To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s Association for the Study of African Life and History has chosen “Civil Rights in America” as its overarching theme for Black History Month 2014.
At a time when voter suppression, gerrymandered congressional districts and Senate filibusters continue to thwart the civic will of the American people, a renewed focus upon our civil rights history is both timely and profound.
During Black History Month, we do well to recall and applaud the struggles, sacrifices and successes of civil rights heroes like Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Du Bois, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fanny Lou Hamer.
Yet, we also should focus sharply upon the economic elements of our civil rights struggles—and especially upon the union leaders who did so much to foster the African-American middle class of our time.
Consider, for example, the legacy of A. Philip Randolph and his lifetime of commitment to the proposition that African-Americans, by organizing and joining unions, could build the economic foundation for full participation in this society.
Randolph’s 12-year struggle to sustain the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in its fight to gain recognition, first by the Pullman Company and ultimately by the AFL-CIO, was a historic achievement in itself.
Later, during the early 1940s, his organization of 100,000 Americans expressed determination to march on Washington and demand an end to segregation, and convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which desegregated America’s defense industries.
My own family was among the Americans of color who benefitted from that expansion of opportunity.
Before my parents had a union to stand by them, they were forced to work as share croppers for 15 cents an hour near Manning, S.C. They moved to South Baltimore in the hope of forging a better life for their family.
Here, my father worked as a laborer at Davison Chemical Company. Although his work life was not free from prejudice or pain, his membership in the Chemical Workers’ Union assured his family of a dollar an hour, overtime pay and a health care plan.
That same union card helped my parents make the down payment on the home where my mother lives to this day, and allowed their children to attend the better schools that would transform our lives.
During my early teenage years, Randolph helped convince President Truman to end segregation in our armed forces and federal civil service jobs. In 1963, he was a major force in creating the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where an outpouring of 250,000 Americans laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Today, in large part because of civil rights leaders such as Randolph, African American unionized workers earn, on average, $8,000 more per year than workers who are without a union. Union families are significantly more likely to enjoy health insurance coverage, defined-benefit pensions and paid personal leave.
We should not minimize the contributions of organized labor to civil rights. Political empowerment and economic opportunity are two sides of the same coin.
This year begins the sixth decade since Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the 1963 March on Washington. Yet, more than 50 years after that historic march, we still are marching for both freedom and jobs.
To paraphrase Dr. King: we cannot be satisfied while any American cannot vote; nor can we be satisfied when far too many Americans believe that they have no reason to vote.
Confronted by unacceptable levels of unemployment, inequality and voter suppression, far too many of our fellow Americans remain trapped by the most crippling segregation of all: the segregation from hope as a result of poverty.
President Obama has challenged each of us to join him in overcoming this “defining challenge of our time—the dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain: that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.”
Even as we celebrate our history, we would do well to act on Randolph’s legacy and advice.
Our nation’s civil rights struggles are not limited to our history. Now, we are the Americans who must organize, mobilize and fight the good fight.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.