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Catfish and Courage

When you first meet Sarah Claree White, you may not realize she’s a legend.

You may not know that this 44-year-old grandmother, a union organizer at the Delta Pride catfish plant, was a leader in one of the largest strikes of Black workers in Mississippi.

Indianola, Mississippi, is in the heart of the Delta, a region where thousands of homes still do not have adequate plumbing and where 12 counties have poverty rates above 30 percent. The few jobs that remain for low-skilled workers tend to be in factories, especially ones that process catfish.

And in the 1980’s Delta Pride, one of the country’s largest processors of catfish, had labor conditions that were not far removed from the days of slavery. Workers—most of them single Black mothers making minimum wage or just above—had no medical benefits or job security. They say that if they became ill or stayed home to care for a sick child, they could be fired. Thanksgiving and Christmas were the only holidays at Delta Pride, a company that was then owned by 178 White farmers.

Sarah says sexual harassment was rampant. Male supervisors would sometimes rub up against the women as they worked on the production lines, “feeling on them,” she recalls, “and asking where they lived. ‘I’ll put you on an easier job,’ the men would tell them, ‘if I can come by and see you.’ ”

Bathroom privileges were limited, and there were no doors on the stalls, so women provided privacy for one another. Supervisors sometimes trailed workers to the bathroom with a timer to make sure they didn’t exceed the allotted time.

“And sometimes they would call meetings and tell the women they were good for nothing but having babies,” Sarah says.