In the predawn hours of September 6, 1963, a small group of activists broke into a construction site in Queens, New York, scaled a high-rise crane, and chained themselves to the mast. It was a daring act of protest against racially discriminatory hiring practices among the construction firms chosen to build a major new housing development. The Rochdale Village protests, along with several others taking aim at rampant racial discrimination in the New York City building trades, had been underway for months. But the dramatic scene of several men and women dangling from a tower crane came just a week after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Thousands were involved in the broader building-trades struggles that summer and many had just returned from the nation’s capital. Having listened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary address, one participant wrote in the pages of the Jamaica (Queens) NAACP Bulletin:
Dr. King did not speak specifically of southern injustice, notorious for its flagrant disregard of human dignity, he spoke rather of northern communities where bigotry lay subtle and mean white men turn from it and pretend that it doesn’t exist. We at Rochdale Village know of that subtle meanness, and we have brought back this urgent message from Washington.
Do not turn away from your duties as black Americans; do not let the complacency burden you with its weight of indifference and strip you of your dignity; do not turn away from this fight which is stronger than any physical effort associated with a shooting war. Join with the pickets at Rochdale and walk and chant your way to dignity and freedom… We returned to Jamaica [Queens] dedicated to our task at Rochdale.
King’s “urgent message” about the dangers of complacency and indifference sticks with us. As it should. As it must.
Fast forward to the scene at Morehouse last weekend. It was a far less dramatic episode than what transpired in Queens in 1963. No laws were broken. No tower cranes scaled. Still, several dozen unionists in the building trades descended on the campus for an evening conversation. Cosponsored by Morehouse’s International Comparative Labor Studies (ICLS) program and the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 926—that is, crane and heavy equipment operators—the event was both a celebration of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King’s ties to the labor movement and an opportunity to strategize about labor and youth organizing in the U.S. South. The program included students, both current and former, as well as representatives from the Atlanta and North Georgia Building Trades Council (ANGBTC) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Given how King’s legacy has been manipulated over the years, it can be easy to forget that King was a union man. “The labor movement,” he said to an AFL-CIO audience in 1965, has been “the principal force that has transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.” King gave dozens of speeches to union audiences. He was an outspoken critic of racist “right-to-work” laws, which, then as now, severely restrict the collective bargaining rights of working people. Ultimately, he died supporting the picket line in Memphis, battling in solidarity with striking sanitation workers and labor organizers, including the legendary Bill Lucy with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Several new scholarly works—including excellent books by Michael Honey and Sylvie Laurent—give us a much better picture of King’s involvement with organized labor.
Coretta Scott King also fought tirelessly for the rights and dignity of working people. As Morehouse freshman Michael Henry underscored in his presentation last weekend, we desperately need to resurrect this aspect of Scott King’s activist legacy, which speaks so cogently to ongoing struggles for decent jobs and a living wage.
As we think about the Kings’ ties to the labor movement, and about how we might carry on their work at colleges and universities today, it really is helpful to recall the simple warning about complacency and indifference.
In 1963, the non-white membership of the New York City building trades was less than 2 percent. This was, of course, a major source of contention for demonstrators at Rochdale. But for other unions at the time, the struggle for racial justice was considered a key driver of a robust and truly effective labor movement. And in progressive unionism King saw great promise—so long as complacency and indifference could be kept at bay.
Consider his 1963 address to the predominately Black and Puerto Rican District 65, a New York City local of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU):
You may be numerically small; you are small, however, only in one dimension. When we look deeply into your quality, you are like a diamond in a massive vein of coal. You could have allowed the stability and strength you accumulated to desensitize you to the burning problems of the less fortunate. You could have encased your fighting tradition in a plastic frame and hung it on your wall. Instead, you have brought your luminous tradition into the present, and wherever a battle for decency is waging, you have made yourself a part of it.
King’s point was that racially progressive unions have made real and lasting change in this country. His point was that such unions connect their members to a worthy fighting tradition and give them an elevated position from which to carry on that struggle. But it all depends on how they choose to use that “stability and strength,” how they choose to make themselves a part of that struggle. There is absolutely no question that the unionists who came to Morehouse last weekend proudly claim a luminous fighting tradition and work every day to sustain and build a transformative labor movement.
The lesson applies beyond the unions. One of the demonstrators who chained himself to that crane in Queens, a man who would become a dedicated organizer of the more radical “Rochdale Movement,” was Herman Ferguson. If you’re unfamiliar with Ferguson, look him up. His complicated story requires another blog post—or several. But in the early 1960s, Herman was a college-educated public school teacher and administrator, and a self-described “armchair-type” political commentator. He could have stayed in that armchair. He could have been complacent. But in the summer of ‘63, as he put it: “I walked across the street and joined the picket line, and this was my first encounter with the civil rights movement in an activist’s role. And I stayed with the demonstrations the whole summer, every day.”
Traditional colleges and universities can be breeding grounds for complacency and indifference, especially over matters of concern to the working poor. The so-called “ivory tower” often reflects an elite class politics and frequently yields little more than “armchair-type” social and economic commentary. Part of what undergraduate labor studies programs can and must do today is demand and structure more serious thinking about privilege and how to use the “stability and strength” that King spoke of. This means serious thinking about how to nurture student, faculty, and alumni communities that proudly refuse to turn their backs on working people. Here at Morehouse, we were fortunate to have the building trades on campus last weekend. Our friends in organized labor help us aspire to a legacy that could make the Kings proud.
Andrew J. Douglas is an associate professor of political science and faculty affiliate in Africana studies and international comparative labor studies. He is the author of two books, including W.E.B. Du Bois and the Critique of the Competitive Society, and is currently finishing a book-length project on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s economic theory (coauthored with Jared Loggins, Morehouse c/o 2015).