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date: 24 March 2018

Organized Labor and the Civil Rights Movement

Summary and Keywords

The relationship between organized labor and the civil rights movement proceeded along two tracks. At work, the two groups were adversaries, as civil rights groups criticized employment discrimination by the unions. But in politics, they allied. Unions and civil rights organizations partnered to support liberal legislation and to oppose conservative southern Democrats, who were as militant in opposing unions as they were fervent in supporting white supremacy.

At work, unions dithered in their efforts to root out employment discrimination. Their initial enthusiasm for Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed employment discrimination, waned the more the new law violated foundational union practices by infringing on the principle of seniority, emphasizing the rights of the individual over the group, and inserting the courts into the workplace. The two souls of postwar liberalism— labor solidarity represented by unions and racial justice represented by the civil rights movement—were in conflict at work.

Although the unions and civil rights activists were adversaries over employment discrimination, they united in trying to register southern blacks to vote. Black enfranchisement would end the South’s exceptionalism and the veto it exercised over liberal legislation in Congress. But the two souls of liberalism that were at odds over the meaning of fairness at work would also diverge at the ballot box. As white workers began to defect from the Democratic Party, the political coalition of black and white workers that union leaders had hoped to build was undermined from below. The divergence between the two souls of liberalism in the 1960s—economic justice represented by unions and racial justice represented by civil rights—helps explain the resurgence of conservatism that followed.

Keywords: civil rights, employment discrimination, unions, organized labor, the South, blacks, Title VII, AFL-CIO, affirmative action

Workplace Conflicts and Political Alliances between Unions and Blacks

The relationship of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the AFL-CIO, and its affiliated unions to the civil rights movement proceeded along two tracks. The first track sought to eliminate racial discrimination by the unions and to require them to live up to their lofty claims about working-class solidarity. Civil rights activists criticized union practices that barred blacks from membership, segregated blacks into auxiliary locals, shunted blacks into separate seniority lines for promotions, or denied blacks entry into apprenticeship training programs.

The second track involved politics. Though civil rights activists targeted unions for employment discrimination, the two groups allied when it came to politics. Both groups opposed conservative southern legislators, who militantly opposed unions and fervently defended white supremacy. The unions could not challenge the Dixiecrats politically because few union members lived in their legislative districts. But those districts did include large number of blacks who were not registered to vote. Thus civil rights groups and unions allied to register black voters and achieve their mutual objective of defeating Dixiecrats. This effort was intended not only to break the Southern veto of liberal legislation both groups desired in Congress but also to hasten the end of the region’s distinctive form of politics—issueless campaigns, one-party factionalism, and preoccupation with race—that contributed to its conservativism. The South’s political exceptionalism, which held up civil rights bills that blacks wanted, opposed labor law reforms that unions supported, and thwarted welfare-state measures that both groups advocated, would finally be annulled.

These two tracks—one in which organized labor and civil rights activists were in conflict and the other in which they were allied—were interdependent. Credibility in one arena depended on performance in the other. The more organized labor rooted out its own discriminatory practices, the more the union’s appeals for black political support would appear sincere. But it is also important to distinguish these two tracks and treat each separately. The civil rights groups certainly did. Even as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) vigorously criticized the unions for their discriminatory practices, it cooperated with them in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which lobbied Congress on behalf of liberal legislation both groups supported. More radical civil rights organizations, such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), also were not above cooperating with labor politically and requesting its financial support, despite labor’s lack of clean credentials on civil rights.

Track One: Employment Discrimination

The onset of World War II transformed the labor movement. From 1940 to 1945, the older, established American Federation of Labor (AFL) grew from 4.2 to 7 million members, and membership in the new rival labor federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), increased from 2.5 to 4 million.1 The war also dramatically increased the demand for labor. Workers who left their jobs to join the army created new job vacancies, and filling wartime production orders demanded adding new factory shifts that needed filling. But even as new job opportunities opened up, blacks continued to encounter employment discrimination. The NAACP responded by launching its “Double V campaign,” advocating victory against fascism abroad and against racism at home. A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union of the AFL, threatened to recruit thousands of blacks for a mass protest in the nation’s capital unless President Roosevelt acted to end discrimination by defense contractors. Roosevelt negotiated with black leaders and, in return for their agreement to call off the march, issued Executive Order 8802, which created the Fair Employment Practice Commission (FEPC). Although the FEPC could only investigate discrimination complaints and lacked the authority to resolve them, the new agency represented “the first sustained federal intervention in the economy on behalf of African-Americans since the end of Reconstruction.”2

Although employers were initially reluctant to hire blacks, the demand for labor was so great that many eventually found jobs in defense industries. This sometimes brought them into conflict with white workers who resented their presence. In these circumstances, union solidarity took the form of white union members defending their privileges from blacks instead of interracial unity. When Alabama Dry Dock announced that it was upgrading twelve of the shipyard’s seven thousand black workers to welding jobs, white workers at the Pinto Island shipyards in Mobile, Alabama, began assaulting blacks. The violence did not abate until US Army troops arrived.3 “Hate strikes” were not confined to the South. Some United Auto Workers local unions in Detroit staged wildcat strikes to protest the promotion of black custodial workers to lathe operators, welders, and assembly-line workers, and white motormen on the Philadelphia subways belonging to the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Employees Union went on strike to prevent the company from hiring eight blacks as trainees.4

