David Montgomery, the eloquent labor and working-class historian who profoundly shaped the practice of history, died unexpectedly on December 2, 2011. His writing, teaching, mentoring, editing, activism, and oratory together made him an inspiring leader in this country?s intellectual and political life. Eighty-four years old at the time of his death, David created a legacy that stretched from factory work as a machinist, union organizer, and political activist in the 1950s to teaching from the 1960s through the 1990s at the Universities of Pittsburgh and Yale. His involvement in the struggles and the rich history of working-class men and women continued throughout his life. Historians, educators, and activists around the world are mourning this loss.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1927, Montgomery served in the army at Los Alamos, New Mexico toward the end of the Second World War, then returned to school and graduated from Swarthmore College. A Communist Party member, Montgomery was blacklisted in New York City as a result of his political and union activism. He moved to Minneapolis so that he could continue working as a machinist, got a job at Honeywell, but soon faced blacklisting again. This time, he once told me, he realized he would no longer be able to practice his craft.
Silenced by McCarthyism, in 1959 Montgomery entered the University of Minnesota?s graduate program in history. By then he had left the Communist Party, no longer finding it a vehicle for creative mobilization. Nevertheless, years later, in a remarkable interview in Radical History Review, Montgomery noted two key strengths of the party: the way it helped activists like him connect their ideals of social justice to the everyday struggles of workers, and its commitment to racial equality. His PhD research, on class and the politics of reform in the north during Reconstruction (it became his first monograph, Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862-1872), won him the Honeywell Prize for Best Dissertation in 1962. Unbeknownst to Honeywell?s corporate leaders, they had awarded the coveted prize to a union organizer they had recently blacklisted. And David Montgomery most definitely had found his voice.
The lessons Montgomery learned on the ground during the 1950s, seeking to build solidarity among white and black workers amid daily struggles in factories and on the streets, would shape his approach to history and politics throughout his life. He was part of an energetic cohort of young historians?among them David Brody, Herbert Gutman, Melvyn Dubofsky, and Edward Thompson?who reframed the way we think about labor history, branching out from a focus on unions and other institutions to consider the working class more broadly. Montgomery?s early work focused close attention on politics, but then shifted, with his influential Workers? Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles, to an intimate analysis of power and resistance on the factory shop floor. As he had been influential in taking seriously the new politics of class in Beyond Equality, in Workers? Control he showed the hidden ways that skilled white male workers, especially in the metal trades, exercised their power. He became perhaps the first historian to see masculinity and manliness as an important force shaping their activities and self-identity.
In his magisterial Fall of the House of Labor, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Montgomery broadened his scope beyond skilled workers to examine working-class life and agency from the end of Reconstruction to the 1920s. Although the book stressed the diversity and indeed intra-class conflict that characterized workers? experiences, Montgomery found a vital workers? movement that repeatedly reinvented itself. ?The taproot of its resilience,? he wrote, ?has been the workers? daily experience and the solidarities nurtured by that experience, which have at best encompassed a lush variety of beliefs, loyalties, and activities within a common commitment to democratic direction of the country?s economic and political life.? Montgomery?s many articles proved as influential as his books, taking up topics as varied as religion and the antebellum working-class, the class nature of citizenship in the nineteenth century, and more recently the intersection of imperialism and working-class mobilization across the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
Amid all his writing as a historian, Montgomery also remained engaged in wide-ranging struggles for social justice. His well-known work helping to organize faculty and student support for the striking Yale clerical workers in the mid-1980s was just one example of a lifetime devoted to social justice and to building a sense of community among activists. And through it all, he taught. Thousands of undergraduates were riveted by his lectures, and scores of graduate students traveled to Pittsburgh or Yale to work with him. By the latest count he advised eighty-seven PhD dissertations. As editor of the journal International Labor and Working-Class History for many years, as an editor of the University of Illinois Press series on labor and working-class history, and as a leader of the Organization of American Historians, Montgomery saw his influence and mentoring reach far beyond those PhD students he advised. And when he spoke publicly, whether at a union meeting, behind a lectern in an undergrad classroom, or on a panel at an academic conference, Montgomery came alive in ways unusual and unexpected for an academic historian. At such moments he always seemed more a shop-floor organizer than an Ivy League academic. His presence as an orator was a sight to see, channeling as it did the dynamic street speeches of social movements over the last 150 years, from abolitionists to Wobblies, from sharecroppers? unions to the CP?s Popular Front.
It would be hard to find a labor historian who does not owe a debt to him. I am one of the people for whom David served as a tremendous intellectual and personal inspiration. As my teacher at Yale, Montgomery taught me not only about history and the working class, but how to be a citizen of this world. He was, simply put, the most democratic and humane person I have ever known. He possessed a tremendous respect for other people?for their ideas, their motivations, their desires. He was profoundly opposed to people getting too fixed on their own importance. He refrained from praising his students for fear they?d get fat heads. Our ideas were as important as his ideas, or so he was determined to have us believe. For that reason he refused to steer or guide his students with a heavy hand. When it came to important challenges like choosing dissertation topics, Montgomery insisted we create our own intellectual futures, and as a result the work of his students and others he mentored is incredibly varied. In short, David Montgomery was remarkably egalitarian, and it showed in ways simple and complex.
The lessons we all learned from Montgomery are too numerous to name. But here is my idiosyncratic list of points he made repeatedly and that continue to resonate through my own work: Being actively engaged in the struggle for social justice is not only essential for its own sake, it improves one?s scholarship and teaching in unimaginable ways. It is possible to be hopeful about the future without being naïve or intellectually or politically unsophisticated. Strive to think globally without ignoring local struggles, and vice versa. Interrogating the diversity of the working class, and the interconnections between race, ethnicity, class, and gender, makes for better history. Building an inclusive community?creating broad solidarities, as he would say in his lectures?is important wherever you go, whether you?re visiting the OAH convention or supporting clerical workers? struggles.
Montgomery always loved the phrase a friend of his coined in the 1950s: ?Stick close to the working class, even when they?re throwing you out the shop window.? And so Montgomery did. Perhaps the greatest testimony to his life?s work is the legions of historians and activists who continue, as he did, to stick close to the working class. The continuous strand in his intellectual life, he told his RHR interviewers, was an examination of ?the impact of American workers on the main currents of American political life.? Without romanticizing working men and women as all-powerful causal agents or writing them off as victims, he sought to illuminate our understanding of history by showing that working people?white or black, immigrant or native born, male or female?played a central role. By making this a central theme in his work and that of the many scholars he influenced, Montgomery reshaped the discipline of history.