The UAW, Neo-Nazis, and Jesse Jackson: Chattanooga's Successes Bring Unwanted Guests

Chattanooga, Tennessee is a picturesque city tucked away on the southernmost fringes of the Appalachian foothills.  Cradled by the sister mountains, Lookout and Signal, the downtown area is easy on the eyes to say the least.  While restored paddle boats, sleek modern yachts, and kayakers comingle in the Tennessee River that gently flows through the city center, friendly residents pack restaurant patios lining well-maintained streets.

This time of year, Chattanooga is particularly beautiful.  As the dogwood trees are in full bloom, tourists from across the region descend upon area attractions: Rock City, the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo, the Bluff View Art District, the Tennessee Aquarium, and many more.  In addition to urban hotspots, locals and visitors also take advantage of an abundance of outdoor activities that earned Chattanooga the title of “Best Town Ever” by Outside magazine just a couple years ago.

But this hasn’t always been the case.  Just a few decades ago, Walter Kronkite announced from his news desk that Chattanooga was “the dirtiest city in America.”  Its reputation was that of an ugly industrial wasteland.  Since then, the town has remade itself on a model that works to balance public- and private-sector support for community benefit, an equilibrium that crystallized under the leadership of mayor-turned-U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R).  And though Chattanooga today is no utopia by any stretch, it enjoys an immense amount of civic pride from its residents while attracting the attention of outside eyes.  That’s usually been a good thing, especially in the form of jobs.

While much of the rest of the country has been struggling to pull itself back together in the wake of the Great Recession, the Chattanooga area has scored some major economic wins.  Volkswagen decided to set up a major manufacturing facility here, Amazon opened a massive distribution center across the street from VW, Wacker is in the midst of building a $2-billion polysilicon plant, and Coca-Cola recently announced the construction of a $62-million distribution hub.  So not only is Chattanooga an aesthetically pleasing, entertaining place, but it also performs well on the jobs front.

All these factors lead to some really good mojo permeating the city.  People genuinely like to live here, and Chattanoogans have rolled out the welcome mat for folks to come share in the fun.  Whether you’re a tourist, an entrepreneur, or an established business looking to open a new location, you can expect to be greeted with enthusiasm and open arms.

However, Chattanooga is now learning that local successes also attract unwanted guests – and they’ve been showing up quite often as of late.

The first wave of undesirable visitors came in the form of the United Auto Workers (UAW).  The Detroit union, starved for membership growth, has been on the prowl for a way to infiltrate the Southern auto manufacturing scene for years.  So when Volkswagen announced it would make East Tennessee the site of its American production plant, Chattanooga found itself fixed firmly in the union’s crosshairs.  The courtship between the UAW and VW finally ended, though, on Valentine’s Day of this year, when plant employees voted to bar the struggling organization from unionizing their facility.

It was an unsavory affair from start to finish, with no shortage of heated rhetoric, hyperbole, and name-calling.  Sometimes the union finger-pointing made absolutely no sense at all: for example, when calling Tennessee state Senator Bo Watson (R) an “outsider” for voicing his opinion against the union.  Senator Watson was born, raised, and educated in Chattanooga. He earns his living at a local hospital, and he has numerous constituents employed at VW.  For Detroit organizers to call him an outsider struck many as ironic, if not utterly ridiculous.

The second bunch to set their sights on Chattanooga was the National Socialist Movement, another Detroit-based organization.  When this group of neo-Nazis announced they’d be making Chattanooga the location of their 40th anniversary rally this spring, there was city-wide confusion.  “Why?” everyone wondered.  The befuddlement only increased when the Nazis said they’d be making illegal immigration a focus of their gathering.  Sure, Chattanooga has a growing Latino community, thanks largely to opportunities created by a well-performing local economy, but only a fraction of that 20,000-person population group is undocumented.  Certainly not enough, most locals figured, to draw the indignation of America’s largest white supremacist organization.

So there was a collective civic shrug to the Nazi announcement, and most people planned to do what should be done to white supremacists everywhere – ignore them.  The vast majority of Chattanoogans forgot that the Nazis were coming before they even got here.  That is, until the good Rev. Jesse Jackson decided that nothing makes better publicity for him than a skinhead rally.  He needed to be in Chattanooga, he said, because he had to tell people, “We should be aware that these [Nazi] acts are designed to be provocative.  We should not pour fuel on that fire.”  More city-wide questioning ensued: “But Jesse, isn’t that exactly what you’re doing?”  And “Jesse, when did you start riding neo-Nazi coattails?”  In the end, thankfully, Rev. Jackson’s appearance proved to be as bland as the Nazis were harmless.

These visitors to Chattanooga have all come and gone now, and the good news is that Chattanooga is still alive.   The city has also learned a couple of important lessons.  The first is that if we can survive the UAW, neo-Nazis, and Jesse Jackson, we can survive just about anything.  The second is that if you are a successful city and you unfurl the welcome mat, you'd better be ready for some unwanted guests.