Black enrollment in unions surged during the war, particularly in the CIO unions, which were more open to black recruitment than their AFL counterparts. When the two labor federations merged in 1955, the new AFL-CIO constitution included a nondiscrimination clause and created the Committee on Civil Rights to implement it. But skeptics were troubled by the fact that the new constitution did not provide for the suspension or expulsion of affiliates for racial discrimination, as it did for corruption and communism. Racist unions did not appear to be as objectionable as those that were corrupt or dominated by communists.5 Nor did the new Committee on Civil Rights give confidence to advocates for black workers. At its first meeting in 1956, the committee sanctimoniously threatened to stop cooperating with the National Conference of Christians and Jews unless it desegregated its local chapters. The committee must have had a perverse sense of its jurisdiction because it proposed no action against AFL-CIO affiliates that engaged in the same discriminatory practices it found so offensive in others.6

Some affiliated unions continued to bar blacks from membership, and in 1957, the AFL-CIO admitted two railroads unions as affiliates despite their whites-only membership policies. When the venerable and elderly Randolph, now an Executive Council member, rose at the 1959 AFL-CIO convention to demand that it no longer tolerate union discrimination and segregated locals, AFL-CIO president George Meany bellowed at him, “Who the hell appointed you as the guardian of all the Negroes in America?”7

Randolph had introduced similar resolutions at previous conventions and was ignored, but now Meany’s outburst finally brought attention to the issue and to the AFL-CIO’s failings. In 1961, NAACP labor secretary Herbert Hill issued a scathing indictment of union racial practices. Despite all the hopes for faster progress when the AFL-CIO merged five years earlier, Hill charged that subsequent union efforts to eliminate discriminatory practices have been “piecemeal and inadequate and usually the result of protest by civil rights agencies acting on behalf of Negro workers.”8 Hill accused the unions of perpetuating affirmative action for whites, citing building trades unions that persisted in excluding blacks from apprenticeship training programs and industrial unions that maintained separate seniority promotion lists that limited blacks to unskilled jobs.

The Ethos of Rights Versus the Logic of Unions

Even though many union leaders may have sympathized with racial justice, they were unwilling to insist that affiliated and local unions end discriminatory practices. Consequently, they embraced the 1964 Civil Rights Act because it would oblige the federal government to enforce among their affiliates and locals what union leaders were unwilling to impose themselves.9 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibited “discrimination on the basis of race” (as well as of color, religion, sex, and national origin) and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to enforce it. But like its predecessor, the FEPC, the EEOC lacked the power to deliver on its promise. Although it could investigate charges and try to resolve them, it could not sue offenders (until it was granted this power in 1972) or issue cease and desist orders against them.10

Notwithstanding the EEOC’s limitations, blacks (and women) besieged the new agency with complaints about employment discrimination. Within a few years, the backlog of unexamined cases reached over ten thousand. The number of federal-court cases involving Title VII litigation—just a portion of EEOC charges that actually made it to court—rose over 400 percent in just five years, from 350 cases in 1970 to 1,500 by 1975.11

But in some instances, Title VII employment discrimination lawsuits brought blacks into conflict with bedrock union principles, such as majoritarianism, exclusive jurisdiction, seniority, and administrative oversight through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Majoritarianism meant that all members of a union should submit to the will of the majority because the strength of the union depended on its solidarity; exclusive jurisdiction meant that only one union should represent workers within a bargaining unit in order to prevent competition from unions promoted by management from undermining the unit’s bargaining power; seniority meant that promotions, layoffs, and rehiring should be determined by a neutral, automatic mechanism that protected workers from being obligated to managers or union officials if those decisions were lodged with them; and government oversight by the NLRB, because it specialized in labor relations, was preferable to leaving matters to the courts, which were not only unfamiliar with the subject but also traditionally hostile to unions.

All of this would be challenged by the rights revolution advocated by proponents of civil rights. They proposed to fight employment discrimination by expanding the rights of black workers through legislation, such as Title VII, and through the courts, which were anxious to protect individual rights. Civil rights lawyers argued that union practices, instead of protecting black workers, countenanced employment discrimination against them. The union principle of majoritarianism was simply a means by which the white majority in a union benefited themselves at the expense of their black co-workers; exclusive jurisdiction meant that blacks had no alternative when they were victims of discriminatory union practices; seniority served to protect white privileges because job discrimination in the past had prevented blacks from accumulating tenure; and blacks could not depend on the NLRB to defend their interests because the enabling legislation that had created the agency was silent on the issue of discrimination.

Thus the two souls of postwar liberalism, one based on the principle of working-class solidarity and the other on the goal of racial equality, were now in conflict.12 The first soul of liberalism defended trade-union practices as being essential to economic equality. The second condemned them as contributing to racial inequality.

Title VII especially divided liberalism. Courts began to define where “the rights of unionists ended and those of affirmative action recipients began.”13 Unions that initially had supported Title VII became leerier of it when the courts held that unions were as liable for discrimination as employers. They required unions to pay large settlements when black plaintiffs filed successful class-action employment discrimination lawsuits against them.

