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    13 Labor Events And Organizers Who We Should Teach About During Black History Month

    As Black History Month draws to a close, we want to continue to share and celebrate a labor history that is often overlooked. Recognizing and honoring the important contributions that black people have made to American history matters. From notable women leaders to the desegregation of union organizing, here’s a list of important black contributions to labor history that should be taught all year long.

    1. Bayard Rustin


    Bayard Rustin has been described as the man homophobia almost erased from history. Rustin was an active member of the civil rights and labor movements and the primary organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Rustin believed that economic justice and workers’ rights were a key part of the fight for civil rights for black Americans. Rustin became the first executive director of the AFL-CIO’s A. Philip Randolph Institute.

    Here are free classroom resources on Bayard Rustin.

    2. Pullman Porters


    In the late 1860s, George Pullman hired former slaves to work on his railroad sleeping cars. He exploited their labor, with each porter making the equivalent of about $22,000 a year (in today’s dollars) while working under unfair conditions, including 100-hour workweeks. These workers formed a union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; in 1925, it became the first African-American labor union to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor.

    3. Rosina Tucker


    Rosina Tucker was an important figure in the foundation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Tucker was married to a railroad porter and became involved in the union. She visited the homes of over 300 workers to secretly collect their union dues, and in 1938 she was elected secretary-treasurer of the union’s auxiliary. She continued her union involvement, helping organize teachers, laundry workers and railway clerks in Washington, D.C.

    4. Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike


    In 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., members of AFSCME Local 1733, went on strike after years of discrimination and dangerous working conditions. The union strikers carried the now famous “I Am a Man” signs. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the striking workers in April 1968, and delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech the day before he was assassinated at a motel in Memphis.

    5. Mary Church Terrell


    Mary Church Terrell was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree. She worked for suffrage and civil rights, helping found the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. She was also a charter member of AFT’s first higher education local at Howard University.

    6. Ben Fletcher


    Ben Fletcher was an African-American labor activist in the early 20th century. He was a leader in IWW Local 8, a radical union of longshoremen in Philadelphia. Companies would often try to divide workers based on race, but Local 8 and Fletcher’s leadership showed that when workers rejected racism and stuck together, they would lift each other up.

    7. Chicago Flat Janitors


    In the 1920s, the Chicago Flat Janitors were an integrated local union, which was considered radical at the time. The union worked to include black members in leadership roles, including its vice president, Seymour Miller. The union eventually grew and today is known as the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU.

    8. Edgar Nixon


    Edgar Nixon was a civil rights leader and union organizer in Alabama. He played a key role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, even bailing Rosa Parks out of jail after her arrest in December 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, just a few days before the boycott began. Prior to organizing the bus boycott, Nixon organized and led the Montgomery branch of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called him "one of the chief voices of the Negro community in the area of civil rights.” Nixon continued to support civil rights causes until his death in 1987.

    9. Brown v. Board of Education


    The Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, requiring school desegregation, had the support of unionized teachers. In fact an AFT local, the Teachers Guild —a precursor of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers—filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs.

    Here are free classroom resources on Brown v. Board of Education.

    10. Lucy Parsons


    Lucy Parsons was a radical labor organizer born in Texas. In the early 1870s, she and her husband had to flee Texas because of intolerant reactions to their interracial marriage. Throughout her subsequent career in Chicago, she wrote for various leftist and labor publications. In 1905, she participated in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World. In 2004, the city of Chicago named a park after her.

    11. Coalition of Black Trade Unionists


    In 1972, more than 1,200 black union leaders and members met in Chicago and founded the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Since its formation, the organization has worked to raise black voices in the labor movement.

    12. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom


    The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was organized by Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph and had support from other labor unions and labor activists, including the United Auto Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Two of the official speakers at the event were labor leaders; Randolph and UAW President Walter Reuther. Union members from around the country, including busloads of teachers from New York, came to the event. After the march, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a letter, which included a handwritten note, to then-United Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker thanking him for his help.

    Here are free classroom resources for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    13. A. Philip Randolph


    Randolph is one of the most important figures in both black history and labor history. In addition to his work with the Pullman porters (see No. 2, above) and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he prominently pushed for civil rights during World War II. He planned a 100,000 person march on Washington during the war, which led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign an executive order ending discrimination in defense industries. After the order was signed, the march was canceled.

    Here are free classroom resources on A. Philip Randolph.

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