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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

This weekend, The Weekend Reader brings you The March On Washington: Jobs, Freedom, And The Forgotten History Of Civil Rights by William P. Jones. Jones, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin and contributor to The Nation, wants to remind the reader of what the civil rights movement and the March On Washington really aimed to do — promote equality and fair and equal jobs through the help of unions. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington on August 28, we can’t help but reflect on the current dichotomy between the Republican war on unions and the push to reform and rebuild the middle class by creating jobs — these have always remained a priority in the U.S. 

Representative John Lewis (D-GA), a civil rights activist who spoke at the march in 1963, said on Wednesday, “Fifty years later, those of us who are committed to the cause of justice need to pace ourselves because our struggle does not last for one day, one week or one year, but it is the struggle of a lifetime, and each generation must do its part. There will be progress, but there will also be setbacks. We must continue to have hope and be steeled in our faith that this nation will one day become a truly multiracial democracy.”

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At the “Salute and Support the Heroes of the South” rally in Madison Square Garden on May 31, 1956, Eleanor Roosevelt and several other speakers emphasized that “everything isn’t sweetness and light in the North insofar as the Negro is concerned,” and that discrimination existed in New York as well as in Montgomery. Earl Brown, the city councilman who had urged a mass exodus from Mississippi following Emmett Till’s lynching, disagreed. “By no means should we overlook or cover up racial ills existing North of the Mason-Dixon line. But conditions are far different below it than above,” wrote the black journalist and politician. Pointing out that racism was more firmly planted in southern “law, public opinion and practices,” Brown insisted: “we cannot solve our problems in the North until we at least make some appreciable headway toward solving them in the South.” For that reason, he applauded A. Philip Randolph for initiating the “truly mammoth” event. In addition to letting “the enemy know we are coming,” the councilman wrote, it was significant that the rally was sponsored by a black trade unionist who had succeeded in convincing white union leaders that “their welfare is tied up in civil rights as well as the Negro’s.”

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Earl Brown overestimated the support that Randolph received from white union leaders, but it was true that Randolph and other black trade unionists played key roles in drawing attention to and raising funds for the grassroots movements that erupted in the South following the Brown decision. The massive rallies following Emmett Till’s murder in August 1955 had been initiated by Willoughby Abner, a leader of the United Auto Workers in Chicago. That September, activists from the Chicago district of the United Packinghouse Workers had accompanied Emmett Till’s mother to Harlem, where Mamie Till-Bradley spoke at a rally sponsored by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Cleveland Robinson and other black leaders of the Retail Workers District 65 organized the “Garment Center Labor Rally” on October 11 in New York, and the Madison Square Garden rally was organized primarily by Maida Springer, of the Garment Workers.

While black trade unionists agreed with Councilman Brown that segregation and discrimination were more deeply rooted in the laws and customs of the South, however, they were equally committed to eliminating them in the North. Willoughby Abner had been born in Chicago in 1920 and joined the union while working night shifts at a Studebaker factory to pay his way through college and law school during the Second World War. Hired onto the staff of the union after completing his degrees, he rose through the ranks by organizing thousands of black and white workers in factories on the South Side of Chicago after the war. By the 1950s Abner was director of education and political action for 50,000 UAW members in Chicago. Willoughby Abner’s closest ally in Chicago was Charles Hayes, a black leader of the United Packinghouse Workers. Formed during the Great Depression by Communists and Socialists who believed that fighting racism was essential to building unions, by the Second World War the Packinghouse Workers had become one of the most racially diverse and egalitarian unions in the United States. Hayes and other black workers pushed it to expand that commitment by supporting a permanent Fair Employment Practices Act and by mobilizing its members to confront discrimination in employment and housing after the war. In 1954 he was elected director of the union’s largest district, which encompassed all its locals in Chicago. The same year, Willoughby Abner was elected chairman of the executive committee of the Chicago NAACP, and the two threw their unions behind efforts to integrate public housing projects in Chicago, open white-collar jobs to black workers in meatpacking and other industries, and elect black workers to leadership in unions, civil rights groups, and city government.