MLK’s mighty ally in the fight for civil rights was a union

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tags: civil rights, MLK, ILWU



Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of "Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia" and is currently at work on a book entitled "Dockworker Power: Struggles in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area." He is a Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has published extensively on labor history and politics. He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.

… When King wanted to champion unionism to uplift poor African Americans, he found his way to the ILWU, arguably the most progressive union in 1960s America. The San Francisco Bay Area branch, Local 10, was the largest and most radical in the ILWU, counting over 4,000 members in the mid 1960s, about half of who were African Americans. In 1967, for the first time, Local 10 elected a black man, Cleophas Williams, as president.

The ILWU, since its founding and victorious “Big Strike” in 1934, had committed itself to racial integration. San Francisco longshoreman and Australian immigrant Harry Bridges emerged at this moment to lead dockworkers along the entire West Coast. Why did Bridges and other San Francisco longshoremen—in 1934 nearly all white—reach out to African American workers and the larger black community? Pragmatism, for one, as employers frequently hired black workers as replacements. Blacks felt little remorse for doing so since nearly all unions in America were patently racist. Better to bring black workers into the fold, the San Francisco longshoremen thought, than “let” them become strikebreakers. But this logic had not convinced most unions before the 1930s to embrace African Americans (or immigrants or women).

Bridges and many in the ILWU also were ideologically committed to racial inclusion because of  their socialist values. Some Communists, Wobblies, Bridges and other leftist longshoremen saw all workers—regardless of race—as members of a single class, the working class, who shared a common enemy: employers.

In San Francisco, radical white unionists actively lined up black dockworkers and promoted racial equality. Williams, an African American from rural Arkansas who found his way to the San Francisco docks during World War II, recently told me, “Those [whites] who were more active in expressing concern [for African Americans], I later found out, were considered to be left-wingers. They were the ones who would come over and speak to you.”

Williams also recalled Bridges’ famous claim that, if there were only two longshoremen left, he would prefer one to be black. Williams found it “very shocking to me because there was no political gain for him by making this statement,” when whites made up the vast majority of longshoremen and in a nation where white supremacy reigned supreme. He continued to historical sociologist Howard Kimeldorf, “I had read and been exposed to some of the left-wing forces, but I had never heard anyone [white] put his neck out on the chopping block by making a public statement of this kind.”

Black and white longshoremen, Local 10, and their International did not stop at integrating their own ranks, they also became deeply involved in countless, related struggles for social justice including: The ILWU condemned the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII; participated in the first major protest against domestic anti-communism in 1960 at San Francisco’s City Hall; helped organize a massive civil rights march in solidarity with the civil rights movement in Birmingham in 1963; built the first privately financed, integrated and affordable housing development in SF; criticized the U.S. war in Vietnam; actively supported to the Pan-Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969; and supported, financially and through boycotts, the efforts of California farm workers, heavily Latino and Filipino, to organize the United Farm Workers (UFW). San Francisco longshore workers and their union helped lead Bay Area social movements in a pivotal time in U.S. History.

For these reasons and more, the ILWU can be described as a civil rights union, one of a handful of unions that had integrated their own ranks and fought for racial equality. The politics and history of the ILWU explains why King traveled to San Francisco in 1967.

Addressing a large gathering at Local 10’s hall, King declared, “I don’t feel like a stranger here in the midst of the ILWU. We have been strengthened and energized by the support you have given to our struggles. …We’ve learned from labor the meaning of power.”




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