Balls And Strikes : Code Switch Matilda Crawford. Sallie Bell. Carrie Jones. Dora Jones. Orphelia Turner. Sarah A. Collier. In 1881, these six Black women brought the city of Atlanta to a complete standstill by going on strike. The strategies they used in their fight for better working conditions have implications for future generations of organizers — and resonances with the professional sports strikes happening today.

Balls And Strikes

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I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.


I'm Gene Demby. And this is CODE SWITCH.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And the city of Kenosha, Wis., is cleaning up after overnight protests that led to broken windows and torched vehicles.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Black lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) No justice.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) No justice.


DEMBY: So y'all have been living through this summer. It's been marked by outrage around police violence. Most recently the city of Kenosha, Wis., has become this site of national attention and conversation about race in America. A video went viral of local police officers shooting a Black man named Jacob Blake at least seven times as he walked away from those officers and toward his car, his car where several of his children incidentally were in the back seat. Jacob Blake somehow miraculously survived, although his family's attorney said that he is now paralyzed. And there has been unrest in Kenosha ever since, as protesters have clashed with police, and in one incident, an armed 17-year-old white counter-protester has been accused of shooting and killing two marchers and seriously injuring several others.


STERLING BROWN: The past four months have shed a light on the ongoing racial injustices facing out African American community. Citizens around the country have used their voices and platforms to speak out against these wrongdoings.

MERAJI: In response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, players on the Milwaukee Bucks - now, if you don't know, Milwaukee is about a 45-minute drive away from Kenosha, so players on the Milwaukee Bucks, which was one of the favorites to win the NBA championship, they did something big.


BROWN: So our focus today cannot be on basketball.


JESSE WASHINGTON: As we were all preparing to settle in for another evening of NBA playoff basketball, the word started coming out of the locker room that the Milwaukee Bucks were not going to play.

MERAJI: That decision shocked the sports world. It was an unprecedented move - players in 1 of the 3 major sports refusing to compete in a game, in the playoffs no less, in protest. And in short order, every NBA team slated to play agreed to do the same thing, as well as several Major League Baseball teams, including the Milwaukee Brewers.

DEMBY: It's really hard to overstate, like, how remarkable and how big a deal this was because for 48 hours, their sports universe was on hold. And it looked like the NBA's players might have unilaterally decided to cancel the entire NBA season. We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.


DEMBY: And at first, a lot of media coverage was calling these actions taken by the players a boycott. That's how they were referring to it. But that's not quite right because a boycott is when people take away their spending, when they withhold their patronage and their purchasing power to use as leverage towards, you know, some political goal. But these athletes, they were not taking away their spending. They were taking away something much more valuable - their labor. This was not a boycott. This was a strike.

MERAJI: And striking is incredibly confrontational because striking forces people in a very real way to take sides.

DEMBY: If there are no workers to keep things going, in the case of the NBA, the business grinds to a halt. So you take teachers for an example. Teachers striking for better working conditions, they may be aiming their demands at lawmakers or administrators who have the power to change the things they want, but they also run this big risk of pissing off all the parents who have kids that they can't send to school back, you know, when kids were sent to school.

MERAJI: Right. And let's not forget, though, that strikes are hard on the strikers themselves. They don't get paid while they're striking. They risk serious retaliation for walking off the job. So how do you sustain that level of dedication in the face of that kind of hardship? Strikes are not easy to pull off, which is one of the reasons people don't strike very often. And in the case of the NBA, the players came in for condemnation, from fans, from sports columnists and, unsurprisingly, from the White House. On this episode, we're going to talk about all the work that goes into making a strike effective by telling you the story about one that went down a long time ago, a strike I had never heard of.

DEMBY: I'd never heard of it either, Shereen. Jahdziah St. Julien wrote about the strike a few months ago. Jahdziah works for the Better Life Lab at the New America think tank. And the strike she wrote about was organized and led by six Black women - Matilda Crawford, Sallie Bell, Carrie Jones, Dora Jones, Orphelia Turner and Sarah A. Collier.


DEMBY: Those women were fighting for better treatment and better wages. And in the process, they brought one of America's major cities to a complete standstill by refusing to work.

JAHDZIAH ST JULIEN: In 1881 in July and about 20 women and a few men met together in a small church in the neighborhood of Summerhill in Atlanta, Ga. And then afterwards, they sent out word to ministers to just tell their congregations about a meeting that was going to happen at another church to formally create the Washing Society of Atlanta.


