January 20, 2003
Labor Monday- MLK Day Edition
Something different this week. I thought I'd spotlight some history of labor leaders and civil rights, especially some early black leaders who are often overlooked in popular history.
Let's start with A. Phillip Randolph, organizer and head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the early part of this century. The first black head of a labor union in the AFL-CIO, Randolph in many ways made the civil rights movement possible. He fought to desegregate defense factories in World War II, threatening to mount the first "March on Washington" during WWII. Roosevelt, fearing the political effects, agreed to establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission , the first major federal agency prosecuting discrimination in US industry.
Randolph also fought with Truman to desegregate the US military. In 1963, it was Randolph who proposed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
As important as the role of Randolph in leading the fight for civil rights was the way both his union and the industries he desegregated created a new black working class with the income and political clout to first remake northern urban politics, creating a base for civil rights support, then creating outposts in the South.
In the history of the civil rights movement, E.D. Nixon's role in setting the stage for the Montgomery Bus Boycott is often forgotten. Nixon was a leader in the Sleeping Car Porters union and a close associate of Philip Randolph and became president of the Voters League of Montgomery in 1944. He was also leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in Alabama. He was a major organizer in building the bus boycott and became chairman of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) which was formed to manage the boycott.
Bayard Rustin, whose story is on a PBS film this week (Brother Outsider), was a pioneer in labor rights, civil rights, and anti-war work.
Rustin was a pacifist and a concientous objector to war in all forms, and was sent to jail in 1944 for violating the Selective Service Act. In 1947, a decade before the Montgomery Boycott, Rustin had worked with what was known as the Fellowship of Reconciliation to challenge Jim Crow on buses in the South. He ended up serving a 30-day sentence in North Carolina for violating the segregation laws of that state, an experience he made famous in his Twenty-Two Days on a Chain Gang. He was a major organizer of the Congress of Racial Equality (Core), which would later organize the more famous Freedom Rides down South.
He would later be the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and would then become the founding executive director of the AFL-CIO's A. Phillip Randolph Institute. He would write of the convergence of civil rights and labor rights in his piece The Blacks and the Unions.
For more articles on the general history of labor unions and civil rights, see
Africana.com's Labor Unions in the United States
African-Americans in Unions: Working Towards Power
African-American Labor History Links at AFSCME
Posted by Nathan at January 20, 2003 03:17 PM
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INteresting post. Perhaps, however, you could also take a look at how the labor union movement was for many years dedicated to keeping blacks excluded from the workforce. See, for example, David Bernstein's book Only One Place of Redress: African-Americans, Labor Regulations, and the Courts from Reconstruction to the New Deal (Duke, 2001). Or see this short interview with him here:
His conclusion: "The basic theme is that, because African-Americans were disenfranchised in the 1890ís to the 1930ís, labor regulations that were traditionally seen as progressive and helpful to the workers were actually used by white workers to exclude African-Americans."
Posted by: Stuart Buck at January 21, 2003 08:46 AM
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Posted by: Wendell Howell at March 22, 2004 11:29 AM