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Obituaries

Evelyn Munro, 92; union activist

February 26, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Evelyn Smith Munro, a longtime activist who fought for sharecroppers' rights in one of the nation's first racially integrated labor unions, died of natural causes Feb. 16 at her Laguna Beach home. She was 92.

Munro provided crucial early support to the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, formed in 1934 to improve working conditions for sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the South.

Although often overlooked in history books, the union helped set the stage for the civil rights movement three decades later as a model for social action that united blacks and whites behind a common cause of economic justice. It embraced nonviolence, gave leadership roles to women and blacks and won wage increases for its workers.

Hired as a secretary, Munro called herself the "Girl Friday" of the union, but her involvement ran deeper than her unofficial title suggests.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Evelyn Munro obituary: A photo caption with the obituary of union activist Evelyn Munro in Monday's California section identified Cesar Chavez as the founder of the United Farm Workers. Chavez was the co-founder of the organization with Dolores Huerta.

She supervised the union's headquarters in Memphis, Tenn., and became a trusted associate and close friend of H.L. Mitchell, the Arkansas socialist who co-founded the organization and was its driving force for two decades.

She often accompanied Mitchell and other union officers on dangerous missions that brought her face to face with a lynch mob and vigilante patrols that served plantation owners.

Later, as the union's education director, she produced study materials, edited a newspaper and developed a union songbook. She also was a member of the executive board and coached other women to become union activists.

"She was extraordinarily competent," said Van Hawkins, a historian of the South who has written a forthcoming book about the union. "Mitchell said she was the most important woman involved in the union, and he didn't know what he would have done without her."

In his autobiographies, Mitchell, who died in 1989, portrayed Munro warmly. "Evelyn rode the backcountry roads with me, contacting union members at night, dodging the Night Riders on the prowl," he wrote in "Roll the Union On," published in 1987.

Mitchell's son, Samuel, a professor at the University of Calgary in Canada, said Munro was "an alter ego both for my father and Howard Kester," another co-founder and a prolific organizer.

The union eventually broadened its operations to California and became the National Farm Labor Union, which recruited a young Cesar Chavez into its ranks in 1948. One of Munro's treasured possessions was a photograph of her marching with Chavez years later, after he founded the United Farm Workers.

Munro was born in New Orleans on March 15, 1914, to a family of modest means. As a girl, she rejected the prevailing racist attitudes and befriended the black women who washed and cleaned for them.

When she was older, she was attracted to the ideas of Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party leader who ran for president six times between 1928 and 1948. "He spoke about the things that eventually molded me. I realized that I belonged to the whole universe and not just one group," Munro told the Orange County Register in 2003.

She joined the Socialist Party when she was 21. In 1935, after she had studied briefly at the University of Mississippi, a party colleague recommended her to Mitchell, who was looking for someone to run the office of his fledgling union.

Promised a job for a month, she wound up staying five years.

"I went to Memphis, and that was the beginning of the rest of my life," she said.

During those years, Munro accompanied Mitchell on expeditions fraught with risk. She rode with him when they went searching for the body of a union worker reported killed by plantation bosses. She was present at sharecroppers' meetings when they were raided by sheriff's deputies and "riding bosses" -- armed men whose job was to intimidate union workers -- and once was chased by a carload of men wielding guns and axes.

Another time, she took it upon herself to gather evidence against an Arkansas plantation owner who was holding 13 union members as slaves in retribution for their participation in a protest march. Munro and a colleague pretended to be on a picnic and took photographs of the stockade where the workers were imprisoned. The plantation owner was later tried and convicted of peonage.

Munro left the sharecroppers union in 1940 to work for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in Knoxville, Tenn., where she organized two factories. She later moved to New York, where she worked at Columbia University as a personnel assistant for the Manhattan Project. During this time, she met David Munro, a linguist, and married him in 1945.

He died in 1997. Munro is survived by daughters Abigail Munro-Proulx of Arcata, Calif., Hannah Flom of Knapp, Wis., and Rebecca Munro of Belmont, N.C.; 12 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Munro moved to California in 1947 and was West Coast education and publicity director for the garment workers union.

Over the next decades, she traveled widely, often because of her husband's teaching assignments. They arrived in Cuba just before the revolution of 1959 and spent a few years in Nigeria, where Munro established a preschool.

When she was in her 60s, she went back to college and earned a bachelor's degree in social ecology from UC Irvine in 1977. She worked for the university's extension program for 11 years as an editor and writer and retired in 1979.

In Laguna Beach, her home for more than 50 years, she was a well-known community activist who fed the homeless at local parks once a week. A skilled photographer whose brother Bradley Smith had been a noted photographer for Life, Time and other magazines, she often donated her work to local charities.

She also became a lover of all things French who made annual trips to Paris for years. Her family plans a memorial service for Bastille Day, July 14.

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elaine.woo@latimes.com

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