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Black History Month is more than just an opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of African-Americans and the contributions they have made to the fabric of American society. For those of us in the labor movement, it also is a time to express gratitude for the brave African-Americans who had the foresight to know that labor rights and civil rights could not be mutually exclusive.
From as far back as the early 1800s, African-American workers knew that organizing would lead to higher pay, fair working conditions and the chance to ensure a better future for their families. Consequently, these workers formed their own labor organizations such as the American League of Colored Laborers, the Association of Black Caulkers and the Waiter Protective Association of New York, to name just a few.
The organization of African-American workers gained new momentum when labor rights visionary and civil rights activist A. Phillip Randolph began his 12-year fight to organize Pullman porters by founding the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation’s first African-American union in 1925. In the late 1930s, the union became the first African-American affiliate of the American Federation of Labor, later known as the AFL-CIO. Randolph served as AFL-CIO vice president from 1955 to 1968.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the labor rights movement became intertwined with the civil rights movement when Randolph and other African-American labor rights activists helped expand the idea of civil rights beyond voting, education and desegregation to include access to more and better-paying jobs for African-Americans. Randolph is credited with organizing the most prominent display of the unshakeable bond between the civil rights and labor rights movements: the 1963 March on Washington. Although Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is better known, Randolph’s exhortation to attendees to take part in a “revolution for jobs and freedom,” is no less important.
Due to the courage and tenacity of African-Americans within the labor movement, organized labor became one of the civil rights movement’s most reliable and trusted allies. In addition to organizing their own unions, African-Americans worked to integrate established unions even though the racism they experienced in everyday life extended into their work environments. Instead of giving up, African-Americans forged ahead in their efforts to ensure worker and civil rights and enabled labor unions to become the highly effective, multi-racial organizations they are today.
With the recent passing of Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks, two civil rights heroines who were great friends to the labor movement, we are reminded once again of the debt organized labor owes to African-Americans who fought in various ways for inclusion and equality in the face of tremendous obstacles. Black History Month provides the perfect opportunity to express gratitude for the work of these brave men and women and serves as a reminder that the struggles of the past have led to the victories of today.