In late October 1951, one of the most important African American trade union initiatives in U.S. history was launched.
“The Freedom Train, jam-packed with fifteen hundred fighters,” rolled into Cincinnati on October 27, reported Viola Harrison in Freedom newspaper. She noted that “Negro working-class leaders and rank and file workers… took their battle posts and girded for action” in a nationwide fight for economic, political, and social equality. Together, they founded the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC).
The NNLC was born out of a Chicago National Trade Union Conference for Negro Rights held in June 1950. Over 1,000 African American leaders pledged to build a network of “Negro Labor Councils.” The NNLC’s goal was to establish a “permanent national organization” designed to mobilize the “strength of Negro workers.” Paul Robeson gave the main plenary speech, while National Negro Congress, Negro Labor Victory Committee, and recently expelled Communist-led Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union activists discussed Jim Crow, discriminatory employment practices, colonialism, and the Korean war.
Among the NNLC’s leaders were William Hood, secretary of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 600, which was, at 20,000 members, the largest UAW local; Cleveland Robinson, vice president of the Distributive, Processing and Office Workers Union; and Coleman Young, leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and future Mayor of Detroit. While the NNLC was not free of the sexism then permeating the labor movement, Black women such as Vicki Garvin held numerous leadership positions and received “emphatic applause” at the Convention when they asserted their importance to the labor movement.
Hood put to rest any notion that the NNLC would be subordinate to white labor. “[T]he day has ended when white trade union leaders or white leaders in any organization may presume to tell Negroes on what basis they shall come together to fight for their rights,” he said.1
Within a year of the Chicago Conference, 23 “Negro Labor Councils in major industrial centers throughout the country” were established. These new Black labor councils operated within the predominantly white – and perhaps, reactionary – American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the increasingly conservative CIO. However, the NNLC was independent of both. It pledged to “pay particular attention to the problems of Negro sharecroppers as well as industrial workers,” two groups largely ignored by the AFL. And with the purge of Communists from the CIO, Black workers were also increasingly marginalized within that organization.
Unlike the AFL and CIO, the NNLC promised to build an organization that “will be content with nothing less than full freedom for the Negro people and an end to the era of second-class citizenship.” Due to its outspoken anti-racism, as well as its alliance with Communists, the NNLC drew attention from conservatives seeking to eliminate “subversive elements” in society.
After World War II, Black soldiers returned home expecting and demanding full equality. Instead, they found continued racism and segregation, as well as Jim Crow hiring and firing policies. Black veterans such as Isaiah Nixon were “abused, attacked, and killed…” On September 9, 1948, a group of white men shot and killed Nixon for voting in a Georgia election; two men were arrested and charged, but were acquitted by all-white juries.
Coupled with the 1950s anti-communist Red Scare, demands for full equality were labeled subversive. Black radicalism, once conflated with communism and the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA), was effectively criminalized. At the NNLC Convention, delegates addressed the anti-communist slur. Joe Johnson of the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union told attendees, “Those who label us communists every time we open our mouths to gain our rights…don’t know the difference between Communism and rheumatism…”
NNLC leaders, however, cared little about communists – so long as they worked to end racism and Jim Crow. Hood “reflected the attitude” of conference attendees. He “defied those who labeled the conference ‘subversive’” when he said “If this [organization] be subversion – make the most of it.” The flurry of activity in late-1951 and early-1952 indicates that the NNLC intended to make the most of it.
By January 1952, the NNLC “launched a drive for 100,000 new jobs for Negroes in Jim Crow industries and classifications.” It also pledged to initiate an effort to collect one million signatures for a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) petition.
According to Freedom, there were “two pivot dates” during the NNLC’s 1952 “doubled-barrelled [sic] campaign” for equality. The first date was during Negro History Week, when NNLC delegates gathered in Washington, D.C. “to let law-makers and the President know that Negro workers want an FEPC with teeth now.” The second date was in May, when the Council sponsored “a mass march on Washington to back up its demands.”
NNLC activity swelled. Regional conferences were organized, and regional directors were assigned. By March 1952, the NNLC boasted of early success. “Negro truck drivers, streetcar motormen, saleswomen, bank officials and industrial workers are appearing in formerly lily-white jobs,” Freedom noted. These victories were a direct result of NNLC campaigns.
The Council didn’t just protest, though. It also established pre-apprenticeship education and skills-based training courses for African American youth kept out of apprenticeship classes. In Kentucky, the NNLC “achieved what it believes to be the first breakthrough in Jim Crow education” when it forced an agreement that arranged for African American youth to attend “white schools” when training courses were not offered at Black high schools. While these classes didn’t fix issues surrounding seniority and job placement/classification and apprenticeship training, they did provide a pathway for African American youth to learn a skilled trade.
Additionally, the San Francisco NNLC successfully lobbied for the Key System trans-bay streetcar to hire 90 motormen and conductors, while the LA NNLC pressured “lily-white Sears-Roebuck” to hire 15 saleswomen. In New York, the NNLC persuaded Muller Dairy to hire drivers, and in Flint, the NNLC was “tackling a Jim Crow supermarket in the Negro community.”
The NNLC was diligent in fulfilling its mission, which brought unwanted attention from the House Un-American Activities Committee and conservative labor leaders. That members of the CPUSA were instrumental in the NNLC’s founding and leadership served to justify spurious concerns among those already inclined to label it “subversive.” In its efforts to divorce Black radicalism from Red activists, HUAC enlisted the support of mainstream labor leaders, such as Walter Reuther and A. Phillip Randolph; both men feared NNLC leaders might supplant them.
In February 1952, HUAC held hearings on the Communist Party in Michigan. It believed that Local 600 had “become a hub of party activity.” Subpoenas were issued for the progressive Black leadership, including Hood. Local 600 defied the Committee. It issued a publication denouncing HUAC, provided advice to its members about how “to exercise their constitutional rights if subpoenaed,” and established a picket at the federal building where hearings were held. The Local also pointed to U.S. government hypocrisy: how could it fight communism abroad while “supporting racial oppression at home?”
Conversely, Reuther saw HUAC’s hearings as an opportunity to silence his opponents. After his 1946 election as UAW president through Reuther controlled the UAW from top to bottom – except Local 600. The HUAC hearings, coupled with Hood’s unwillingness to enforce a ban on Communists, as well as NNLC recalcitrance, gave Reuther the excuse he needed to trustee Local 600 and oust its progressive Black leadership. Reuther claimed the CPUSA dominated the Local; he even went so far as to call the NNLC a “Communist-dominated dual unionist organization.” Meanwhile, Reuther’s opponents were “blacklisted from employment in the auto industry and the labor movement” and faced FBI harassment.
Black labor also colluded to cripple the NNLC and a once vibrant alliance between Black radicals and Red activists. In March 1952, trade union leaders formed the National Negro Labor Committee, which, as historian Lang notes, represented “a blatant attempt to take the initiative from the NNLC.” New York Governor Thomas Dewey and President Truman sent official greetings to the approved Committee “whose plan of action included combating communism and the NNLC.”
By 1956, like the Civil Rights Congress and the Council on African Affairs, the NNLC was forced to dissolve. In the years that followed, the newly merged AFL-CIO, the NAACP, and Randolph’s new Negro American Labor Council (lest anyone think it was “foreign dominated”) “freely grazed on [the NNLC’s] carcass” and “co-opted much of its agenda.”
- Clarence Lang, “Freedom Train Derailed: The National Negro Labor Council and Nadir of Black Radicalism” in Robbie Lieberman / Clarence Lang (ed), Anticommunism And The African American Freedom Movement – “Another Side of the Story” (New York: Palgrave, 2009), 169. ↩