DEMBY: The Washing Society of Atlanta. Today, we'd probably call the society they founded a union. One of the first orders of business for the Washing Society of Atlanta was to be able to set their price for their work. And they happened to do with the kind of work that people didn't want to spend a lot of money on but that those same people needed to survive. And as that society's name suggested, they washed clothes.

MERAJI: And we're not talking about taking a few loads to the laundromat or throwing your clothes into the machine at home if you're lucky enough to have one.

ST JULIEN: These women were bending over these metal wash bins. And they had to create their own water basins, their own washing basins, by, you know, cutting barrels in half. They had to create their own soap by mixing lye together. They hauled their own water. They had to use these really heavy irons to really get the linen and the clothing perfectly starched and ironed. They're working in front of these really hot fires, which they would need - right? - to heat up the irons. And so this is something that they would do for days at a time. So at the start of the week, they would go to the homes of their customers, pick up the laundry in these massive loads, bring them to their own homes and wash the clothes there and then bring the clothes back - right? - at the end of the week and only for a paltry sum of - what? - $4 to $8 a month.

MERAJI: And when these women got together to found their society, they were a part of a huge workforce of Black women who were working in the homes of white people. Ninety-eight percent of Black women in Atlanta at that time who were working were domestic workers, and they were often the only income earners in their homes. But even this paltry sum was seen as a lot to the white Atlantans who were still bristling at the notion that they had to pay Black people at all for their work.

ST JULIEN: I think we have to do our best to really understand the context in which this strike took place, right? 1865 - June 19, 1865, slavery has officially ended, and we have a new generation of African Americans who are going into this new era of Reconstruction and freedom. And so when we think about the laundry workers, they are living with a very clear memory of slavery and what that was. And so when they are striking for fair wages, in a way, they are saying we're not going back to a moment of bondage where our labor was not valued.

DEMBY: These women were doing this, like, right after Reconstruction ended. It wasn't long after the birth and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which was going around terrorizing Black people to keep them from organizing and agitating politically, which is what these women were doing. It was at a time that many places started passing vagrancy laws, which, if y'all don't know, effectively made it a crime for people to not be working. And it was only used against Black people, which was a way to keep Black people in fields and mines and factories, a way to perpetuate the old order of slavery even though slavery was no longer legal. So when these women were deciding to strike, this is what they were up against.

MERAJI: So instead of being paid these monthly wages, the washer women asked - no, they didn't ask. They demanded that they be paid for the clothes they cleaned by weight. But, of course, if you're gone on strike, you can't have other washers agreeing to work and undercutting you.

ST JULIEN: They used social pressure - right? - to get other women who were laundry workers who were not yet involved to join the movement. So in some cases, it ranged from, you know, cornering someone, right? It's like, oh, is that - is that Sally? Sally is not - she - OK, let's go talk to Sally. Sally, so what are you doing, right? What's that? Is that - is that laundry? Are you - are you doing laundry right now? So it's this idea of they would gather together. If they saw someone who was still working, they would go up to that individual and say, you need to join us. You need to join us now. And it could get a little intense. And there was even some account of, you know, some public disagreements that may or may not have led to some physical altercation. But that's how seriously these women were taking it.

MELISSA GRAY, BYLINE: (Reading) The laundry ladies' efforts to control the prices for washing are still prevalent, and no small amount of talk is occasioned thereby. The women have a thoroughly organized association, and additions to the membership are being made each day. During the day, the house of every colored woman who is not a member of the association is visited and a regular siege begun. And in nearly every instance, an addition to the membership is the result. In this way, the meetings, which are had every night, are largely attended and generally very demonstrative. Speeches advocating their rights and exhorting the members to remain firm are numerous and frequent. To several families whose washing left home Monday morning, the clothing has been returned ringing wet, the woman having become a member of the association after taking the washing away. It is rumored that house help is also on the eve of a strike - Atlanta Constitution, July 21, 1881.

MERAJI: Within just a few weeks of their first meeting to start their Washing Society, the initial group of 20 women and a few men had grown to nearly 3,000 Black women. Jahdziah said there are a few white washers who joined them as well. And as word of their organizing spread, Atlanta's white society grew increasingly irritated.

