Since well before the Civil War, our people have participated in the fight for equal rights in the labor force. There is documentation of a strike by caulkers at the Washington Navy Yard as early as 1835. Our ancestors fight was uniquely brutal since labor unions were segregated well into the 20th Century. The fight for equal rights in the workforce necessarily became intrinsic to the Civil Rights Movement. Here are 5 historic events everyone should know as we remember our ancestors this Labor Day.
1. Creation of the Colored National Labor Union
In December 1869, 214 delegates attended the Colored National Labor Union convention in Washington, D.C. This union was in response to the National Labor Union which excluded African American workers. The assembly sent a petition to Congress requesting direct intervention in the alleviation of the “condition of the colored workers of the southern States” by subdividing the public lands of the South into forty-acre farms and providing low-interest loans to African American farmers. A few years later, in 1871, the group followed up, sending a “Memorial of the Committee of the National Labor Convention for Appointment of a Commission to Inquire into Conditions of Affairs in the Southern States.” Congress did not respond to either petition. In 1896, when the Supreme Court handed down the Plessy v. Ferguson decision which gave official recognition to the “separate but equal” doctrine, government mandated “relegation of [African Americans] to second-class status was complete.”
2. Great Migration
According to the National Archives, “during the Great Migration of 1916-1930, over one million African Americans moved from the south to the north in search of better lives.” Many found work due to the labor shortage created in the wake of the First World War. African American representation grew in industrial employment, particularly in the steel, automobile, shipbuilding, and meatpacking industries. The U.S. government, under pressure from African American leaders who demanded representation in the policymaking and administrative councils of government, established special offices such as the Office of the Director of Negro Economics to help mobilize the African American work force for the war effort. The division was the first agency of its kind in the nation.
3. Elaine Massacre of 1919
The Progressive Farmers and Householders Union was started by sharecropper Robert Lee Hill to protect agricultural workers against exploitation and “advanc[e] the intellectual, material, moral, spiritual, and financial interests of the Negro race.” Following a meeting on September 30, 1919 in Elaine, Arkansas, white law enforcement officials and vigilantes from neighboring counties and states attacked union officials and members, killing hundreds of African Americans. Whites formed militias against what they believed to be an insurrection and the Governor of Arkansas, Charles Hillman Brough deployed federal troops arresting hundreds of our people. Due to government mandated repression and mass murder, the union was largely destroyed following the massacre. The massacre has been called one of the worst in American history.
4. A. Philip Randolph and The First March On Washington
In 1925, A. Philip Randolph, noted civil rights leader and labor organizer, began his fight for equal protection of our workers by gaining recognition of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters by the Pullman Car Company, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and the U.S. government. Early in 1941, A. Philip Randolph announced the creation of the March on Washington Committee, compelling President Roosevelt to issue an executive order ending racial discrimination in hiring by unions and employers and eliminating segregation in the armed forces. If President Roosevelt refused, Randolph promised that 100,000 Americans would march in Washington to end segregation. In response, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 which established the Committee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC). According to the National Archives, “after asserting that national unity was being impaired by discrimination, the executive order declared it to be the duty of employers and of labor organizations to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” All federal agencies concerned with defense production were ordered to administer such programs without discrimination, and all defense contracts were to include a provision “obligating the contractor not to discriminate against any worker because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”
5. The Second March on Washington
Unfortunately, the Committee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC) ended in 1946. Randolph’s group, however, continued to meet annually to reiterate demands for economic equality. In 1963, leaders began to plan a new March on Washington. According to the Reader’s Companion to American History (see below), the new March for Jobs and Freedom, led by A. Philip Randolph and organized by his longtime associate, Bayard Rustin, was expected to attract 100,000 participants; however, more than 200,000 Americans attended. The March for Jobs and Freedom became known for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and spurred historic civil rights legislation and “redress through a number of court cases under Title VII, Equal Employment Opportunity, of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
Information attained from:
James Gilbert Cassedy, African Americans and the American Labor Movement, Federal Records and African American History, Prologue Magazine, Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2, http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/american-labor-movement.html.
Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, The Reader’s Companion to American History, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/march-on-washington.
About The Author
Faye McCray is an attorney by day and writer all the time. Her work has been featured on My Brown Baby, AfroPunk, AfroNews, For Harriet, Madame Noire, Black Girl Nerds, Black and Married with Kids, and other popular publications. Faye also has a number of short stories and a full length novel available for purchase on Amazon. Most importantly, Faye is a proud wife and mother to three beautiful and talented young boys who she is fiercely passionate about raising.