Claude Elwood Ramsay, born in Ocean Springs on 18 December 1916, served as president of the Mississippi American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) from 1959 until shortly before his death. Ramsay attended Perkinston Junior College and spent two years in the Civilian Conservation Corps before obtaining a job with the International Paper Company in Moss Point in 1939. After serving in the US Army during World War II, he returned to work at International Paper and became active in United Paperworkers of America Local 203, first as a shop steward and eventually as union president. Ramsay was instrumental in the merger that led to the formation of the Mississippi AFL-CIO in 1958, and he was elected union president the following year.
Motivated by his belief in equality and his understanding that the state’s employers used white supremacy to undermine labor solidarity, Ramsay was an often lonely white voice of moderation in Mississippi during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Shortly after the 1962 riots in Oxford triggered by James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi, Ramsay warned the members of the Pascagoula Metal Trades Council that their participation in acts of racist violence could jeopardize federal shipbuilding contracts. His opposition to segregation and his eventual embrace of the civil rights movement made him a frequent target of the state’s white business and political leaders as well as many rank-and-file trade unionists. Dozens of local unions disaffiliated from the state AFL-CIO to protest Ramsay’s efforts to improve race relations, but their departures only strengthened his hand by eliminating his strongest opponents from within the federation. Throughout his tenure he also enjoyed strong backing from the national AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party, which needed white leaders in Mississippi to defend their candidates and programs.
Ramsay had little contact with Mississippi’s black-led civil rights movement until the mid-1960s, when he played a key role in organizing an alternative to the all-white state Democratic Party. With other white reformers and leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Ramsay sought to form a biracial Democratic Party that would be loyal to the national party. However, he gained the enmity of some civil rights activists, including members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, when he attempted to exclude them from the party’s leadership. Ramsay, for his part, kept Freedom Democratic Party leaders at a distance, believing that their group was not viable in Mississippi and that their presence in the Democratic Party would alienate white voters. At the same time, Ramsay battled with the Democratic Regulars who fought to maintain an exclusively white party. In the last years of his life, Ramsay led an unsuccessful fight to boost compensation payments for the state’s injured workers. He retired from the AFL-CIO on 1 January 1986 and died just sixteen days later.
- Charles M. Dollar, “Claude Ramsay: A Visionary and Catalyst for Social and Political Change in Mississippi, 1960–1986,” http://winterinstitute.org/wp-content/blogs.dir/1/files/2015/12/11–28–2015_Claude-Ramsay_FINAEnd-Noted.pdf
- Alan Draper, Conflict of Interests: Organized Labor and the Civil Rights Movement in the South, 1954–1968 (1994)
- Bill Minor, Southern Changes (1986); Claude Ramsay, interview by Orley B. Caudill, Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, University of Southern Mississippi (28, 30 April, 7 May 1981)