Monday, February 16, 2009

Black Labor History Month

February is Black History Month, and with just a few resources, teachers, parents and union locals can turn it into Black Labor History Month.

The American Labor Studies Center (ALSC) and unions such as AFSCME and AFT have compiled numerous excellent resources to help highlight black history this month by focusing on the history of African Americans in the labor movement.

A key teaching point is the shared values of the civil rights and union movements. One of the best resources for exploring the common ideas and goals of the two movements is the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who died in 1968 while helping striking sanitation workers in Memphis form a union with AFSCME. (See video.)

But the Memphis strike was not King’s first labor-related effort. In a speech to the 1961 AFL-CIO convention, King said:

History is a great teacher. Now, everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.

The 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, was organized to push for better jobs and freedom and was organized primarily by black labor leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. The march had significant labor supporters including then-UAW President Walter Reuther.

On both the ALSC and AFSCME websites, you can find extensive materials on King and the Memphis strike. The resources include videos of King and interviews with some of the strikers. Click here for the ALSC site and here for the AFSCME site.

The AFT also has identified a variety of resources to help celebrate Black History Month, which spotlight key historical events, influential figures and the continuing contributions African Americans are making to our nation and the world.

The AFT’s Black History website, which you can find here, features a special focus on the landmark 1954 desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, including profiles of its leaders, key events, recommended readings for grades K-12 and links to primary documents and lesson plans.

There is a plethora of other resources available. Here are some you can reach through links on the ALSC website. Click here for the full list.

  • The Pullman Porter Museum showcases the first real union for African American workers. The struggle for recognition in the labor movement created the impetus for many civil rights gains. You also can view “Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle,” a moving film of the Pullman porters’ remarkable history. The film “A. Philip Randolph: For Jobs and Freedom” takes viewers on a tour of 20th century civil rights and labor history as it chronicles Randolph’s legendary efforts to build a more equitable society.
  • James Gilbert Cassidy’s book African Americans and the American Labor Movement draws on records from the National Archives and Records Administration.
  • Servitude to Service: African-American Women as Wage Earners is a lesson plan by Rita Koman designed to analyze social and economic discrimination against African American women in the work force.

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