The unions were also upset at the way the courts were now inserting themselves into the workplace, overturning collective bargaining agreements. Court-mandated affirmative action plans often circumvented seniority provisions in collective bargaining agreements. Lee writes that “civil rights advocates insisted affirmative action plans vindicated equal protection claims while labor advocates argued that they violated it.”14 Not only were the courts not solicitous of collective-bargaining provisions; they challenged the NLRB’s regulatory authority. Unions had more confidence in federal oversight by the NLRB than by the courts, which they viewed as unsympathetic to labor and unfamiliar with labor relations.

Finally, the unions were distressed that court decisions under Title VII emphasized the rights of the individual over those of the group. This disposition was uncomfortably close to what union adversaries in business who supported right-to-work laws advocated. Indeed, right-to-work supporters tried to cloak themselves in the aura of the black civil rights movement by emphasizing the doctrinal affinity between them. They contended that unions violated civil rights when they discriminated against blacks no less than when they required workers who opposed unions to join and support them.15 The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (purposely named and created to resemble the NAACP Legal Defense Fund) argued that the state should protect the civil rights of individual workers who were victims of compulsory unionism just as it defended those who were victims of union racial discrimination.

The doctrine holding individual rights above that of the group dismayed the unions because it violated basic union principles. Unions insisted that the notion of the freedom of workers as individuals was merely abstract and theoretical, since individuals acting alone were powerless against employers. Only by harnessing their collective power in a group could individual workers ever assert their interests against employers; only through solidarity in a union could they ever realize their freedom. It required some coercion—majoritarianism and exclusive jurisdiction—but it made an individual’s freedom real and possible, as opposed to limiting and threatening it.

The climax of this conflict between the two souls of liberalism, between black demands for racial justice and union devotion to collective bargaining, occurred during the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strikes in New York City in 1968. Black Power advocates who headed the local school board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a black section of Brooklyn, fired twelve tenured white teachers for being incompetent and racist without due-process hearings, in violation of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) contract with the New York City Board of Education (see video 1: Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike). The UFT had been a patron and supporter of the civil rights movement, renting buses to take teachers to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and contributing money to civil rights organizations. But now, with its prerogatives called into question, the UFT struck all city schools, demanding that the teachers be reinstated and the contract upheld. The elected school board refused, claiming that it was acting in the best interests of black children in the community. It argued that if the Board of Ed would not overcome white resistance and integrate the schools, blacks should be free to run their own. John Doar, who as a US Department of Justice attorney had escorted James Meredith to class when he broke the color line at the University of Mississippi in 1962 and now served as president of the New York City Board of Education, perfectly captured the way the strike expressed the conflict within liberalism: “Union concepts of security and seniority were formulated in the period of struggle between company and union. Now the struggle is between Negroes and the unions. It is our position that a basic conflict exists between labor union concepts and civil rights concepts. Something has to give.”16 What gave and collapsed in the strike was the coexistence of the two souls of liberalism in New York. After the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy, only one liberal Democrat managed to be elected mayor of New York for the next forty years.

It can be argued that the rights revolution under Title VII was a great success. Civil rights laws opened up jobs to blacks (and women) from which they had been excluded. Southern textile plants, which had previously hired only whites, now began to employ blacks. Southern paper mills, which once relegated blacks to the worst jobs, now opened up lines of progression to safer, better-paying, more skilled jobs.17 But any sense of satisfaction or vindication enjoyed by victims of employment discrimination was brief. No sooner did Title VII lawsuits open up jobs to blacks than those jobs began to disappear. In textiles, Salmond reports, “Blacks won the right to advance up the ladder precisely as the ladder was losing its rungs.”18 Between 1980 and 1994, the textile industry lost over a half million jobs. In paper, success was also bittersweet. Minchin writes, “It is somewhat ironic that the desegregation of the industry has occurred at a time of declining employment opportunities. The laboring jobs in which blacks had traditionally been placed were most easily replaced by automation.”19 In oil, Price and Botson found that “when minorities and women finally won full access to refinery jobs, these positions no longer provided the economic benefits and job security that white working-class men had enjoyed in unionized refineries along the Gulf Coast a generation before.”20 In steel, imports and automation undermined gains blacks had achieved through Title VII. In just five years, between 1982 and 1987, the industry lost a hundred thousand jobs.21 Stein found that even as the proportion of black steelworkers in skilled positions increased, the absolute, actual number of blacks in these positions declined.22 Title VII could protect workers from the cruelty of discrimination, but it could not save their jobs from the ravages of deindustrialization. The courts could open up jobs to blacks but they could not create job openings.

Track Two: The Black-Labor Political Coalition

“In its grand outlines,” V. O. Key wrote in his 1949 classic Southern Politics in State and Nation, “the politics of the South revolves around the Negro . . . Whatever phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later, the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro.”23 American labor unions were deeply aware of this. They had experienced great gains since the Depression but were stymied by the South. Southern employers defeated union efforts to organize workers, and conservative Southern Democrats blocked labor’s liberal program in Congress and in Southern state legislatures. Many of these Dixiecrats supported white supremacy and opposed unions. They came from states and legislative districts that had low union densities but large numbers of blacks. The problem was that only a small proportion of blacks in the Deep South was eligible to vote. Whites used various means, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation to keep blacks off the voting rolls. Thus, when the civil rights movement arose and began to emphasize voter registration, union leaders finally saw their opportunity to transform the South politically. If they couldn’t defeat Dixiecrats with union votes, they would ally with civil rights organizations and try to beat them with black votes. Mississippi AFL-CIO president Claude Ramsay explained the dilemma he and his colleagues in the Deep South faced and how enfranchising blacks would solve it:

Twenty-six counties in Mississippi have a Negro popular majority. Many of labor’sworst enemies in the Mississippi state legislature live in these counties. If these people are to be removed from office it will have to be with the Negro vote. To a large degree our legislative program is dependent on our ability to form alliances with these people and this we are trying to do.24

Other labor leaders also did the arithmetic and recognized the critical role black voters could play in defeating conservative, anti-union politicians in the South.

