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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.”

You can purchase the book here.

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.

Noting the influence that Abner, Hayes, and other black trade unionists had gained in Chicago’s labor movement by 1954, the Chicago Defender reported that “these men exemplify the New Negro labor leadership” that served as leaders of local unions and district councils, organizers and business representatives, and representatives to joint boards and municipal labor federations in cities across the United States. In contrast to the 1920s, when A. Philip Randolph had organized a separate union for black workers who were excluded from the AFL railway brotherhoods, this younger generation gained leadership primarily in CIO Packinghouse, Auto, and Clothing unions in which the majority of members were white. “So when a Negro in these interracial unions is elected district leader the fact is not only a salute to his character,” observed the Defender, “but a tribute to the ability of the labor movement to overcome prejudice.”

The New Negroes were not just men. One of Charles Hayes’s closest collaborators was Addie Wyatt, who had joined the Packinghouse Workers in 1942 after union leaders prevented management from replacing her with a less experienced white woman and firing her when she took leave to have a baby. Having taken a job in a packinghouse at the age of seventeen, with the hope of getting a job in the office, the Mississippi native was elected president of her union in the late 1940s and hired as an organizer in 1954. Maida Springer worked closely with Dorothy Lowther Robinson (no relation to Cleveland), the education director for a CIO union that represented 20,000 laundry workers in New York City. A North Carolinian, “Dolly” Lowther had moved to Brooklyn with her mother in 1930 when she was thirteen. She worked in an industrial laundry while attending high school and college and helped create her union in 1937 by leading a strike to win better wages and working conditions for her mostly black co-workers, who earned $6.00 for a 72-hour week. She met Maida Springer through the Women’s Trade Union League, an interracial group of labor feminists, and helped her organize the Odell Waller march in 1942 and the FEPC rally in 1946. A close ally of Adam Clayton Powell and a prominent figure in the Democratic Party, Dorothy L. Robinson was appointed secretary of labor for New York State in 1955.

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Having risen to power in unions across the country, black trade unionists moved to assert their influence at the national level in the early 1950s, when leaders of the AFL and CIO began to merge the federations after nearly two decades of competition. Over half a million black workers joined unions during the Second World War and by 1955 their numbers had ballooned to three times that number. Reporting that the “astounding success” of CIO unions in meatpacking, auto, clothing, and other industries had forced “more conservative AFL” unions to reach out to black workers, the Chicago Defender observed: “the few unions that continue to discriminate are trying to buck a strong anti-discrimination tide that is mounting public pressure against Jim Crow in industry.” Having entered the union movement when the tide was moving in the opposite direction, A. Philip Randolph used his leadership position in the AFL to place the issue of employment discrimination on the table during the merger. On October 27, 1955, just weeks after Emmett Till’s murder, Randolph introduced a resolution to a joint meeting of the executive committees from both federations that would have barred the merged AFL-CIO from issuing a charter to any union that discriminated against workers on the basis of race or that allowed “any racist” to serve in its national leadership.

Randolph was particularly adamant about excluding the AFL railway brotherhoods that still maintained the bar on nonwhite membership that had forced the Pullman porters to create their own union three decades earlier; but he also pointed to the hypocrisy of white union leaders who denied charters to unions that were led by Communists or gangsters but gave free rein to those led by members of the Ku Klux Klan or the Citizens’ Councils. Like the leaders of most AFL unions, Randolph had never allowed Communists to hold leadership positions in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. As a result of his conflict with Communists in the National Negro Congress, he was an enthusiastic supporter of CIO leaders who expelled nine unions because their leaders refused to sign pledges stating they were not Communists. He and other anti-Communists agreed that the oaths infringed civil liberties and that they were designed primarily to discredit and divide organized labor, but he saw the refusal to sign the cards as further evidence that Communists and their supporters had placed the interests of the Soviet Union above those of the workers they represented. Applying the same standard to union leaders who excluded black workers and reinforced racial divisions among workers, he insisted that racists and segregationists had no place in the leadership of organized labor. In November 1955 Randolph hosted a two-day conference in New York, where 250 black trade unionists called on President Eisenhower to convene a special session of Congress to pass civil rights legislation and demanded that organized labor take “bold and forthright action in the protection of civil rights.” The Chicago Defender reported that “rumbles of dissatisfaction in labor were growing louder and louder,” noting that the “angriest voice being raised is that of A.  Philip Randolph.”

If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.

Excerpted from The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights by William P. Jones. Copyright © 2013 by William P. Jones. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Former Navy Secretary Sean O'Keefe

Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

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