In commemorating our forebears during Black History Month, we recognize those who fought for workers’ rights and understood that economic justice does not exist without racial justice. Black workers have always been more than “allies” in labor movements—they were, and are, on the front lines.
Southern Black workers have a long record of forming unions to press their demands for justice—not just to combat exploitation but to actualize democracy. Today, with so many U.S. workers, and Black workers in particular, feeling like they do not have the opportunity to succeed, we once again need to confront our challenges and build power at work as we have in the past.
Many of the most influential leaders in Black history played critical roles in the labor movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was killed while advocating for safety, fair wages and equal benefits for Black sanitation workers in Memphis. One of King’s mentors, A. Philip Randolph, was the president and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation’s first major African-American-led labor union. The union took courageous actions amid violent repression from the Pullman Company and later directed the March on Washington movement to end employment discrimination in the defense industry.
Earlier organizers, including the twenty Black women in Atlanta that formed the Washing Society in 1881, went on strike to demand higher wages and dignity at work. They may not be household names, but they were pioneers in the labor movement because of their victories and tenacious persistence in the face of discrimination.
In modern times, Black workers, especially in the South, remain central to rebuilding a labor movement that challenges reactionary forces and white supremacy. Far-right extremists are more emboldened than ever to undermine democracy and dismantle the steps toward justice set in motion during the Civil Rights era.
Taking inspiration from Randolph and others that mentored King, we saw the need to combine our resources to nurture the skills, thoughts and experiences of Black labor and economic justice scholars, intellectuals and social movements. Any sustained organizing effort must place the South as a central component of its strategy.
Toward that end, several of us spearheaded an effort to support the next generation of Black leadership and reconnect the lines between economic and racial justice by forming the Advancing Black Strategists Initiative.
Our mission is to create a growing cohort of Black labor-focused strategists across different disciplines committed to support the collective power-building of working people, first and foremost in the U.S. South. Black institutions can serve as incubators for the future of Black scholarship and applied research on race, class, gender and economic justice in the South—anchored within historically Black colleges and universities, including the larger Atlanta University Consortium.
Since its formation, the Advancing Black Strategists Initiative has honed a proven framework for working with unions and key allies to reclaim what has been lost. We’ve been especially heartened that the South is increasingly seeing some of the most important labor upsurges in the country. From the organizing drive among Amazon workers in Alabama to the rubber tire workers subjected to unsafe conditions in South Carolina. Not to mention, the painters in Georgia, the public sector municipal workers in Virginia as well as the auto workers seeking to unionize facilities in Alabama and Mississippi.
This Black History Month, we take pride in our past and renew our commitment to building a better future through partnerships, collaboration and selfless giving. Nothing short of the survival of the labor movement and democracy depends on us getting this right.
This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.
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