The AFL-CIO actively promoted the early stirrings of the civil rights movement. After the Montgomery Improvement Association led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., famously persevered to end segregation on the bus lines in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, the AFL-CIO contributed money to support its next project of increasing black voter registration. In 1961, the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department publicly contributed money to the CORE, which sponsored Freedom Rides that tested integration on interstate transportation. Many AFL-CIO members in the South were outraged that their dues money was being used to topple segregation. Claude Ramsay wrote AFL-CIO president George Meany, “The thing boils down to this . . . we can overcome everything but the contribution of union funds . . . No explanation will satisfy these people in this respect.”25 To avoid the outcry that accompanied the contribution to the CORE, the AFL-CIO began to funnel money to black voter-registration groups discreetly through the Southern Regional Council, a multiracial and multipurpose organization identified with white southern liberals. It was a more defensible and preferable alternative to giving money directly to black civil rights organizations.

Critics have often pointed to the failure of the AFL-CIO leadership to endorse the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as evidence of labor’s lack of support for the civil rights movement (see the video “March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom, 08/28/1963”).26 But Meany’s demurral arose more from his doubts about the tactical wisdom of marching in the nation’s capital than his qualms about the protest’s goals of jobs and freedom.27 In any event, the onus of responding to the civil rights movement did not fall on the AFL-CIO leadership in Washington, DC. Nor did it fall on the affiliated unions, most of which intoned ritualistic support but tried to avoid controversy over an issue they regarded as peripheral to collective bargaining. Instead, the burden fell on AFL-CIO state councils in the South, organizations that represented the political interests of AFL-CIO members from the different affiliated unions within each state. Southern AFL-CIO state councils had to decide whether to endorse candidates who opposed or supported segregation and to determine what position to take when southern politicians threatened to close public schools instead of integrating them.

AFL-CIO state council presidents were stymied politically by the South’s exceptionalism: the limited franchise, the issueless campaigns, the one-party system, and the preoccupation with race that prevailed there. It was a toxic brew that conspired to weaken the security of southern unions, impede organizers, hold down wages, and reduce the vital public services their members needed. AFL-CIO state council leaders in the South saw in newly enfranchised black voters a way to escape their political impotence and its dismaying consequences. In Arkansas, the state AFL-CIO worked with the Women’s Emergency Committee (WEC), which blacks had formed during the 1957 Little Rock school crisis. When the crisis passed, the organization turned to voter registration, just as the Montgomery Improvement Association in Alabama had done after the bus boycott. The state council helped plan and subsidize the WEC’s voter registration program. When labor endorsed a black candidate who was running for a seat on the Little Rock City Managers Board in 1962, Arkansas AFL-CIO president George Ellison wrote excitedly to AFL-CIO leaders in Washington, “The most promising news regarding labor’s political future is the eagerness of the other minority groups in the state to work with us.”28

A similar coalition formed in Texas. In 1960, the state council helped subsidize a black trade unionist to work with the NAACP on a poll-tax campaign. Later, the state council joined with liberals, Hispanics, and blacks to form the Democratic Coalition that challenged conservatives for control of the Texas Democratic Party.29 In Louisiana, following passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, state council president Victor Bussie joined with civil rights groups to request that the Department of Justice send more federal registrars to the state. He wrote to a colleague at the Southern Regional Council that “we have sponsored efforts jointly with the Negro community throughout Louisiana to step-up the registration program.”30 In Alabama, the state council refused to endorse George Wallace for governor, even though he had a very good record on labor issues. It held his defense of white supremacy against him more than it credited him for being pro-union. And in Mississippi, state council president Claude Ramsay worked first with NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, and then, after Evers’ assassination in 1963, with NAACP Mississippi state president Aaron Henry to encourage black voter registration.

Economic and Racial Justice at Odds

As anxious as state council leaders were to create a class-based party system in the South that included blacks, union members were determined to preserve a caste-based social system that excluded blacks. Many union members in the South, like other white southerners, defended segregation. Many belonged to the Ku Klux Klan or to the White Citizens’ Councils. Although the leaders of state councils regarded these appeals to white supremacy as a cynical ruse meant to undermine their authority and the loyalty of southern union members to their unions, there was nothing delusory about the benefits that white workers derived from it. White supremacy permitted them to enjoy class privileges at work, such as better jobs and higher pay, and caste privileges outside of it, such as more social respect, better schools for their children, and more public services. Many white union members in the South thus opposed building the “night and day” coalitions of black and white workers that AFL-CIO state council leaders were trying to develop.

