Martin Luther King Jr., in a January 19, 1968, speech at Kansas State University titled “The Future of Integration,” looked back at the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954, as “the psychological turning point, where people by the thousands began to act.” These people created mass movements to implement the decision, but they also went far beyond it. Broad visions of a just society, not simply a quest to sit beside white students in classrooms or in other public facilities, animated the tidal wave of protests that followed Brown.
As one of the major spokespersons for integration, King defined it as “genuine intergroup and interpersonal living” in a just society. By the end of his life, King had moved on to fighting for what he called a “planetary movement” to create a world free of hunger, poverty, war and racial-economic injustice. To think that the Brown decision or even the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 could solve the problem of racial discrimination, King said in Kansas, would be “an illusion wrapped in superficiality.” In an attempt to implement his larger vision of equality, King tried to organize a multiclass coalition he called the Poor People’s Campaign. He died supporting a strike for the right of the black working poor to join a union in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
Ultimately, King said, achieving equality requires not only full civil rights but also labor rights and social and economic justice. To measure the distance we have traveled or not traveled since the Brown decision from this perspective, it helps to do some re-visioning of the past from the viewpoint of black workers. As a starting place, it is crucial to remember that Brown was as much the product as the precipitator of mass movements. Yes, the decision resulted from the incredibly hard-working and astute battle led by Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall and others in the NAACP. But it also resulted from mass movements and a vast shift in status among poor and working-class African-Americans, millions of whom moved out of rural areas and into cities and mass-production industries in the 1930s and ’40s. They created an expanding membership base for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the NAACP and an American left that challenged segregation at every level. Domestic workers, sharecroppers, day laborers, factory workers and other poor people, especially the women among them, organized economic boycotts, picket lines, marches, sit-ins, strikes, church and community groups, unions, consumer cooperatives and mass meetings. Their role as workers, soldiers and activists in the fight against white supremacy at home and fascism abroad created vast social changes that set the stage for Brown.
As one example, in the Deep South city of Memphis, African-Americans, who had been organizing unions since after the Civil War, provided the main support that made the rise of the CIO possible, at a time when supporting a union could cost one’s life. The purge of the interracial left from the CIO during the cold war undermined civil rights unionism, yet a number of black industrial unionists continued to challenge white supremacy in the 1950s and ’60s. Union wages also made it more possible to send children to college, and some of those students led sit-ins and demonstrations against Jim Crow.
The interconnections between labor and civil rights crystallized in Memphis in January 1956, when the Montgomery bus boycott was in its second month. Lonnie Roland, Clarence Coe and other African-American workers at the Memphis Firestone Tire and Rubber plant sued both the company and their union for maintaining segregation at the factory. They secretly collected money from their fellow workers to hire a lawyer and used Brown‘s condemnation of separate facilities as inherently unequal as justification for the suit. And they won.