During the late 1920s and 1930s, the United Auto Workers union worked with civil rights activists to challenge racial bias in the industry and opened up jobs that had been closed to blacks, Sugrue says. The percentage of black workers in the auto industry skyrocketed during World War II, from 4% at the start of the war to 15% by 1945, and to 16% by 1960.
"That opening of auto employment created a black working class that had a degree of security unprecedented for most folks coming from the rural South," Sugrue says. "That opened up a whole area of upward mobility for black workers."
McGregor, 62, left Memphis for Detroit in 1968 after a stint in Vietnam. He'd heard from a fellow soldier that autoworkers in the Motor City were pulling down two or three times what he'd been making before he was drafted. "When I got out, I went home and stayed exactly one week," he says. "I got on the Greyhound bus and came straight to Detroit."
McGregor had an uncle working at Ford, another at Chrysler. He applied at GM on his first Saturday in Detroit, and was hired on Monday. "When I got the telegram that they wanted me to come out, I was standing in line at Ford. They offered me a job, too, but in order to get to the Ford job, I would have to go past the GM plant. So I took the GM job."
He started at $3.28 an hour, more than double the $1.25 he'd been making in Memphis. "It felt like 50 times more. I still have that check. I have it framed."