The rank-and-file response to AFL-CIO support for the Supreme Court’s Brown decision was a premonition of what labor leaders supporting black enfranchisement could expect in the future. In Montgomery, Alabama, which was still in the grip of the bus boycott, a Carpenters local built a gallows downtown on which the NAACP was hung in effigy. The gallows was inscribed “built by organized labor” to insure that the public awarded credit where it was due.31 In Birmingham, thousands of members of the United Steel Workers joined the White Citizens’ Councils. Members even began to desert their unions in favor of rivals that promised to defend school segregation.32 A survey of the turmoil that Brown precipitated in southern unions concluded, “Is there disaster? No. Trouble? Considerable. Possibilities of Trouble? Widespread.”33

The prediction of more extensive unrest came true as the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s. The more AFL-CIO state council leaders in the South identified with the struggle for black equality, the more their members seethed with feelings of betrayal. Local unions publicly repudiated candidates whom state councils endorsed, and their members did not vote for them. Even more significantly, local unions expressed disapproval by disaffiliating from state councils, depriving of them of dues they depended on. The Alabama AFL-CIO state council lost almost half its members from 1958 to 1964. The lack of affiliations and loss of the dues money they generated forced the Alabama AFL-CIO state council to close its office in the state capital and to lay off its lobbyist. The situation was even worse in Mississippi. So many local unions in the Magnolia State had disaffiliated that the Mississippi AFL-CIO needed monthly subsidies from the AFL-CIO in Washington to pay its bills.

Nor was the backlash among union members confined to the South. In 1964, California held a referendum on a measure that would have nullified a fair housing law that was passed just the year before. Speaker of the California State Assembly, Jesse Unruh forecast that “white union members, an essential component of the [New Deal] coalition . . . would tolerate no state interference in what they considered their right to keep their neighborhoods white.”34 Unruh’s prediction was grimly accurate. While liberal organizations throughout California pleaded with their members to vote against the proposition, their members ignored them and voted for it. “Nowhere,” however, Mark Brilliant reports, “was the gap greater” between leaders and followers than within unions. “Nearly seventy percent of white union members supported Proposition 14, which was substantially greater than the fifty-six percent of support for those without union affiliation.35

Two years later in the 1966 midterm elections, the same forces of racial reaction that emerged in California were now evident nationally. White union members failed to endorse the work done by Congress, which was responsible for passing the Great Society legislation that included the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. With black protests erupting in American cities, the 1966 election focused less on the liberal accomplishment of the 89th Congress and more on racial turmoil. Initial concerns about apathy among union voters soon gave way to fears that white backlash would cause them to desert the Democratic Party. A postelection analysis by the AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education, labor’s political arm, revealed that backlash took the form of lower turnout among white union voters who lived far from the cities where racial disturbances had occurred. But the closer proximity members had to sites of racial disorders, the more their votes took the form of retribution—of voting for Republicans. COPE director Al Barkan wrote NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins a letter of regret after the election, acknowledging, “We in COPE are sharply aware that many of our members deserted liberal candidates for one reason only: In protest against their advocacy of civil rights.”36

The two souls of liberalism that had been at odds over the meaning of fairness at work now began to diverge at the ballot box. The fusion of economic and racial liberalism that had marked the emergence of the New Deal Democratic coalition in the 1930s was unraveling.37 White workers were defecting from the Democratic Party. They resented the fact that the burden of the racial changes the Democratic Party legislated fell unfairly on them. Their children were more likely than those of upper-class whites to be bussed to satisfy court-ordered school desegregation, their jobs were more likely to be subject to affirmative-action quotas, and their neighborhoods were more likely to be integrated.38 In the South, the electoral consequences of civil rights were especially profound. Southern politics realigned, but in ways that labor leaders never intended. Exodus from the Democratic Party started at the top of the class hierarchy and eventually filtered down to white workers, who switched allegiance to the Republicans. The once solidly Democratic South became solidly Republican, and anti-union Democrats in Congress and state legislatures were replaced by anti-union Republicans.

As labor’s alliance with racial justice was undermined from below, the civil rights movement similarly displayed waning enthusiasm for the unions. The movement was splitting into an accommodationist wing that built alliances with white business elites and a Black Power wing that insisted that blacks should control the institutions serving their communities. Both groups were dismissive of unions. Both represented a departure from the legacy of black civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph, who embodied the two souls of liberalism.

No one represented the fusion of the fight for economic and racial justice more than King. He spoke frequently at union conventions, reminding union members that “if the Negro wins, labor wins,” which was the title of King’s address to the 1961 AFL-CIO convention.39 King argued that blacks and union members shared both a common interest in decent wages and fair working conditions and also common enemies in southern politicians who supported segregation and opposed unions. He drew parallels between the labor and civil rights movements, such as how black sit-ins at lunch counters were reminiscent of how workers once sat-in at factories, and how civil rights activists encountered the same kind of distracting charges that they were communists or fomented trouble that labor organizers once faced. During his tenure as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King was surrounded by advisers inside the organization and confidants outside it who reinforced his own convictions in support of the dual agenda of racial and economic justice.40

The conjunction of the two souls of liberalism was apparent in King’s last battle. He interrupted his work with the Poor People’s Movement and its demands for full employment and economic equality to support black sanitation workers who were on strike in Memphis, Tennessee. Striking sanitation workers and their supporters wore “I Am a Man” placards to express their demand for the dignity that the low status of their job, poor working conditions, lack of union recognition, low pay, and skin color denied them. King shared a premonition of his own death with supporters of the striking sanitation workers in his famous “I have been to the Mountain Top” speech just before he was murdered (see video 3: Martin Luther King’s Last Speech: I’ve Been to the Mountaintop). It took King’s martyrdom for Memphis City Hall to accede to the workers’ demands for higher wages, better working conditions, and union representation.

