Addie L. Wyatt drew on her experience in the American labor movement to become a national leader for social justice, civil rights, and women’s rights.
Wyatt was born in Mississippi in 1924 and soon her family followed other African Americans to Mississippi. In 1940, she married Claude S. Wyatt, Jr. Wyatt’s deep faith led her to eventually to join her husband as a minister of the Vernon Park Church of God.
In 1941, Wyatt, looking to help with home expenses, began working in Chicago’s meat packing industry. Despite raising two children and caring for her brothers and sisters, Wyatt worked in the meat packing plants until 1954. She threw herself into the rising labor movement, and in 1953 she was elected vice president of the United Packinghouse and Food and Alliance Workers Union Local 26, which made her a pioneer in breaking gender barriers in American labor.
Wyatt had already established a national name for herself when the Chicago civil rights movement began to heat up in the early 1960s. (President John Kennedy appointed her to the Commission on the Status of Women.) During the Chicago Freedom Movement, Wyatt served on the Action Committee, which carried out protests and demonstrations. Few women served on this committee, and only men composed the Agenda Committee, which was charged with fashioning overall strategy.
The United Packinghouse Workers were one of the few unions to support the Chicago civil rights movement with vigor. The Packinghouse Workers union had always embraced a progressive social vision, though by the mid-1960s, the influence of the Chicago local had declined as Chicago’s packinghouses closed down. When Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of creating a broad coalition to end slums, he hoped that other labor unions would be as energetic partners as the Packinghouse Workers union.
After the Chicago Freedom Movement, Wyatt supported Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket (later the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition), and she rose further in the labor movement becoming in 1976 the international vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (the successor of the United Packinghouse Workers union). She became the first African-American woman to serve in the leadership of an international union. In 1975 Time magazine named her one of twelve Women of the Year.