Rosa Parks, Racism, and Labor History

In today’s “Today in Labor History” put out by Union Communication Services, we learn of this moment in labor history:

“Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man launched the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and the birth of the civil rights movement, is born in Tuskeege, Ala. – 1913”

There are many things to be proud of in the history of the U.S. labor movement, but unfortunately also some things to be ashamed of. For instance, racism (including that of Samuel Gompers, the lauded president of the American Federation of Labor for all but one year from its founding in 1886 until his death in 1924). Glossing over this or pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t do anybody any good. And yet, those in the labor movement – and not just the good folks at Union Communication Services who I’ve singled out – do it all the time today, acting as if organized labor has always been on the side of people of color. It has not. And neither was it at the forefront of the civil rights movement during the middle of last century. Parts of it, yes, but by no means all if it, or even most of it.

In 1913, when Rosa Parks was born, most of the unions of the AFL barred blacks from membership, either formally or informally. (On the other hand, the radical Industrial Workers of the World had been explicitly anti-racist since its founding in 1905. Interestingly, its first leader, Big Bill Haywood, shared a birthday with Rosa Parks, which I learned from this same “Today in Labor History” by UCS.) By December 1955, at the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, things were much better, partly because of years of struggle by black unionists and their white allies and because the AFL was forced to be less racist if it wanted to compete with its rival union federation, the more militant, somewhat radical, and frequently anti-racist CIO. But racism was certainly not eliminated from the labor movement at this time (nor has it been since). December 1955 was also the same month that the AFL and CIO would merge to form the AFL-CIO, which was probably not a good thing for black workers.

Despite this, there are at least a couple connections between Rosa Parks and the labor movement. Parks attended workshops at the Highlander Folk School, which was an important institution for both the labor and civil rights movements. The person who made the decision “to use the arrest of Rosa Parks as the focal point of a protest” was E.D. Nixon, who had long been an officer in the local and state NAACP, as well as a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nearly-all-black union whose state branch he’d organized in 1928.* There are likely more connections. But those in the labor movement do a disservice to the black freedom struggle when they just blindly claim its history as their own, as if there has never been any tension.

(Also, while I’m at the criticism, I might as well point out that the civil rights movement started long before Rosa Parks sat down on that bus. Historians are still addressing this as “the long civil rights movement,” but hopefully someday we’ll just recognize this and can drop the “long.” And hey, maybe we can all just call it the black freedom movement, too.)

UPDATE, April 17, 2015: This is a step in the right direction: “Acknowledging ‘Ugly History of Racism’ in Labor Movement, AFL-CIO Creates New Commission on Race.”


* Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007, p. 32, 416.

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This entry was posted in black freedom movement, history, labor, racism. Bookmark the permalink.

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