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.
Their case was not hard to prove. Roland told me that before their lawsuit “there were no black foremen, no black supervisors, and black people only got to a certain status and stopped there. There was an unwritten law that black people couldn’t work high-skilled jobs, couldn’t have no top jobs operating no machine.” The company kept workers divided into separate departments, with blacks (including women) doing the hottest, dirtiest, heaviest work at the lowest wages. If blacks tried to move into all-white, cleaner and higher-paid tire-building or machine work, they lost all seniority, which accrued by department. They would go to the bottom rung of the advancement ladder and be laid off first, no matter how many years they had worked at the factory.
After the workers won their lawsuit, Coe at Firestone and George Holloway at the International Harvester plant risked life and limb to implement desegregation at their factories and union halls. Whites smashed the windows in Holloway’s home and threatened Coe’s family, provoking him to put a gun in every room of his home. Blacks challenging factory segregation fought on two fronts, against both white workers and employers. Desegregation struggles nearly led to bloodshed at union meetings, and white workers nearly killed both Coe and Holloway when they used the Brown rationale to open up skilled jobs formerly reserved for whites. Such black unionists also supported the NAACP and young people challenging segregation in schools, libraries and other public accommodations. Black unionists made up a significant portion of NAACP members in Memphis, Detroit and many other cities.
African-American struggles for desegregation at the point of production could be nearly as bloody as civil rights demonstrations in the streets, and went on for more than twenty years after Brown. A cadre of civil rights unionists played important roles in creating the freedom struggle, including Addie Wyatt and other black women in the United Packinghouse Workers of America; E.D. Nixon, president of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP and an activist in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union; that union’s national president, A. Philip Randolph; Cleveland Robinson and others in the service industries. They organized both workplace struggles and local and national civil rights campaigns such as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Black political leaders like Harold Washington in Chicago and Coleman Young in Detroit also emerged from this confluence of labor and civil rights struggles.
However, as King pointed out, the great disjuncture of the 1960s grew out of the government’s failure to fully implement integration, which left a younger generation of black workers severely marginalized. Raised to work in heavy laboring jobs and handicapped by inadequate segregated schooling, they had almost no chance to get into the white-collar clerical and management jobs expanding during that era. Unemployed young black males formed a smoldering base for rebellion that struck inner cities across the United States from 1964 through 1968. The draft siphoned off many of them to the war in Vietnam, where they died in disproportionate numbers. African-American women increasingly did double duty as wage workers and heads of households, as families fell apart under a growing crisis affecting the black working class.
More black women entered factory production, and a growing movement of black workers in the mid-1960s challenged employment discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet most African-Americans still had no place to go for work but into unskilled, low-wage jobs in the expanding service economy. Thus, in 1968 King recognized that the strike of 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis represented the rising struggle of the working poor, whose ranks included black women domestic and service workers as well as black men. He told Memphis strikers, “You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” As black sanitation workers challenged the plantation mentality of the white Mississippi Delta under the slogan “I Am a Man,” King decided to make Memphis the starting place for his Poor People’s Campaign–a move to demand systemic, radical reform and to divert federal spending from the Vietnam War to programs to create jobs and income and eradicate poverty in America and the world.
Memphis sanitation workers did win their strike. And their success opened the way to unionization of the working poor in government jobs across the country, a major area in which unions have expanded for the past thirty-plus years. King’s death forced the intransigent, segregationist mayor of Memphis to allow a strike settlement, which may have benefited the city’s black middle class most of all. As sanitation worker Taylor Rogers points out, today in Memphis “city hall is full of blacks, even to the mayor,” and organized public workers who vote helped to put them there. Blacks with city and county jobs and in clerical positions as well, he says, “wouldn’t be in the position they’re in now if it had not been for King comin’ here and dyin’.”
Within the factories, civil rights unionism succeeded in battering down many of the walls of employment discrimination. Clarence Coe recalled that by the time he and his cohort left Firestone in the early 1980s, “we were virtually equal. If you qualified for something, you just about [always] get it.” Lonnie Roland said, “It was different, like night and day.” Yet the assassination of King and Bobby Kennedy undercut the multiclass, multiracial alliance and expansive agenda for economic and social justice that King sought. Although the black middle class expanded, from the 1970s onward massive destruction of industrial employment gutted unions and the economic base for black communities in Memphis and across the country.
