Long before thousands gathered in 1963 to march on Washington, or heard Public Enemy in 1989 emphatically state that we had to fight the powers that be, there was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) leading the fight for labor and civil rights.
The BSCP was the first labor organization founded by Blacks on behalf of the Black laborer. During the 1920’s, the Pullman Company was the largest single employer of Blacks, employing porters and maids for luxurious train travel across the United States. It was the common practice of the Pullman Company to employ Whites as conductors and Blacks as only porters or maids. The porters and maids worked long hours for little pay. Out of their meager earnings, the porters paid for their meals, uniforms, and the polish used to shine the shoes of its passengers. While porters were expected to provide personalized service for each passenger, the passengers were encouraged to refer to each porter as George, paying homage not to their excellent service but to the owner of the company.
The porters attempted to organize themselves amid growing frustrations with low wages and long hours. The Pullman Company fought against union organization utilizing tactics of fear, intimidation, and loss of jobs to keep labor advocates at bay. The company also had a secret weapon in their fight against labor organization – the Black Church. Black churches enjoyed financial support from Pullman, thus, making it difficult to take a stance against the company. On August 25, 1925, the porters did organize, and chose Asa Phillip Randolph, a non-Pullman employee to lead their organization. Their motto summed up the urgency felt by the porters to organize: “Fight or Be Slaves.” Randolph was committed to the porter’s negotiating their own contract, stating,” the time has passed when a grownup Black man should beg a grownup White man for anything.”
The BSCP was officially certified in 1935 as the duly authorized representative of the 35,000 porters and maids employed by the Pullman Company. The BSCP successfully negotiated higher wages, seniority, and reduced working hours. As president of the BSCP, now the largest Black organization in the United States, Randolph expanded their agenda to include the fight for civil rights.
It was the BSCP who utilized their grass-roots skills to organize the first March on Washington. The 1941 March on Washington Movement was designed to pressure the federal government into providing protections against racial discrimination for jobs in the defense industry. With the threat of thousands marching through the streets of the capital looming, President Roosevelt issued an executive order forbidding discrimination by any defense contractor and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee to investigate charges of racial discrimination.
It was the BSCP who brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Montgomery, AL to support the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, a campaign that would lead to the end of segregation on public buses. Randolph and the BSCP would go on to become one of the leaders of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. More than 200,000 Black and White Americans listened as Randolph encouraged citizens to: “Let the nation know the meaning of our numbers. We are not a pressure group. We are not an organization. We are not a mob. We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution that is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights, for our White allies know that they are not free while we are not.” The March culminated with Dr. King calling for racial equality for all in his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech.
Years later, Dr. King would continue the partnership between civil rights and labor organizations, traveling to Memphis, TN to march with sanitation workers who were striking for job safety, better wages, and union recognition. It would be his final campaign. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. His assassination intensified the strike, which ended with a settlement that included union recognition, and the opening of jobs that were previously reserved for whites.
“Black history is labor history,” said Doug Moore, the current Executive Director of the United Domestic Workers of America (UDW), a 65,000-member union for homecare workers. “It is our hope, that someday, the labor movement will reflect the enlightened view of A. Phillip Randolph, who said, you can’t take anything without organization.” “The workers’ rights and the civil rights movement have been inextricably linked since their beginnings,” Moore said and the legacy of the work of the BSCP remains an example of change that can be affected when we stand together.
For more information on the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, visit www.aphiliprandolphmuseum.com.
For more information on UDW, visit udwa.org.
Follow Dr. Valerie Wardlaw on twitter @DrValWardlaw