By JOHN R. DURSO
and ROGER CLAYMAN
Nearly a century ago, in 1926, Dr. Carter Woodson launched the first Black History Month celebration to recognize the contributions of African Americans to every aspect of our society, which had been largely ignored in history books and public education up to that point. Celebrating the talents and success of Black Americans and their contributions to politics, science, music, religion and many other fields of endeavor, he believed, contributes greatly to self-respect in the Black community and builds positive relations within our diverse culture.
Black History Month has special significance for the American labor movement as well. Our movement was born out of a struggle for economic justice, as was the history of the Civil Rights movement. Unions champion the rights of those who lack a voice in our society and thus played a critical role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s.
The first Black vice-president of the AFL-CIO, A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, along with Bayard Rustin, who helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, joined with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in planning the 1963 March on Washington at the height of the civil rights movement. A flier for the march carried the following message:
“Discrimination and economic deprivation plague the nation and rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity and self-respect. As long as Black workers are disenfranchised, ill housed and denied education and are economically depressed, the fight of white workers for a decent life will fail.”
Dr. King pointed out that Blacks are mostly a working people and they continue to need what labor needs. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis while supporting the strike of mostly African American sanitation workers, members of AFSCME Local 1733.
Bayard Rustin observed that Black Americans were up against a powerful combination of corporate elites and Southern conservatives who would resist any change in the economic or racial structure of this country, which would challenge their resources or status. Conservatives did in fact seize every opportunity to block progress in matters of economic security and at the same time conspired to create a white backlash against efforts to overturn the impact of discrimination.
Studies by the Economic Policy Institute show that we are a long way from achieving the goals Randolph, Rustin and Dr. King sought to achieve in the 1960s. Nearly one in five Black workers was unemployed in 2013, and the Black unemployment rate is 2-to-2.5 times the rate for white workers. The Black poverty rate is nearly three times the rate for white Americans. According to the BLS in 2010, Black men made 75 percent of the earnings of white men; Black women made 69 percent of the earnings of white men.
In spite of these shortcomings, I remain optimistic that we will one day attain the Dream that Dr. King voiced over fifty years ago. History teaches that the fight for economic justice is a significant aspect of the African American experience in our country. History teaches that progress can continue if we nurture the coalition of those who fight for economic and racial equality. After all, that coalition helped elect an African American President of the United States!
John R. Durso is president of the Long Island Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, and president of Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW.
Roger Clayman is the executive director of Long Island Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.