Almost a decade later, black sanitation workers in Atlanta struck over the same issues of low pay and harsh working conditions that had led to the walkout in Memphis. But this time striking sanitation workers weren’t negotiating with a racist City Hall, but instead with the first black mayor in the history of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson. Yet Jackson’s response to the strike was as hostile as that of Mayor Loeb in Memphis. The city fired the striking sanitation workers and hired permanent replacements to break the strike. When the striking workers sang “We Shall Overcome” outside City Hall in Atlanta, they were now targeting a black mayor who was more determined to prove his fiscal prudence to white business elites than to meet the demands of the lowest-paid municipal workers who voted for him.41 Almost every civil rights organization in “the city too busy to hate” supported the mayor against the black sanitation workers. King’s successors in his home town of Atlanta repudiated the fusion of racial and economic justice that he had fought and died for in Memphis.

King may have been the most famous figure representing the two souls of liberalism, but no one had been identified longer with the principle “that racial and economic justice in the United States were convergent and mutually reinforcing” than A. Philip Randolph.42 Randolph had struggled over his long career to purge the unions of racism, successfully threatened to organize a march on Washington in 1941 unless President Roosevelt acted to prevent discrimination by defense contractors, and in 1963 led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that contributed to passage of the Civil Rights Act. But the civil rights movement’s turn to Black Power was as upsetting to Randolph’s legacy as its turn to accommodationism was to King’s.

When black community-control advocates on the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school board fired tenured white teachers in violation of the union contract, Randolph stood with the UFT in defending the teachers. Randolph argued that due process was something that all workers, black and white, had a stake in preserving. The predominantly black union of school custodians sustained Randolph’s point when it supported the UFT because it perceived the local school board’s actions as representing a threat to the sanctity of their contract as well. But most blacks regarded Randolph’s defense of the predominantly white UFT as an act of betrayal. As one disappointed admirer of Randolph countered, “What about the due process rights of smart black children” in failing schools?43 Randolph’s defense of union principles, such as due process, was as out of step with Black Power advocates as King’s defense of sanitation workers was with accommodationist black mayors.

On the other side of the continent in Oakland, California, black community control activists posed the same challenge to unions as they did in Brooklyn, New York. Only now the issue was not control of local schools but of local jobs on the Oakland docks that bordered the black community. Black power activists asserted that job control by the community took precedence over job control by unions, even if this meant invalidating “the contractual relationship between employers and unions.”44 As was the case in Ocean-Hill Brownsville, the credibility of community control activists depended on obtaining gains for local blacks, but this could be achieved only at the expense of existing collective bargaining agreements.

The divergence of the two souls of liberalism that occurred in the 1960s helps explain the resurgence of conservatism in the decades that followed. The revival of liberalism today depends on mending this rift.

Discussion of the Literature

The relationship between organized labor and the civil rights movement has generated a flourishing literature filled with vigorous debate. Some historians describe a “long civil rights movement” that stretches from the 1930s through the 1970s, as opposed to the more familiar periodization from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1954 to the Memphis strike in 1968.45 Practitioners of the long civil rights movement argue that possibilities for civil rights unionism, in which unions challenged discrimination against blacks at work and outside it, were cut short by McCarthyism and anticommunism in the 1950s. The CIO purged many of the most racially progressive unions for being tainted with communism.46 Their expulsion, allegedly, redirected an incipient civil rights movement that was connected to unions and black workers into a church-led movement that wasn’t.47 But as Herbert Hill argues, the civil rights unionism that these historians find so attractive only was articulated by essentially all-black unions. It received a hostile response from white workers—the majority in most industries and unions—and was no basis on which to build “the long-term development of interracial unions.” Indeed, Hill continues, “the few interracial alliances that developed were tactical, limited, and of brief duration.”48 The support of civil rights unionism by the Packinghouse Workers Union’s was a remarkable exception. It was an interracial union in which blacks were not a majority, and it was still was willing to suffer the misgivings of its white members to challenge discrimination at work and racism outside it.49

Historians have also used the concept of whiteness to understand the depth of racial antagonism between white workers and their black counterparts. According to these historians, whiteness provided white workers with an identity that made them feel superior to blacks, a psychological wage that compensated for their low-class position relative to other whites.50 But the concept of whiteness has been criticized as conceptually muddled, so totalizing in what it embraces and explains as not to be useful analytically.51 Others wonder how whiteness scholars explain the episodes of interracial solidarity that did occur if the psychological comfort white workers derived from their racial identity was so rewarding and powerful.52

In general, the field would profit from more comparative work that would permit it to test hypotheses. For example, why were the Mississippi and Alabama state councils more anxious to promote black voter registration than their counterparts in Georgia and North Carolina? Why were some AFL-CIO affiliated unions, such as the Packinghouse Workers, more engaged and sympathetic to the struggle for black equality than others? Historians tend to avoid comparative work in favor of case studies. But these tend to get layered on top of each other, adding more detail but not more understanding. Comparison, by contrast, can help isolate variables that matter.

