by Leon Todd
The idea that Labor Rights are a Civil Right has not played out on the Streets of Urban America. The story of Labor Unions contribution to the civil rights movement of the 1960′s is largely forgotten in February’s Black History Month’s Celebrations and Presentations year after year. How unfortunate that the history texts and classroom lesson plans have lost the real world connections between organized labor’s history and America’s civil rights history.
Labor organizing efforts and financial support were integral to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the freedom riders and voters registration of Blacks in the 1960s, the Historic 1963 March on Washington which set the stage for Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream Speech, the struggle for women worker’s rights, and the organizing efforts of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers. Labor became an essential ally in underpinning the manifest destiny for greater equality and social justice for all Americans. And civil rights leaders have supported labor’s organizing efforts like when the notable civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., went to Memphis in 1968 to support the black sanitation workers’ boycott and their rights for workplace safety, better wages and benefits as well as union recognition. King subsequently lost his life in the midst of essentially a labor movement moment in history.
Much of the historic civil rights struggle was a labor rights or workplace rights struggle. For without employment justice, the pursuit of the abundant potential for the fullness of life, liberty and happiness cannot really take place. Martin Luther King intuitively understood this and the days of Jim Crow Justice were numbered in Memphis and in America.
Many support the notion that the right to work for a fair family supporting wage, health benefits and pension benefits in a secure work environment is an essential civil right.
Today, the federal government treats the certain labor rights of health and safety as equivalent to a person’s workplace civil rights. Civil rights are generally recognized as a class of rights that protects individuals’ freedom from unwarranted infringement by governments and private organizations, like with the Jim Crow laws of the Old South or past employment discrimination laws and practices of corporations, government, and other organizations.
The protections of civil rights ensure a person’s ability to participate in the public, governmental and political activities of the state without discrimination or repression.
The need for classroom lesson assignments and lesson plans researching the civil rights’ legacy of fighting for economic rights, worker rights, and the right to work as well as labor’s historic side by side support for civil rights with the prominent leaders of the movement as well as labors own civil rights struggle within its own organizations need to come out of the closet and be more fully aired for student consumption and perspective.
The herald 1963 March on Washington was titled the “March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs” and the concept for such a march had been first put forth by A Phillip Randolph, black organizer and leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the 1920s. Randolph is the most important civil rights leader that many young people have never heard of and don’t really know outside of a poster with his name despite the argument which can be made that he is the most important civil rights hero of the 20th century.
Blacks had scored a major breakthrough in the struggle for admission to the ranks of organized labor in the 1930s when the AFL recognized the Brotherhood. Labor rights and civil rights would forever be entwined. Once labor was on the side of civil rights, there was no turning back and 3 decades later, in 1963, A Phillip Randolph’s March on Washington Dream would play out with Martin Luther King Jr. filling the key character role on stage before America. Essentially, Randolph’s Karma for a just American future had been set in motion. A Dream, a Goal and a Challenge of a just workplace would be placed before the America people and much of America would embrace that Dream as its destiny.
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