Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Civil Rights Movement and the Often-Overlooked Question of Labor

In class we have often discussed the tactics employed by various activists and their respective organizations. Such tactics range from nonviolence to extreme militarism. The movement’s proposed ends have ranged from integration to segregation. These are all worthy points of discussion, but one area that may also be worth considering that we have neglected to discuss at length is the issue of labor activism in the movement. From organized labor’s inception with the rise of industrialization, up to the Civil Rights Movement, labor unions have been largely segregated institutions. The American Federation of Labor is perhaps most notorious for this, though even the more liberal Congress of Industrial Organizations is guilty of eschewing interracial unionization. Michael Honey has argued that segregation in organized labor has led to the very economic disparities that we saw black leaders confronting increasingly toward the end of the 1960s. According to Honey, when labor unions are segregated, wages for both whites and blacks are driven down. When white union workers strike, black workers are brought in as scabs to replace them, making the white workers’ strike ultimately ineffective. The same goes for black workers striking. Unionization was thus generally useless as neither blacks nor whites were able to effectively strike for their demands. White workers, however, were granted what Honey called the “wage of whiteness.” By simply being a member of a white union, white workers were compensated by white privilege that blinded them to the prospects of interracial organizing. Blacks were denied this white privilege, and so they lost doubly in that not only were their strikes ineffective but they were also marginalized in the work place and denied subtle but powerful avenues to representation. Integration thus provided a way for both whites and blacks to advance themselves economically, and the Civil Rights Movement could have played out very differently had the privilege of whiteness not been such a powerful force.
Additionally, many of the movements that occurred within the Civil Rights Movement were labor movements. While in class we certainly discussed the limitations of the vote for many black communities, as well as the fact that voter registration comprised only a portion of the movement, this fact is often overlooked, and labor organization in the Civil Rights Movement is largely absent from American consciousness. Far from being a marginal force in the black community, labor relations and unionization informed much protest and activity in the movement. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, including his work with the sanitation strike in Memphis, was largely a labor movement. While it would probably be incorrect to assert that the movement was sparked by labor concerns, it is certainly justifiable to argue that labor organization played a significant role in shaping and informing the movement. Organized labor’s contributions, however, are too often overlooked, and it would be interesting to see more scholarship done on this topic.

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