David Allen Martin is a contributing columnist to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.  He also teaches U.S. History at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Chattanooga, Tennessee is a picturesque city tucked away on the southernmost fringes of the Appalachian foothills.  Cradled by the sister mountains, Lookout and Signal, the downtown area is easy on the eyes to say the least.  While restored paddle boats, sleek modern yachts, and kayakers comingle in the Tennessee River that gently flows through the city center, friendly residents pack restaurant patios lining well-maintained streets.

This time of year, Chattanooga is particularly beautiful.  As the dogwood trees are in full bloom, tourists from across the region descend upon area attractions: Rock City, the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo, the Bluff View Art District, the Tennessee Aquarium, and many more.  In addition to urban hotspots, locals and visitors also take advantage of an abundance of outdoor activities that earned Chattanooga the title of “Best Town Ever” by Outside magazine just a couple years ago.

But this hasn’t always been the case.  Just a few decades ago, Walter Kronkite announced from his news desk that Chattanooga was “the dirtiest city in America.”  Its reputation was that of an ugly industrial wasteland.  Since then, the town has remade itself on a model that works to balance public- and private-sector support for community benefit, an equilibrium that crystallized under the leadership of mayor-turned-U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R).  And though Chattanooga today is no utopia by any stretch, it enjoys an immense amount of civic pride from its residents while attracting the attention of outside eyes.  That’s usually been a good thing, especially in the form of jobs.

While much of the rest of the country has been struggling to pull itself back together in the wake of the Great Recession, the Chattanooga area has scored some major economic wins.  Volkswagen decided to set up a major manufacturing facility here, Amazon opened a massive distribution center across the street from VW, Wacker is in the midst of building a $2-billion polysilicon plant, and Coca-Cola recently announced the construction of a $62-million distribution hub.  So not only is Chattanooga an aesthetically pleasing, entertaining place, but it also performs well on the jobs front.

All these factors lead to some really good mojo permeating the city.  People genuinely like to live here, and Chattanoogans have rolled out the welcome mat for folks to come share in the fun.  Whether you’re a tourist, an entrepreneur, or an established business looking to open a new location, you can expect to be greeted with enthusiasm and open arms.

However, Chattanooga is now learning that local successes also attract unwanted guests – and they’ve been showing up quite often as of late.

The first wave of undesirable visitors came in the form of the United Auto Workers (UAW).  The Detroit union, starved for membership growth, has been on the prowl for a way to infiltrate the Southern auto manufacturing scene for years.  So when Volkswagen announced it would make East Tennessee the site of its American production plant, Chattanooga found itself fixed firmly in the union’s crosshairs.  The courtship between the UAW and VW finally ended, though, on Valentine’s Day of this year, when plant employees voted to bar the struggling organization from unionizing their facility.

It was an unsavory affair from start to finish, with no shortage of heated rhetoric, hyperbole, and name-calling.  Sometimes the union finger-pointing made absolutely no sense at all: for example, when calling Tennessee state Senator Bo Watson (R) an “outsider” for voicing his opinion against the union.  Senator Watson was born, raised, and educated in Chattanooga. He earns his living at a local hospital, and he has numerous constituents employed at VW.  For Detroit organizers to call him an outsider struck many as ironic, if not utterly ridiculous.

The second bunch to set their sights on Chattanooga was the National Socialist Movement, another Detroit-based organization.  When this group of neo-Nazis announced they’d be making Chattanooga the location of their 40th anniversary rally this spring, there was city-wide confusion.  “Why?” everyone wondered.  The befuddlement only increased when the Nazis said they’d be making illegal immigration a focus of their gathering.  Sure, Chattanooga has a growing Latino community, thanks largely to opportunities created by a well-performing local economy, but only a fraction of that 20,000-person population group is undocumented.  Certainly not enough, most locals figured, to draw the indignation of America’s largest white supremacist organization.

So there was a collective civic shrug to the Nazi announcement, and most people planned to do what should be done to white supremacists everywhere – ignore them.  The vast majority of Chattanoogans forgot that the Nazis were coming before they even got here.  That is, until the good Rev. Jesse Jackson decided that nothing makes better publicity for him than a skinhead rally.  He needed to be in Chattanooga, he said, because he had to tell people, “We should be aware that these [Nazi] acts are designed to be provocative.  We should not pour fuel on that fire.”  More city-wide questioning ensued: “But Jesse, isn’t that exactly what you’re doing?”  And “Jesse, when did you start riding neo-Nazi coattails?”  In the end, thankfully, Rev. Jackson’s appearance proved to be as bland as the Nazis were harmless.

These visitors to Chattanooga have all come and gone now, and the good news is that Chattanooga is still alive.   The city has also learned a couple of important lessons.  The first is that if we can survive the UAW, neo-Nazis, and Jesse Jackson, we can survive just about anything.  The second is that if you are a successful city and you unfurl the welcome mat, you'd better be ready for some unwanted guests.

David Allen Martin is a contributing columnist to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.  He also teaches U.S. History at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

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