Finally, the southern workforce has become more diverse. It includes more women and Hispanics. In what ways have their interactions with unions under Title VII differed from that of blacks? Also, many Hispanic workers in the South are not registered to vote. Are southern unions trying to politically mobilize this group to defeat antilabor Republicans in the same way they once tried to mobilize blacks to defeat antilabor Democrats? Again, looking at these questions comparatively will offer historians more perspective.

Primary Sources

An essential primary source for historians interested in unions and blacks is the NAACP Papers, Part 13, titled “The NAACP and Labor, 1940–1955,” series A, B, and C, as well as the supplement to Part 13, titled “The NAACP and Organized Labor, 1956–1965.” See also the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department files, RG9-001 and RG9-002, and its director Boris Shishkin’s Papers, RG13-001, at the George Meany Memorial Labor Archive now housed at the University of Maryland Libraries. There are also many noteworthy collections, including those of many southern AFL-CIO state councils, southern AFL-CIO central-labor councils, and from various unions in the Southern Labor Archives at the Georgia State University Library. Finally, the Daniel Augustus Powell Papers, 1945–1983 at the Southern Historical Collection in the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is a vital resource. Powell was director of AFL-CIO COPE Region 5 that covered the Deep South from 1955 to 1983.


The author wishes to acknowledge Charles W. Eagles, Fred Exoo, Sandra Hinchman, and Matthew F. Nichter for their comments and suggestions. They deserve some of the credit; the author bears all the responsibility.

Further Reading

Arneson, Eric. “Civil Rights and the Cold War at Home: Post-War Activism, Anticommunism, and the Decline of the Left.” American Communist History 11.2 (2012): 5–44.Find this resource:

Arneson, Eric. “The Final Conflict? On the Scholarship of Civil Rights, the Left and the Cold War.” American Communist History 11.2 (2012): 63–80.Find this resource:

Chen, Anthony S. Jobs, Politics and Civil Rights in the United States, 1941–1972. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Deslippe, Dennis. Protesting Affirmative Action: The Struggle over Equality after the Civil Rights Revolution. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Draper, Alan. Conflict of Interests: Organized Labor and the Civil Rights Movement in the South, 1954–1968. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Frymer, Paul. Black and Blue: African Americans, the Labor Movement and the Decline of the Democratic Party. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Goldfield, Michael. “Race and the CIO: The Possibilities for Racial Egalitarianism during the 1930s and 1940s.” International Labor and Working-Class History 44 (Fall 1993): 1–32.Find this resource:

Goluboff, Risa L. The Lost Promise of Civil Rights. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Hall, Jacqueline Dowd. “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past.” Journal of American History 91.4 (2005): 1233–1263.Find this resource:

Honey, Michael K. Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign. New York: Norton, 2007.Find this resource:

Jones, William P. The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Norton, 2013.Find this resource:

Lee, Sophia Z. The Workplace Constitution from the New Deal to the New Right. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

MacLean, Nancy. Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006.Find this resource:

Minchin, Timothy J. Fighting against the Odds: A History of Southern Labor since World War II. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.Find this resource:

Minchin, Timothy J., and John A. Salmond. After the Dream: Black and White Southerners since 1965. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Podair, Jerald E. The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Schickler, Eric. Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932–1965. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Schiller, Reuel. Forging Rivals: Race, Class, Law and the Collapse of Postwar Liberalism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Zieger, Robert H. For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America Since 1865. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.Find this resource:

Zieger, Robert H., ed. Life and Labor in the New South. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012.Find this resource:


(1.) Robert H. Zieger, For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America since 1965 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2007), 124.

(2.) Zieger, For Jobs and Freedom, 123–124.

(3.) Bruce Nelson, “Organized Labor and the Struggle for Black Equality in Mobile during World War II,” Journal of American History 80.3 (1993): 952–988.

(4.) See Zieger, For Jobs and Freedom, 132; and Allan M. Winkler, “The Philadelphia Transit Strike of 1944,” Journal of American History 59.1 (1972): 73–89.

(5.) N. F. Davis, “Trade Unions’ Practices and the Negro Worker: The Establishment and Implementation of the AFL-CIO Anti-discrimination Policy” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 1960).

(6.) Alan Draper, Conflict of Interests: Organized Labor and the Civil Rights Movement in the South, 1954–1968 (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1994), 6.

(7.) Zeiger, For Jobs and Freedom, 170.

(8.) Herbert Hill, “Racism within Organized Labor: A Report of Five Years of the AFL-CI0, 1955–1960,” Journal of Negro Education 30.2 (1961): 109.

(9.) AFL-CIO president George Meany acknowledged to Congress, “We need the power of the federal government to do what we are not fully able to do [by ourselves].” Meany is quoted in Nancy MacLean, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006), 65.

(10.) MacLean, Freedom Is Not Enough, 70–71.

(11.) Paul Frymer, Black and Blue: African Americans, the Labor Movement, and the Decline of the Democratic Party (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 88.

