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A More Perfect Union

On the Black labor organizers who fought for civil rights after Reconstruction and through the twentieth century.

Black unions waged two struggles simultaneously: one against exploitation by their employers, the other against racism throughout U.S. society. These issues always implicitly, and often explicitly, intersected. Black workers developed a strategy to address them together that was dubbed “civil rights unionism,” a form of labor organizing meant to achieve not only economic goals but also political ones.

While both the ASCU and STFU practiced civil rights unionism, it was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) that best captured the synthesis of labor organizing and civil rights activism, as advocated by its president A. Philip Randolph. The union was founded in 1925 to organize twelve thousand mostly Black sleeping car attendants employed across the United States by the Pullman Company. BSCP members had to defend themselves from further segregation—being pushed out of working in the railroads altogether, rather than just being segregated from other railroad workers—as well as cooptation by the all-white Order of Sleeping Car Conductors, who sought to take over the BSCP once it proved successful at organizing workers. At the same time, the BSCP also had to win higher wages and other concessions from Pullman. Unlike the ASCU, the BSCP originated as an aboveground effort focused on urban transportation hubs, often in the North, where workers were more likely to be fired than killed for organizing. That said, railroads of course traversed the country, and BSCP members found themselves confronting the same racially hostile conditions that the ASCU and STFU faced. Unsurprisingly, northern BSCP members became personally invested in the fight against southern segregation, with Black train crews responding to racist behavior from white passengers or railroad workers by going on strike, then and there, until the matter was resolved.

The BSCP openly and consistently connected its labor organizing with more general issues of race. The BSCP’s official publication, Messenger, implored members to cast off the “slave psychology” formerly associated with portering, and the union’s annual convention brought workers together with reformers and politicians. Its leaders supported the creation of the National Negro Congress, a more militant alternative to the NAACP. It is largely thanks to the BSCP that labor organizing became an avenue for Black struggle, whereas many African Americans had previously seen it only as the purview of white workers—due in no small part to the AFL’s racial discrimination.


Sharecropping and Civil Rights

Even in the 1930s, in a political climate more open to unionizing, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters could not count on support from white trade unions, so they allied with the farmworkers in the Alabama Sharecroppers Union and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union for advocacy at the intersection of labor and civil rights.