The tragedy for black workers is hard to fathom. Just as black workers finally implemented Brown on the factory floor, employers began to shut their enterprises. RCA television came to Memphis for cheap and quiescent labor but found neither among its assertive, interracial and mostly female workers. It moved production to Mexico and Taiwan. Firestone also subsequently closed its doors, and jobs at International Harvester shrank after a multinational company took it over. American deindustrialization decimated unions and working-class black leadership and undermined church, civic, political, community and family life. Trickle-down Reaganomics in the 1980s gave tax breaks to the rich and unleashed plagues of unemployment, crack cocaine, teen violence and pregnancy, soaring incarceration rates, homelessness and hopelessness in poor black communities. The loss of unionized industrial jobs cut off one of the few historic avenues for upward mobility for the black working class, and those jobs continue to be lost in today’s “Bush league” economy.
King warned of this coming catastrophe in many speeches to union members during the 1960s, saying the right-wing agenda was to destroy the gains of both labor and civil rights movements in order to reduce employers’ wage costs and foster the political ascendancy of big business. The problem of either no jobs or jobs at poverty wages “is international in scope. And it is getting worse,” he said in Memphis. This problem remains the crux of the American failure to implement the vision of equality that inspired so many people after the historic Brown decision.
The disaster of industrial decline, accentuated by mechanization and union and job loss in the Mississippi Delta agricultural economy, hit particularly hard in black Memphis. Today a black mayor, former School Superintendent Willie Herrenton, runs Memphis, but the city has the unfortunate distinction of ranking third nationally among large metropolitan areas in the percentage of people living in poverty, at over 15 percent. In one overwhelmingly black South Memphis ZIP code, 98 percent of children live in poverty and half the households receive less than $9,000 in annual income, with single women heading some 75 percent of those households. African-Americans in Memphis still disproportionately lack access to good education, decent jobs, sufficient healthcare, adequate housing and other assets that are seen as part of the American dream.
The deficits in education are as bad as in employment. African-Americans have elected black school board leaders and the schools are officially desegregated, but whites have fled in large numbers to the suburbs and private schools. The tax base for city schools has weakened, and the State of Tennessee has nearly gone bankrupt because of its regressive tax system and loss of federal funding, while the federal government’s increased demands for testing without sufficient funding have had a demoralizing effect. If Brown has triumphed in terms of the law, real desegregation has not. Good public schooling remains as elusive as ever for most black children (and poorer whites) in Memphis.
Today one can almost hear the echoes of King’s speech in Kansas. If he were alive to commemorate Brown‘s fiftieth anniversary, King would again remind us that failure to implement school desegregation is only one marker of an even more profound failure to make equality real for masses of African-American and other workers and poor people. He would still denounce conservative calls for blacks to make it on their own under capitalism. He would still remind us that “it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he should lift himself up by his own bootstraps.” He would still link our educational deficits to our rampant racial-economic inequality, and to the conditions of the working poor, who “make wages so low they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.”
King would still call on us to be “maladjusted.” As he told people in Kansas, “I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.”
King’s economic justice perspective should remain a crucial measure of the distance we have regressed or moved forward since Brown. But we should remember, too, as King also taught us, that movements for change are built on hope. Building a broad movement in which workers and the poor play a central role remains an urgent task to create hope for a future of racial justice. And in fact, the kinds of global coalitions and movements for justice and union rights that King envisioned have begun to take shape. The many marvelous histories of freedom struggles and civil rights unionism written in recent years should also emblazon upon our memories the understanding that even in seemingly hopeless circumstances, people can do great things to change their lives. As King told strikers in Memphis, “We can all get more together than we can apart…and this is the way we gain power.”
Michael Honey holds the Harry Bridges Endowed Chair of Labor Studies at the University of Washington and teaches at the University of Washington in Tacoma. His writings include Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle (California) and Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers (Illinois).