James Haughton (202210)

There was a time a score of years ago when monthly visits to Jim Haughton’s place in lower Manhattan were part of a routine exercised by local—and a few national—activists. There Haughton would expound on everything from housing issues to the anticolonial movement in Africa and other parts of the developing world.

For many of us, and it wasn’t unusual to get a phone call from him reminding you of the meeting, his knowledge of the labor movement, urban affairs, countless political formations and civil and human rights problems was encyclopedic. He would speak for hours, and it was easy to compare him to another “grey eminence,” C.L.R. James.

The construction industry and its discriminatory practices were a special target of his discourses. His organization Fight Back was the active, rallying element of his speeches and lectures.

Word that Haughton had joined the ancestors April 17 rippled like shock waves through Harlem, where he spent many of his activist days. He was 86. Building trades may have seemed like a singular focus for Haughton, but he was equally passionate about gentrification and affordable housing, and on many occasions he was a regular at workshops, seminars and conferences hosted by Nellie Bailey and the Harlem Tenants Council.

Haughton was also a strong advocate of author Seymour Melman and his books “The Permanent War Economy” and “Pentagon Capitalism.” They shared an unwavering opposition to the military industrial complex and the money squandered on war that, in the words of Dr. King, deprived the nation’s downtrodden citizens.

Born James Haughton Jr. in Brooklyn Oct. 8, 1929, he was the child of West Indian immigrants. He grew up near the Fort Greene section and graduated from Boys High School, and, in 1951, from the City College of New York, according to an article in The New York Times.

He received his master’s degree from New York University and was a veteran of the Korean War.

After ending his military stint, Haughton was a youth counselor, working mainly with street gangs in New York and Los Angeles. When A. Philip Randolph formed the Negro American Labor Council, Haughton was an assistant, but he left the organization in 1964 and founded the Harlem Unemployment Center, marking his entry into the fight with the construction industry and its hiring practices that too often denied people of color.

During an interview in 1999 with Janine Jackson of Labor at the Crossroads, which is posted on Historymakers.com, Haughton explained his relationship with Randolph. “In 1959 when I started with the Negro American Labor Council, we had great expectations for major advances in labor, in government, in industry at large,” he said. “And there have been some because of the struggles that have been waged by Black working folk, but those struggles have not been sustained because we have not had the organizational capacity to sustain them. The NALC dissolved in 1963. A. Philip Randolph says, ‘Rather,’ at the third annual convention in Chicago—there were thousands of African-American workers from steel, from auto, from mining, construction, transportation, everything. And he said, ‘Rather,’ in his eloquent voice, ‘rather than see the Negro American Labor Council become the dupe of the Communist conspiracy, I would move to disestablish the Negro American Labor Council.’ We may have had a few communists here and there, but it was really a group of militant Black workers who wanted to get on with the business of racism and the American economy.”

To bring about change and the end of discriminatory hiring, Haughton and Fight Back waged relentless campaigns and led demonstrations. He was often the main and the loudest speaker at these events, creating what he believed were the necessary tactics to open the doors for minority employment. If during these rallies Haughton had a consistent mantra, it was “pressure is needed to get the industry to change.”

As the Times noted, “Fight Back documented discrimination; staged boycotts, protests and sit-down strikes; and filed lawsuits (sometimes with Columbia University’s Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law) against contractors and unions that were closed to newcomers, a consequence, the group said, of nepotism and racism. Fight Back also provided counseling and placement services when jobs became available.

“In 1972, racial minorities made up more than a third of New York City’s population but accounted for only about 2 percent of union members in skilled construction jobs. Today, minorities make up about two-thirds of the city’s population and about half the membership of unions affiliated with the Building and Construction Trades Council, the organization says.”

Later in the interview, Haughton would address the current situation in the building trades. “The building trades are very strong unions,” he said. “They control the labor supply, basically. And I know that I have been trying to penetrate that with Black and Latino folk and women folk for 40 years and still trying. And as we talk, I know a lot of Black, Latino union members, carpenters, plumbers who still, and there’s a building boom out there now, who still can’t find work. Now it’s the building trades, it would seem to me, as well as the AFL-CIO at large, organized labor at large, to speak out for major, massive jobs creation programs to address the burning, critical need for armies of workers—Black, Latino, white, women—to be brought into the labor market where they could become productive.”

Being productive was Haughton’s calling and if there is an abiding component to his legacy, a way that he will always be remembered, it is him on the ramparts, invoking the activists of the past, illuminating the present circumstances of racism and discrimination, demanding an end to white supremacy.

According to Haughton’s partner, Ronnie Asbell, a memorial service is scheduled at Mount Olivet Baptist Church Saturday May 21, 12-3 p.m.