ST JULIEN: So in the newspaper, there was a lot of, you know, talk about how this strike, you know, is unreasonable. They're asking for unreasonably high prices. And there are, you know, some customers who responded by not conceding to the prices that the laundry workers were asking for and really just sending their laundry elsewhere at the end of the day.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: (Reading) The washer woman strike is assuming vast proportions and despite the apparent independence of the white people is causing quite an inconvenience among our citizens. In one instance, the demand for $1 per dozen was acceded to. Those who declined to give this price are still wanting washers. Several families who have declined to pay the price demanded have determined to send their clothing to Marietta where they have secured laundry service. The strikers hold daily meetings and are exhorted by the leaders who are confident that the demands will be granted. The committee still visit the women and induce them to join the strike, and when a refusal is met, threats of personal violence are freely indulged to such an extent as to cause a compromise with their demands. There are some families in Atlanta who have been unable to have any washing done for more than two weeks. Not only the washer women but the cooks, house servants and nurses are asking increases. The combinations are being managed by the laundry ladies. Atlanta Constitution, July 26, 1881.

MERAJI: The strikers timed their work stoppage strategically.

ST JULIEN: When these strikes were first getting off the ground, the International Cotton Exposition of 1881 was being planned. And that was going to take place on October 5. And the goal of this international exposition was really to show the face of the New South. Every seat in the Union was invited and would be present. And representatives from, you know, countries from other parts of the world would be there. And the idea would be to show the goals, the accomplishments, the achievements of the new and the industrializing South. But how can you do that - right? - if you have a movement of workers who are doing the opposite of showing the docility and the obedience of a cheap and available source of labor when they're revolting against that?

DEMBY: So Atlanta's moneyed, white denizens did what moneyed, white denizens do. And they sicked there institutional power on the washer women in order to break up their strike.

GRAY: (Reading) We learned that at the next meeting of the city council, an ordinance will be offered requiring all washer women belonging to any association or society to pay a business tax or license. Atlanta Constitution, July 26, 1881.

DEMBY: That business licensing fee was to hit them in their pockets. But the council's plan backfired.

ST JULIEN: The washer women wrote saying, yeah, we'll take the fee. That's totally fine. We'll pay $25 or $50.

ANDREA Y HENDERSON, BYLINE: (Reading) We can afford to pay these licenses. And we'll do it before we will be defeated. And then we'll have full control of the city's washing at our own prices as the city has control of our husbands' work at their prices. Don't forget this. We hope to hear from your council Tuesday morning. We mean business this week or no washing. Yours respectfully. Letter To Mayor James English, August 3, 1881.

DEMBY: Yours respectfully - that is elegant shade right there.


MERAJI: So their bet was, if you have to be licensed to do certain jobs, then great. Randoms can't just swoop in and try to do that job and undercut you on the price. They need to get a license, too.

DEMBY: Right. And so the Atlanta City Council, realizing it was only further empowering these unruly Black laundresses, back down on those fees. They decided, well, all right. We can just start locking them up.

GRAY: (Reading) The sixtette of ebony-hued damsels was charged with disorderly conduct and quarrelling. And in each case, except the last, a fine of $5 was imposed and subsequently paid.

DEMBY: Ebony-hued damsels.


DEMBY: What a weird phrase. OK. Anyway...

GRAY: (Reading) In the case of Sarah A. Collier, $20 was assessed. And the money not being paid, the defendant's name was transcribed to the chain-gang book where it will remain for 40 days. Each of these cases resulted from the washer women's strike. As members of the organization, they have visited women who are taking no part in the strike and have threatened personal violence unless their demands were acceded to and their examples followed. During their rounds, they met with persons who opposed the strike and who declined to submit to their proposition to become members. This opposition caused an excessive use of abusive and threatening language. And the charge of disorderly conduct and quarrelling was the result. Atlanta Constitution, July 29, 1881.

DEMBY: And this will sound familiar. The strike was a threat to law and order.

MERAJI: Yeah. The city tried to hit these threatening women with fines, locking them up. Some white Atlantans decided to ship their clothes to other cities to be done. But, you know, that wasn't very convenient. And all of these well-off white denizens, they were just - they were so tired of having to wait for their laundry to come back from a different city. They were tired of having their wet, dirty clothes returned to them. So Jahdziah said Atlanta's white society eventually gave in.


DEMBY: The strike worked. And what happened with the washer woman strike - that may seem remarkable. And it was remarkable. But Jahdziah said there are some real concrete and replicable strategies that they used that made their strike so effective.

ST JULIEN: You know, we can just do a quick laundry list - pun intended, I would say, in that case.

MERAJI: (Laughter) I love it. All right. Let's count them off.

DEMBY: OK - No. 1.


ST JULIEN: The importance and the ability to coordinate to promote collective action is something that is crucial to the effectiveness of any strike or any kind of protest.

DEMBY: Coordinate - you've got to coordinate. So you have to have as many workers to join you as possible.

