Civil Rights in the 1960s: The Role of Labor

Forty years ago, on the morning of April 5, I sat in a hotel coffee shop in Decatur, Ill., reading the morning Decatur Herald-Review with the headline proclaiming the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A grizzled longtime representative of our union walked by, saw the headline, and said, “They finally got the bastard,” or something very much similar to that.

Those remarks remain clear to me today, since they reflected the feelings of perhaps the majority of union members during the 1960s, even though by then the most prominent of U. S. labor leaders at the time, including AFL-CIO President George Meany, UAW President Walter Reuther and Teamsters Leader Jimmy Hoffa, openly supported the cause of equality for blacks and other minorities.

Such support was not always apparent on the workshop floor, at the construction sites and in the local union halls all over America where the cloud of racism hovered. Many white workers challenged the AFL-CIO’s support of the voting rights act of 1965 and the civil rights act of 1964; many also challenged President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” since it seemed, in their minds, to be aimed at aiding blacks disproportionately. Even the assassination of Robert Kennedy two months later (June 6, 1968) seemed to do little to lessen the feelings of disenfranchisement that many working class and poor whites felt over the attention given to the cause of civil rights. (Indeed, Sen. Kennedy had been closely identified with the cause of blacks during the period.)

To be fair, white workers, union and nonunion alike, were facing their own deprivations and lack of economic fortunes in the era, struggling to make ends meet. It was ripe territory for a demagogue, and Alabama Gov. George Wallace filled the role to perfection, running as a Third Party candidate in opposition to the Democratic nominee, Hubert H. Humphrey, whose open support of civil rights was legendary. In October of 1968, I gave a speech to a packed hall at a local union banquet in Avon Lake, Ohio, outlining our union’s reasons for backing Humphrey, only to be heckled by ranks of members yelling out “Wallace, Wallace, Wallace,” over and over again.

Union leaders have often been criticized by liberals and civil rights leaders through the years, sometimes being accused of being racist and often charged with being too timid in their support of equal rights. Some have deserved that criticism, but it is also historical truth that both union leadership and rank-and-file members were vital to the passage of the equal rights legislation of the 1960s and the real progress in equal rights that followed through the years.

Meany, a union plumber by trade, provided true leadership as shown, as an example, by his enforcing the AFL-CIO’s position on school-busing as a tool to achieve integration by threatening to pull the charter of a Kentucky labor council which sought to oppose that position; Reuther spoke at the “March on Washington” in August 1963 just before King’s memorable “I Have a Dream” speech and the UAW leader also worked to end racism in the auto plants; Jimmy Hoffa’s wife marched in the South.

Meanwhile, black workers fought hard to win equality. At our Society’s 1999 annual conference, several black workers told of their struggles to get jobs in Milwaukee, often in spite of their own union’s reluctance. William Patterson, now deceased, told of becoming the Transit System’s first black streetcar conductor in 1945 and finding other conductors or drivers shunning him; Bill Johnson, retired business manager of the Laborer’s Union Local 113, said blacks were restricted to handling shovels and rakes in asphalt paving while whites drove the equipment; Mary Jo Avery of the Communication Workers said that blacks first were hired only in custodial jobs and that the first black telephone operator was harassed, only to have her job saved by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.

This history is vital to understand in this year’s Presidential election. In a perhaps unfortunate comment, Sen. Hillary Clinton said that Dr. King’s dream needed the political support of President Johnson to become reality. That was misconstrued by some as saying she believed that “whitey” had to act, and thus was demeaning to African-Americans.

In a democracy, progress is made by many groups, not just by one. Nothing would have happened if African-Americans had not struggled in marches and in soda fountain sit-ins and in the workplace to stand up for themselves; nothing would have happened if President Johnson had not led the way by openly sponsoring passage of civil rights legislation, even with the knowledge that his Democratic Party would eventually “lose” the South. It was indeed an act of political leadership and courage too rarely seen. (And, many also believe that he could not have achieved that save for the memory of John F. Kennedy, whose assassination was still fresh in the minds of Americans.) Finally, Johnson may not have been able to pass such legislation without the open support of organized labor, which in the 1960s was a true political power in the nation.

Dr. King understood the issues that worker rights and civil rights were linked. Remember, he was assassinated while in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. Fortunately, today, there are few union members who would not be disgusted at hearing the remarks I heard 40 years ago in a Decatur, Ill., hotel restaurant.

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