“At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.” ‘A. Philip Randolph

“It was a moving sight to see the cream of Brooklyn’s [B]lack leaders tossed around in the struggle to obtain better economic opportunity for minority members,” an Amsterdam News article told readers in the summer of 1963, when community and labor activists, as well as clergy, had had enough of discriminatory labor practices on local construction sites. 

In Brooklyn, the structures that would become SUNY Downstate were rising from the ground, but Black and Latino construction workers were nowhere to be found. Demonstrations co-sponored by the Negro American Labor Council, Urban League, NACCP, Congress of Racial Equality, and Southern Christian Leadership Council began picketing and eventually blocking access to the worksite, leading to the arrest of more than 40 activists, including many clergy members. 

Another article from July 1963 said that ministers were warning that “The Negro Community is on the brink of violence” and that construction should be stopped “unless 25 [percent] of the jobs are assigned to Negroes and Puerto Ricans who form 35 [percent] of [the] New York City population.” 

The protests continued throughout June and July with increasing numbers of protesters and hundreds of arrests, and even attracted a young leader named Malcolm X. They were demanding something simple: that the workforce building the hospital look like the community in which it was being built. Eventually the protest leaders came to an agreement with then-Governor Nelson Rockerfeller and construction resumed. But the protest at SUNY Downstate wasn’t the first of its kind nor would it be the last. 

But why was it needed at all? Why, in one of the most diverse cities in America, with many highly skilled laborers, were many construction sites almost all lily-white?

The past is never really the past

The struggle to integrate the skilled and construction trades and the unions that represent them, and to ensure that they reflect America’s population, is deeply intertwined with the story of America itself; the story of the original sin of slavery and the legacy of institutional racism that followed and of the hard work by Americans of color and their allies to force our nation to live up to its own ideals. 

This series will explore the roots of discrimination that led to the summer of ’63 protests in Brooklyn and many others like it around the nation and how activists, community, and union members worked over decades to force change. It will also explore how high schools and apprenticeship programs are, in the 21st century, helping to ensure that everyone who wants one has an opportunity to access jobs that are often called the “ladder to the middle class.”

Before emancipation, enslaved Blacks were often trained in skilled construction, especially in the South, according to historian Dr. William Jones of the University of Minnesota.

A. Philip Randolph, one of the chairmen for the March On Washington demonstration in Washington D.C., stands in front of the statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial following the two-pronged parade through the streets of the capital, Aug. 28, 1963. (AP Photo)

“After the Civil War, African Americans continued to be pretty important in the skilled construction industry in the South until the late 19th century, [when] there was a concerted effort by white workers to drive Black workers out of the skilled trades and unions often included racial bars on membership. And that persisted into the 1960s,” Jones said in an interview.

The end of Reconstruction coincided with the ”Long Depression” of the 1870s, as well as the rise of organized labor, both of which helped to put pressure on African American skilled laborers. While some of the new labor unions became more inclusive, according to Jones, the backlash was not long in coming. 

By the late 1880s and 1890s, “a lot of unions, particularly the very skilled trade unions, turned inward and make the decision that the best way to maintain themselves [was] to focus narrowly on the interests of white male workers,” said Jones. “This is the period in which a lot of unions adopt[ed] in their constitution, race and gender exclusionary language, [and] they restricted their membership to white men.

“If you can prevent people from getting access to these skills, you can…corner the market on the number of people who are carpenters, or who are skilled masons. [The] you can drive up wages and improve working conditions for those few workers by excluding the majority,” he added.

The cruelty of Jim Crow and lack of economic opportunity for Black Americans in the former slave states helped prompt the Great Migration, which brought millions of African Americans northward. Skilled workers, or those seeking to join those professions, often found the same kinds of roadblocks in places like New York and Chicago, and during the early decades of the 20th century, the organized push for representation and access to the skilled trades began in earnest. 

The Great Depression and World War II provided fertile ground for the passage of federal labor legislation and Black labor leaders like A. Philip Randolph began to push for the implementation of these laws without regard to race.

In the summer of 1941, Randolph, along with leaders from the NAACP, Urban League, and many others, threatened a “March on Washington” to protest the discrimination that federal contractors had been allowed to get away with in seeming impunity. In response to these demands, which threatened military production as the nation was preparing to potentially enter World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that prohibited discrimination in the defense industry.

The wartime order was weakly enforced and expired soon after the end of the conflict, but it began a drive that, in some ways, laid the groundwork of the Civil Rights Movement that followed, with leaders demanding that a permanent non-discrimination law be passed. 

“There was this constant push to pass an equal employment law, and that was finally realized with the inclusion of Title Seven, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That actually applied not just to federal contractors, but to any employer and any union, it made it illegal for them to discriminate on the basis of race,” said Jones.

The struggle for enforcement

There is a false belief among some Americans that we live in a “post-racial” era that began soon after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and culminated with the inauguration of President Barack Obama. But for those struggling to gain access to the skilled trades and construction jobs, nothing could be further from the truth.

In 2022, just 6.7% of American construction workers were African American, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while making up 13.6% of the population. In New York City, the numbers tell a similar story, with Black residents making up just 13.6% of construction workers while being over 23% of the population, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey

In the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, little changed on the ground. Yes, explicit racial roadblocks to entry to unions and employment on worksites was eliminated, but the social nature of employment in the skilled trades meant that barriers still existed.

Post-World War II investment in America’s cities also meant the growing requirement of union labor, according to Dr. Trevor Griffey, a lecturer at the University of California, Irvine. But these construction and skilled trades unions were still largely excluding members of color.

This made the skilled trades “a flashpoint for protests in the sixties. And it had been long, long simmering because especially as African Americans gained increased access to the military, they gained the trades that they would not be able to get through racially restrictive apprenticeship programs. Then they would go apply to be dispatched and they couldn’t get jobs either through the hiring halls; they couldn’t get union membership,” Griffey noted.

Out of this continued intransigence, the Nixon Administration created the “Philadelphia Plan,” which began to force companies seeking federal contracts to take what was called “affirmative action” to ensure that these companies employed at least some Black Americans. 

But laws and executive orders only went so far. When it came to ensuring that these new regulations were implemented, activists and community members, and even the media, were critical.

“What was really important was the ability to keep the mobilization going, so in places like New York, or Chicago or Detroit, [and] in some cases, in southern cities like Atlanta or Birmingham, where Black workers were sort of well-organized and ready to mobilize, they could force the issue and draw attention to it,” Jones said. “The Black press played a really important role in writing about and publicizing these issues,” he added.

It was this history of decades of mobilizations that set the stage for protests at SUNY Downstate in 1963 in Brooklyn and others that would continue through to the present day. Activists then and now deeply understand that enforcement is everything and ironically, it is those who do not make up the majority who bear the burden of ensuring America lives up to not only its lofty ideals but also its actual laws.

“The beneficiaries of a system cannot be expected to destroy it,” Randolph said decades ago. His wisdom would guide activists in the second half of the 20th century and beyond as they continued the fight to make sure that those working at construction sites looked more like the communities where those structures were being built.

The next part of this series will explore how activists began to force equal access to skilled and construction jobs.
This series was made possible by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. Brian Palmer contributed research and reporting to this article.

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