MERAJI: Power in numbers - check - No. 2.


ST JULIEN: The ability to clearly articulate objectives is something that the Atlanta washer women did and is something that we all should do when we're thinking about collective organizing.

MERAJI: So be clear and concise about what you want to accomplish.

DEMBY: Three...


ST JULIEN: Something else that we should take away is the importance of creating costs - right? - to the people that we're trying to convince or draw attention from. And so this idea of inconveniencing those who are comfortable with the status quo to then use power to then create that kind of change.

MERAJI: No. 4.


MERAJI: Be consistent.

ST JULIEN: So they didn't knock on doors every other week. They knocked on doors every single day. They held rallies every single day.

MERAJI: And No. 5...


MERAJI: ...Is get the media to pay attention. And the laundry workers did this by making all of this hugely inconvenient for those wealthy, white employers who then complained to the white press. Hey, reporters. Can you believe this?

ST JULIEN: And so what you have is, a week into the protests, people couldn't stand it. They couldn't stand having smelly clothes on their steps. They couldn't stand the fact that a laundry worker dropped off clothes that were just sopping wet because they just decided to stop halfway and join a strike. And so this idea that they really inconvenienced an entire city and really alerted them to the fact that, hey, our essential work is important; the work that we're doing, you depend on it.

DEMBY: Lesson six is all about persisting in the face of the aforementioned penalties and the costs. These women obviously were not getting paid when they were on strike.


ST JULIEN: And let's be mindful that a lot of the workers engaged in the strike are breadwinners. They're parents. They have kids that they need to feed. And so this isn't some small matter, but it does require persistence of the will to continue. And then we think about the women who were arrested on allegations of quarreling and dissension, right? And, you know, they persisted.

DEMBY: Then, finally, Jahdziah says...


DEMBY: ...You've got to think about timing.

ST JULIEN: It was a happy coincidence that the strike occurred in the months leading up to the International Cotton Exposition. So it's this idea of, like, we know something big is coming up; we're going to pressure you up until that point to listen to us, to meet our demands, because we know what's at stake, and you know what's at stake so, really, the timing is, you know, you choose, you know? So I think, again, just running that off, it's clear objectives, coordinating collective action, creating some kind of cost on the larger public to really force them to pay attention, persevering in the face of penalties and costs, being consistent and also just having good timing. And I would like to think that the WNBA and the NBA both have demonstrated that in this past week, for sure.

MERAJI: Bringing us all the way back to 2020. After the break, we're going to get into how the WNBA and the NBA used some of these same strategies and what's different with this strike.

DEMBY: Stay with us.


MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.



MERAJI: So, Gene, before the break, Jahdziah told us about the conditions that were swirling all around when the laundry workers strike happened. These women who organized the Washing Society of Atlanta, they were fewer than two decades out of slavery. They were witness to all sorts of displays of horrific state violence, and they really weren't sure what direction society was heading in.

DEMBY: Yeah. And Jahdziah says we are a long way away from the immediate shadow of slavery, but there are a lot of similarities between then and now.

ST JULIEN: So when we're thinking about this summer, in and of itself, we've witnessed the death of a number of Black men and Black women at the hands of, you know, state violence. And when we think about the coronavirus and the economic, really, destruction that the response has culminated in and just the reality that, across the board, Black people are suffering economically, and when you think about the essential workers right now who are on the front lines, within certain sectors like the food services, particularly, and how they are disproportionately occupied by Black workers and people of color, other workers of color, just kind of taking place within this moment of economic and political and social tension, but also maybe that being what can propel movement and social change, I think is something that I would point to as being similar in both moments.

MERAJI: All right, Gene, Jahdziah brought it back to today, so let's go there. The NBA players definitely used a lot of the strategies Jahdziah's been talking about. They leveraged timing. After all, they delayed the playoffs, and that created an inconvenience for both the fans and other people in the sports industry - owners, sponsors, advertisers, the list goes on. But there are huge differences between this NBA strike and the laundry workers strike we've been talking about. The laundry workers were poor Black women who had to fight to be noticed and would struggle without a day of pay, without a week of pay, let alone a month of pay. Whereas NBA players, they're wealthy, and they already have this huge media platform.

