Black History Month: Four Influential Leaders In Labor History

Black History Month goes hand in hand with labor history. Some of the most influential people in black history were also giants within the labor movement.

Below are four of the many who walked alongside the American worker in pursuit of a better future.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is recognized by many as the greatest voice that the civil rights movement has ever had. But also important was his commitment to the struggle of workers.

In 1961, Dr. King gave a powerful speech to the AFL-CIO Convention – a speech that highlighted his commitment to the labor movement. He said, in part:

“Negroes are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires and few Negro employers. Our needs are identical with labor’s needs, decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.

The duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed. As we stand on the threshold of the second half of the twentieth century, a crisis confronts us both. Those who in the second half of the nineteenth century could not tolerate organized labor have had a rebirth of power and seek to regain the despotism of that era while retaining the wealth and privileges of the twentieth century. Whether it be the ultra right wing in the form of Birch societies or the alliance which former President Eisenhower denounced, the alliance between big military and big industry, or the coalition of southern Dixiecrats and northern reactionaries, whatever the form, these menaces now threaten everything decent and fair in American life. Their target is labor, liberals, and the Negro people . . .”

To read Dr. King’s full speech, click here.

A. Philip Randolph

In 1925, Randolph organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly African-American labor union. In the early Civil Rights Movement and the Labor Movement, Randolph was a voice that would not be silenced. His continuous agitation with the support of fellow labor rights activists against unfair labor practices in relation to people of color eventually led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 in 1941, banning discrimination in the defense industries during World War II. The group then successfully pressured President Harry S. Truman to issue Executive Order 9981 in 1948, ending segregation in the armed services. (Source: Wikipedia)

Velma Hopkins

“Tobacco was king in Winston-Salem for decades – a paternal entity in nearly everyone’s life, providing schools, hospitals, parks, and, of course, jobs, ” writes the Winston-Salem Monthly.

“African-Americans, however, chafed at the wage disparities between the races. Higher-paying jobs were nearly impossible for blacks to obtain at R.J. Reynolds, and women were also paid less across the board. Velma Hopkins and a few others sounded a call to action in 1943, beginning a month-long strike at RJR and culminating in the first and only labor union ever at the company.”

The courage of Hopkins is incredible when one thinks about how oppressive 1943 was for blacks who tried to fight the system. It was 22 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1965. It was 11 years before Brown v. Board of Education and and 12 years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Add in the fact that the country was at war, and one begins to see just how tough the environment was for a labor action led by an African-American.

Hattie Canty

Called “one of the greatest strike leaders in U.S. history,” Hattie Canty was a strong voice for culinary workers in Las Vegas.

In 1984, she helped plan a 75 day strike by Las Vegas casino workers. And in 1990, she was elected president of the Las Vegas Hotel and Culinary Workers Union Local 226. According to Wikipedia, “as president, she led a number of publicized strikes . . . [including a 1991 strike where] Canty led . . . 550 culinary workers from New Frontier Hotel and Gambling Hall in protest of unfair labor conditions. The strike was the longest labor strike in American History and lasted for six and a half years.”

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