from policymakers and faith leaders to the workers and their communities. These are not issues one overcomes by only making the right choices.

White supremacy and patriarchy have created false expectations for activists through historically reductionist narratives, especially of Black women who champion their communities. This expectation demands these women to not just be strong but palatable in the presentation and representation of their strength and work. This, of course, does not dignify or allow space for their personal life struggles, the contradictions and manifestations of emotional and cultural burdens and the responsibilities these women carry. Subsequently, misogynoiristic suppositions have established a false dichotomy between those who are seen as better representatives (then tokenized) and those who are villainized (then invisibilized) for not being mainstream enough, defying patriarchal boundaries. Because of this, if done well, there should be a humanized, radical and just approach to supporting—financially and otherwise— Black women in the world of labor and human rights.

I don’t want the best of two evils. I don’t want any evils.

 Unions for All
The daughter of a preacher father and an educator mother, Hill was 42 years old when she entered law school. The native Ohioan was living in New York at that time. The wife and mother had already built a career as an actress, singer, labor union organizer and adult educator. Despite this, she could not turn a blind eye to the injustices occurring around her.  She had many amazing examples of movement lawyering from mentors and friends like human rights lawyers, Evelyn Williams, Michael Tariff Warren and Chokwe Lumumba. She, too, wanted to defend the human rights of Black people.

From their example, she says she learned “Lawyering is not about negotiations in some back room with dusty old law books. It is about standing up in places where our people are being persecuted. It is about being brave enough and skilled enough to do your part to stop the bleeding and stop the persecution.” She knew going to law school at her age while rearing a daughter wasn’t going to be easy, but it was necessary.

“I didn’t make a mistake. Eleanor Bumpurs, a 60-something-year old grandmother had just been murdered by police in her home when I went to law school. I didn’t make a mistake.  I was going to law school to be a police misconduct lawyer.”

Hill not only went to law school, but she also became one of the first Black people selected as a Skadden Fellow, which focuses on public interest, doing work in the Deep South. Through the fellowship, she launched human rights work in rural Mississippi.

Her initial goal was to complete her fellowship in Mississippi then head back to New York to work as a police misconduct lawyer. After attending a Frito Lay workers’ meeting organized by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, she changed her mind. A Black woman had just been knocked down on the Frito Lay warehouse floor by a white male supervisor. Chokwe Lumumba (whom Hill was interning for at the time) presided over the meeting, and workers thought he was going to spend all of his time talking about the actions of the white supervisor. Instead, he spent an hour engaging them with a question. “How could you stand there?”

“He asked, ‘How could you stand by and watch your mother, sister, friend be knocked to the ground by this white man? How could you stand there and allow this?’” she reflects. At this moment, Hill says she knew her work was more expansive than police misconduct lawyering. It would include what she now calls dark work (i.e., work to protect the dignity and humanity of Black people in their most vulnerable positions, the position of employee).

From then on, Hill has connected labor rights with human rights. She embraced the teachings of her movement lawyering mentors, she became humble and brave, leading to the founding, in 1996, of the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights. The center and its organizers advocate with and on behalf of low-wage, non-union workers in Greenville and is part of a larger struggle to unionize southern states. These states’ ideas of economic advancement rely heavily on non-union and low wage labor. Using a human rights framework, Hill and the center, feverishly work to situate the struggles of low-wage workers in the South with international struggles for human rights.

Something Inside
For more than 20 years, Hill and the women who stand with her, have defended the human rights of workers throughout the Delta and rural areas of Mississippi.

A day with Hill in the Mississippi Delta hearing one iteration after another of how uninterrupted access to resources such as labor, land, wealth and property reaffirm an absolute need to humanize, lift up, respect and resource Black women who continue to love and labor for their people, despite being constantly tokenized, disrespected, under-sourced, exploited and invisibilized. It doesn’t take long, after sitting with Hill, for her to share stories of how community members, especially women, held space for her growth and continued nurturing her as part of their cultural work.

One of her fondest examples is how Nubia Lumumba (advocate in her own right, and wife of Hill’s mentor, Chokwe) made calls to pack the courtroom to support Black defendants being defended by Chokwe, and how Nubia would ensure everybody including the defendants and their families were part of the strategy. Hill’s voice, work and wisdom have been in the service of her people, the vulnerable in the Mississippi Delta— underpaid workers, particularly underpaid working women and their families.

As she wound down, Hill closed with a song, dedicating Labi Siffre’s “Something Inside So Strong” to Sarah White, president of The Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights. Before singing, Hill offered the context of Black women’s resistance in Mississippi and how through all the hardships, Black women continue to champion workers’ rights as human rights.

The more you refuse to hear my voice / the  louder I will sing / You hide behind wall so of Jericho / your lives will come tumbling / Deny my place in time / You squander wealth that’s mine / My light will shine so brightly it will blind you / Because there is something inside so strong / I know that we can make it, though they doing us wrong so wrong / Thought that my pride was gone (oh no) / Something inside so strong. “Something Inside so Strong,” Labi Siffre

Considering Labor
Labor as a valuable source and resource needs to be lifted while centering the dignity of human beings. Believing in the sacredness of people to the point of being unapologetic in defending their rights is an imperative lesson to learn. Consider these assertions to challenge yourself, gain clarity in the complexities of this issue.

  1. We must continue to evolve our understanding of women’s undeniable place doing liberation work while, simultaneously protecting our dignity and valuing one another.
  2. Our labor of love must be composed of not just concern for work but one another, honoring accountability toward each other that helps us grow and thrive.
  3. We must responsibly resource and defend each other and each other’s work.
  4. We must continue to abundantly imagine and make space for economic justice in the context of all our people and place.
  5. We must continue to evolve structures of accountability through which we build, support and sustain a culture of people-centered leadership that embraces human rights at its core.
  6. We must craft, advocate for and organize people-centered production and policy that brings about equal pay, economic security, equitable health care and economically just workers compensation.
  7. We must co-create and sustain a people to policy pipeline that intentionally charges policymakers to carry a just policy agenda that is driven by a sense of ethics, public health and economic justice.
  8. We must self-determine the ways in which philanthropy can restoratively and regeneratively support such people-centered, place-based work in the Deep South.

Jaribu Hill’s story is the story of Mississippi, and it’s a story of labor and love, Black girls in Mississippi have as part of their legacy.

To learn more about historical and contemporary moments in labor organizing, follow these links to stories in The Chicago Tribune(1990), The Tennessee Tribune(2003) and National Employment Law Project(2017).

Noel Didla is a mother who immigrated from Guntur, a city in southeastern India and has called Jackson, Miss. home for 13 years. She’s committed to justice, building sound partnerships and collaboratives in Black and brown communities and serves as a member of The Lighthouse’s Mason Project think tank. Rukia Lumumba is the founder of the People’s Advocacy Institute where she focuses on issues of mass criminalization, community-led governance and accountability in the Deep South. Besides mothering her amazing son, Qadir, Rukia loves to spend her leisure time spoiling her two beautiful nieces. 

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