DEMBY: Yeah, like, even dudes at the end of the bench have a million Instagram followers.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: And that's part of the reason this protest is getting so much more attention than any of the stands that the WNBA has taken, comparatively. I mean, the players in the WNBA have always been more outspoken on issues of racial justice than the players in the NBA or, really, any other professional sports league. Like Maya Moore - Maya Moore, one of the four or five greatest women's players ever. She plays for the Minnesota Lynx. What she did before she took a year off from her prime to work on social justice issues, she spent a year trying to get someone exonerated for being wrongfully convicted. So they've been doing these things for a long time, like, really rolling up their sleeves and getting into it. And most people don't know that that happened. But LeBron James puts on a T-shirt that says, I can't breathe. And that becomes national headline news.

MERAJI: Right. And when WNBA teams wore shirts to protest racism and police violence, they got fined $5,000 per team and $500 per player. Local police on security detail at a Minnesota Lynx game walked off the job after women on the team wore Black Lives Matter shirts. So the WNBA players, they were catching all the smoke, whereas the NBA players, like you said, wore I can't breathe shirts after Eric Garner's death. And they suffered no repercussions or very little. They definitely weren't fined. And they make so much more money.

DEMBY: So much more.

MERAJI: You know, the WNBA fines were later rescinded after a social media campaign brought attention to the issue. But still, these women make so much less money than their male counterparts. Jahdziah pointed out that the average salary for the WNBA is $130,000 a year. But a first year player in the NBA has a minimum - we're talking a minimum - starting salary of $898,000 a year. And that's not the only difference between the two leagues.

ST JULIEN: When you even think about the extent to which the WNBA has had televised attention, it's not until the season that they now have the most games scheduled to be televised than they've ever had before, whereas the NBA, you know, they are - regularly televise their games, you know, large audiences. But it's not until recently that the WNBA has recently been gaining more attention. And I do think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that the WNBA is a women's basketball league. This idea of unequal attention, unequal pay and compensation, it goes well beyond the WNBA and the NBA and is really just something that's apparent when we're talking about just - all industries, in all sectors.

DEMBY: And then there's this other weird thing happening right now, this odd scheduling quirk that's a result of the COVID pandemic. For those of y'all that don't watch basketball, the NBA season is usually over in June. And the WNBA takes over in the summer. But because of the pandemic, the playoffs got pushed to the middle of the WNBA's regular summer season. So these women who have been organizing and vocal and active have been getting nudged out of the spotlight even more because suddenly the men are playing at the same time and are all over the TV screens.

And like you said, because WNBA players are paid so much less - the same is true for the National Women's Soccer League - their activism is more risky. These are athletes - these are workers with far less protection. Jahdziah also pointed out that one of the biggest differences between the washerwoman strike of 1881 and this professional sports strike that we just saw is the NBA players have so much power. And she said it's really important that they're using that power to unite with other workers in this moment.

ST JULIEN: Which is what makes them so unique and so very important, I think, in this particular moment because I think that, particularly now, when we're thinking about their decision to walk out and their ongoing protests against police brutality, police violence against Black people specifically and people of color, I think what we see is that in doing so, they're also exemplifying that they are workers who are united with other workers - right? - who are also striking against and protesting against police brutality and against the devaluation of Black lives.

DEMBY: Jahdziah says all these people who are striking right now are part of this larger wave that is happening, whether it's the rent strikes we're seeing in cities all across the country to things like work stoppages.

ST JULIEN: You could put this in the context of let's say the workers' strike for black lives, which took place on July 20 of this year, right? And so there's no need, I would think, to separate that strike, which actually took place worldwide and across the United States, with the strikes and the protests that the WNBA and the NBA and the protest that they're performing right now.


ST JULIEN: I think if we were to write a history - let's say, like, let's fast-forward 50, 60 years. If we were to look back - right? - and think about, you know, what was the response of labor and workers in this particular moment in history? I think the NBA and the WNBA and other athletes would be part of this conversation about, well, this is how labor responded.


DEMBY: Jahdziah St. Julien writes for the Better Life Lab at New America.


DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. You can follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. You can follow Shereen @radiomirage - that's all one word. You can follow me @geedee215. That's G-E-E-D-E-E-2-1-5. We want to hear from y'all. Our email is And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

MERAJI: And you can subscribe to our newsletter. It's really good. It goes out every week -

DEMBY: And special thanks to Jada S. Smith (ph) and Amir Rose Davis (ph) for their help with this episode.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry with help from Jess Kung and Leah Donnella. And it was edited by Leah Donnella.

DEMBY: Those historical voices you heard, they were from our play cousins Andrea Henderson, Melissa Gray and Wade Goodwyn. And, of course, we have to shout out the rest of the CODE SWITCH familia - Kumari Devarajan, Karen Grigsby Bates, LA Johnson, Natalie Escobar and Steve Drummond. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.

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