During African-American History Month, we are reminded that the struggles and victories of people of African descent are central to our nation’s progress. Every step on our long journey to equality has benefited the nation as a whole.
Before the end of the Civil War, for example, not one Southern state had a universal state-supported public education system. After emancipation, the short-lived Freedmen’s Bureau, established by the federal government to aid former slaves, made it possible for poor whites to attend school for the first time.
Later, although most union organizing drives in the South failed to convince white workers to join hands with African-Americans, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, a multiracial union of sharecroppers, tenant farmers and small landowners founded in 1934, was able to make important gains.
After the Great Migration, many African-Americans worked in industries such as steel, auto, shipbuilding, meatpacking and longshore. They helped organize workers into the Congress of Industrial Organization unions. The CIO thrived precisely because it organized the entire workforces regardless of race or ethnicity and mobilized significant support in the Black community. Leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and Eleanor Roosevelt championed the CIO.
But the CIO’s hey-day began to come to an end in 1946 with the onslaught of McCarthyism, which ostensibly sought to uncover communists and radicals in the U.S. It’s true aim was to weaken the progressive movement and tear apart the coalition that had won major New Deal reforms.
The anti-communist witch hunts destroyed or isolated progressive artists, educators and activists, but their main target was the growing labor movement. McCarthyism’s main weapon was the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Among its many draconian provisions was its authorization of states to pass so-called “right-to-work” laws, which meant workers could reap the benefits of union membership without paying union dues.
“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a labor gathering years later.
Taft-Hartley made it far more difficult to organize in the South, but its full effect would be felt later as the corporate offensive against labor, with overt and subtle uses of racism, vastly strengthened corporations and smoothed the path to globalization and deindustrialization.
Our nation freed itself from the grip of McCarthyism in large part through the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement, which put marchers back in the streets. Many African-American union leaders and activists, such as A. Philip Randolph, led those protests.
King understood the inseparable tie between class and race. In 1961, he said, “The labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”
The Civil Rights Movement also helped create space for and give encouragement to others. The women’s, peace, environment, gay rights and immigrant rights movements all echoed the historic freedom anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
But the corporate giants did not sit still. Globalization transferred jobs first from the North to Southern states and later even further south to low-wage nations. Cities such as Detroit became ghosts of their former selves. Another Michigan city, Flint, the home of the historic 1937 sit-down strike that helped launch the United Auto Workers Union, went bankrupt.
Worse, last year Flint’s unelected emergency manager switched the city’s water source from the Detroit system to the long-polluted Flint River. Only after residents complained to a lead scientist, a pediatrician alerted political leaders and a member of the EPA leaked a damning memo did the state acknowledge that the water was poisoned with lead, endangering the health of all the residents.
This incident too, is a consequence of galloping inequality. An Oxfam report last month found that the richest 62 people have as much wealth as half the people in the world. Such wealth is used to produce even more obscene wealth and to consolidate political power. In the U.S., two of the 62, Charles and David Koch, announced last year that they plan to spend $900 million in this year’s election cycle. Those hundreds of millions will be used to support extremists whose policies spell disaster for working people.
History teaches us that unity and organization can defeat money. Our march from victory to freedom has not been based on our billions. We can continue to broaden democracy if we heed King’s words spoken the night before his death: “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union in New York and the largest health care union in the nation.