Remembering David Montgomery

Against the Current, No. 158, May/June 2012

Alice Kessler-Harris

WHEN THE ORGANIZATION of American Historians met in Milwaukee in April, its program schedule included one very special session: a memorial tribute to David Montgomery. David, historian and political activist, died of a brain hemorrhage on Dec 1, 2011. He was 84 years old.

There have been other memorials for David Montgomery this winter. Yale University, where he taught for many years, organized a service at Battell Chapel in January. There David’s sons and some of his oldest friends remembered the Montgomery’s family life.

They recalled his 1952 marriage to Martel Wilcher, at a time when interracial marriages were illegal in many states. The marriage survived an extraordinary 60 years and produced two sons (Claude and Edward) and five grandchildren.

Speakers reminded us of Montgomery’s early years as a union organizer, working within the Communist Party and for unions such as the International Association of Machinists and the United Electrical Workers. David left the CP in the aftermath of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. But he remained committed to organizing workers and continued to work in industry until he was blacklisted and unable to find a job.

He then entered the University of Minnesota where he earned a PhD in history. From the University of Pittsburgh, where he stayed for 14 years, David moved to Yale University’s History Department.

Colleagues at Yale remembered his presence in the Department, where he never missed a meeting or failed to speak on behalf of the causes he cared about. His students recollected how he overcame a sometimes painful shyness when he began to lecture, his booming voice reaching out to educate, to instigate, and to enthuse audiences of all kinds.

David holds a special place in the hearts of historians, not only because ours was the profession in which he worked for more than 40 years, but because he exemplified a particular kind of history and a very special sort of historian.

His intellectual agenda remained consistent from the start. Seeking to write about the history of capitalism, he chose to illuminate it by exploring the history of the working class. Excavating the meaning of class remained central to his empirical research from his first book, Beyond Equality, to his last.

Beyond Equality showed how after the Civil War, Northern workers, victimized by inflation and tethered to a newly engorging industrial machine over which they had little control, chose to organize into trade unions that were brutally suppressed. Montgomery’s second book, Workers Control in America, examined how skilled workers tried to maintain power and influence on the shop floor in the face of increasing mechanization and bureaucratization within factories.

The Fall of the House of Labor documented the political and judicial repression that, in the early years of the 20th century, shackled unskilled as well as skilled workers, inhibiting successful resistance to the increasing power of management. In Citizen Worker, Montgomery stepped back to watch how 19th century workers had slowly and successfully expanded their democratic aspirations, only to discover that the increasingly powerful forces of industrial capital had narrowed the capacity of government to intervene in the free market.

Together, this body of work revealed workers acting in their daily lives to demonstrate their awareness of the world around them and their desire to change it.

Engaged Scholarship

Montgomery’s intellectual agenda never strayed far from his commitment to make the world a better place. By illustrating how workers had chosen to act in the past, he hoped to inspire movements towards social justice in the present. Melding the scholarly with the politically meaningful, he encouraged activism.

At Yale, he supported clerical workers who struck for union recognition in 1984, rallying faculty to their support. In New Haven, when the workers in the Colt firearms factory went out on strike, he joined the picket line. In St Louis, Missouri, where the Organization of American Historians met in 2000, he led convention participants in a street demonstration against racial discrimination at their headquarters’ hotel.

Among his last services to the profession, David drew attention to contingent and part-time historians who labor, sometimes in three or four different institutions for astonishingly low pay, to cobble together a living.

The poor working conditions of these marginalized teachers, David believed, violated principles of fairness, and as their numbers expanded, they would ultimately be used to undermine the profession as a whole. The profession, in consequence, has adopted solidaristic standards that it is now committed to publicizing and spreading.

In the years in which David Montgomery studied for his degree, historians most often thought of themselves as embedded inside cloaks of objectivity. David Montgomery taught his students about the relationship between abstract ideas and political commitment. He did so by example, producing scholarship that changed perceptions of the past and simultaneously stimulated readers to re-examine their own surroundings.

Whenever he had a chance, he put his own body on the line, often on the picket line. But he never forgot the crucial value of the historical example for mobilizing his audiences. And we will not soon forget that resonant and inspiring voice.

May/June 2012, ATC 158