Armstrong Tire and Rubber became Mississippi’s first tire manufacturer when it opened a plant in Natchez in 1939 as part of the Balance Agriculture with Industry (BAWI) program. The city’s voters approved a three-hundred-thousand-dollar bond issue to build the new factory and agreed that Armstrong would pay no rent for five years and then pay just thirty-six hundred dollars a year for the next forty-five years. Natchez also exempted Armstrong Tire and Rubber from local taxes.
The company initially hired about two hundred employees, a number that grew to nearly a thousand a decade later and surpassed a thousand by the 1960s. Armstrong at first hired white men almost exclusively, especially for skilled jobs, but by the 1960s about four hundred employees were African Americans. In some ways, Armstrong was a BAWI success story, attracting numerous workers displaced by changes in agriculture and paying most of them higher wages than they had received in farmwork or at other industrial jobs. Workers organized a chapter of the United Rubber, Cork, Linoleum, and Plastic Workers of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1945.
The Armstrong Tire and Rubber plant—and especially its parking lot—became the site of violence against civil rights workers in the 1960s. On 27 August 1965 George Metcalfe, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and an Armstrong employee, was the victim of a car bombing in the parking lot just a few days after he had petitioned the Natchez School Board to begin desegregating the schools. The attack on Metcalfe inspired extensive civil rights protests. Two years later, Wharlest Jackson, also an Armstrong employee and the former treasurer of the NAACP, was killed in a car bombing. Arguing that Jackson’s murderers had targeted him because he had just been promoted to a skilled job once considered for whites only, members of the NAACP called on the company to fire all employees who were members of the Ku Klux Klan. The company offered a reward for information about the murderer, but no one was ever charged.
Armstrong Tire and Rubber began to decrease its Natchez workforce in the 1980s and finally decided to close the plant in 1986. A group of city residents bought the factory and renamed it the Fidelity Tire Company. Titan International, with headquarters in Illinois, bought the factory in 1998, but a major labor strike soon began, followed by lawsuits over worker safety and violations of the Clean Water Act, leading Titan to close the plant in 2001.
- James C. Cobb, The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936–1990 (1993)
- Jack E. Davis, Race against Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez since 1930 (2001)
- Water Log: A Legal Reporter of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium website, http://www.masgc.org