(12.) Schiller defines postwar liberalism as a “political movement with the dual goals of promoting a modicum of economic egalitarianism within a dynamic capitalist economy, and of promoting ethnic, religious, racial and sexual equality,” which I am referring to as the two souls of liberalism. See Schiller, Forging Rivals, 6. See also Eric Schickler, Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932–1965 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016) on the fusion of economic liberalism and racial liberalism—the two souls of postwar liberalism—that characterized the New Deal Democratic coalition and the critical role unions played in promoting it.

(13.) Dennis Deslippe, Protesting Affirmative Action: The Struggle over Equality after the Civil Rights Revolution (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 8.

(14.) Sophia Z. Lee, Workplace Constitution, 72.

(15.) Schiller, Forging Rivals, 11.

(16.) Jerald E. Podair, The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 11.

(17.) On textiles see Timothy J. Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960–1980 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); On paper see Timothy J. Minchin, The Color of Work: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Southern Paper Industry, 1945–1980 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

(18.) John A. Salmond, Southern Struggles: The Southern Labor Movement and the Civil Rights Struggle (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004), 171.

(19.) Minchin, Color of Work, 214.

(20.) Tyler Price and Michael Botson, “Bucking the Odds: Organized Labor in Gulf Coast Refining,” Journal of American History 99.1 (2012): 110.

(21.) For figures on job loss in textiles and steel, see Zieger, For Jobs and Freedom, 215–223.

(22.) Judith Stein, Running Steel, Running America: Race, Economic Policy and the Decline of Liberalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

(23.) V. O. Key, Southern Politics in State and Nation (New York: Knopf, 1949), 5.

(24.) Ramsay, quoted in Alan Draper, “Labor and the Reconstruction of Southern Politics,” Southeastern Political Review 20.1 (1992): 175.

(25.) Ramsay, quoted in Draper, Conflict of Interests, 87.

(26.) See, for example, Philip Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1969–1973 (New York: International Publishers, 1974), 349. Foner claims that the AFL-CIO “condemned” the march.

(27.) Randolph described the AFL-CIO statement on the march as “a masterpiece of noncommittal noncommitment.” See William P. Jones, The March on Washington; Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Norton, 2013), 171.

(28.) Draper, Conflict of Interests, 95.

(29.) Max Krochmal, Blue Texas: The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

(30.) Draper, Conflict of Interests, 105.

(31.) Draper, Conflict of Interests, 31.

(32.) On the dual union movement that the Brown decision precipitated in the South, see Ray Marshall, “Union Racial Problems in the South,” Industrial Relations 1.3 (1962): 117–128.

(33.) Draper, Conflict of Interests, 33.

(34.) Mark Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941–1978 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 188.

(35.) Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed, 202.

(36.) Alan Draper, “Labor and the 1966 Elections,” Labor History 30.1 (1989): 66.

(37.) See Schickler, Racial Realignment, on the fusion of economic and racial liberalism that characterized the New Deal Democratic coalition.

(38.) Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics (New York: Norton, 1991).

(39.) See Martin Luther King Jr., “All Labor Has Dignity”, ed. and with an introduction by Michael K. Honey (Boston: Beacon, 2011), a collection of King’s speeches, most of which were delivered at union conventions and anniversaries.

(40.) Nichter thoroughly describes the political backgrounds of the coterie surrounding King in Matthew F. Nichter, “Rethinking the Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Radical, Repression, and the Black Freedom Struggle” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2014), 167–241.

(41.) Seth LaShier, “Working Out a Black Mecca: Maynard Jackson, AFSME Local 1644, and the 1977 Sanitation Strike in Atlanta” (paper presented at the Southern Labor Studies Association conference, Tampa, FL, 2017). See also Joseph A. McCartin, “‘Fire the Hell Out of Them’: Sanitation Workers Struggles and the Normalization of the Striker Replacement Strategy in the 1970s,” Labor: Studies of Working-Class Histories of the Americas 2.3 (2005): 67–92.

(42.) Jerald Podair, “No Exit,” in Reframing Randolph: Labor, Black Freedom and the Legacies of A. Philip Randolph, ed. Andrew E. Kersten and Clarence Lang (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 245.

(43.) Podair, “No Exit,” 245–269.

(44.) Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 196.

(45.) Jacqueline Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History 91.4 (2005): 1233–1263.

(46.) Michael Goldfield, “Race and the CIO: The Possibilities for Racial Egalitarianism during the 1930s and 1040s,” International Labor and Working-Class History 44 (Fall 1993): 1–32.

(47.) Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found and Lost: Radicals and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American History 75.3 (1988): 786–811.

(48.) Herbert Hill, “The Problem of Race in American Labor History,” Reviews in American History 24.2 (1996): 201–202.

(49.) Roger Horowtiz, Negro and White, Unite and Fight! A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997). See also Nichter, “Rethinking the Origins,” 121–167.

(50.) David Roedegir, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 2007) and Michelle Brittain, The Politics of Whiteness: Race, Culture and Workers in the Modern South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004) are among the foundational texts in this genre.

(51.) Eric Arneson, “A Paler Shade of White,” New Republic, June 24, 2002, 33–38.

(52.) For a materialist critique of whiteness studies, see Brian Kelly, Race, Class, and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908–1921 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 3–17.