How we can learn from legendary black labor leaders

OPINION - When it comes to advocating for jobs that put black America to work, we've had a long history...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

With black unemployment surging up towards 20 percent, the significance of Labor Day should be much more than the end of summer to us. When it comes to advocating for jobs that put black America to work, we’ve had a long history. In fact, the full name of the March on Washington is the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The waters may be muddy now but, back then, it was crystal clear: freedom and equality was linked arm and arm with economic viability. It’s a fact that A. Philip Randolph, one of the often-forgotten masterminds of the historic march, built his legendary career on. As head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph was a tireless advocate for African-American laborers, especially the iconic Pullman porters for which he helped secure pay increases to the tune of $2 million.

In 1941, when the first March on Washington was proposed, Randolph and his team, which included Bayard Rustin and the even lesser known labor organizer Frank Crosswaith, halted it only after FDR issued Executive Order 8802, also known as the Fair Employment Act, which promoted racial equality in employment.

Baltimore native Isaac Myers, a former ship caulker, helped found the Colored National Labor Union in 1869. He was also instrumental in the formation of the Colored Men’s Progressive and Cooperative Union, which allowed women, when the CNLU disintegrated. Equal pay as well as opportunity and access were key negotiating points for Myers.

Black women also raised their voices in the struggle for better pay and more equitable treatment. In Atlanta, in July 1881, 20 laundresses met and formed the Washing Society where they chiefly advocated for higher pay. In less than a month, their numbers grew from 20 to 3000 as they went on strike to improve their plight. Not only did they secure victory but they also sparked similar action among black women who were cooks, maids, nurses and hotel workers.

In Omaha, Nebraska, Rowena Moore organized the Defense Women’s Club in response to black women not being given jobs in the meatpacking industry during World War II. Her efforts resulted in the Federal Employment Practices Committee ordering the industry to stop discriminating against black women, resulting in the gainful employment of Moore and hundreds of other black women.

Organizing has been essential to African-Americans achieving historic gains in the American workforce. But, yet, today, such activity is housed in a decaying carcass. It’s no secret that African-Americans are no strangers to hard times. Over the years, however, African-American leadership has appeared less and less willing to work to remedy this. As a result, political participation has continually waned among African-Americans.

Yes, the historic election of President Barack Obama brought us out in droves. But, as the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and others are learning, sustained action, not symbols, is what will keep us engaged. When the conversation turns to the core of what most people are concerned with, i.e. putting food on the table, the response, as evidenced by the throngs of people who stood in long lines in the heat to attend the CBC’s For the People Jobs Initiative across the nation, is overwhelming.

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. rose to prominence in Harlem largely for fighting for jobs. In 1939, he organized a successful picket at the 1939 New York’s Fair offices at the Empire State Building that resulted in black jobs and he duplicated that success with a 1941 bus boycott. Similarly, Jesse Jackson became beloved in Chicago not because he marched with Dr. King; his popularity, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, stemmed from the fact that he led boycotts and marches that resulted in jobs for black Chicagoans.

Putting black America to work never goes out of style. Whether it comes through gaining meaningful employment or creating our own businesses, African-Americans have historically been very clear about the rewards of economic viability and that’s what’s been most threatening to those who seek to hold us back. Discussions of lynching rarely mention that many of the victims were targeted because they were prosperous, not because they crossed interracial mating lines.

As we fire up the grill this Labor Day, a lot should weigh on our minds. A national black unemployment rate of 16.7 percent, the highest level since 1984, is unacceptable.

Labor Day shouldn’t be a meaningless holiday to any of us. Instead, we should honor the many who have gone before us, including Dr. King, who lost his life in Memphis as he stood up for the striking black sanitation workers, by recognizing that Labor Day is meant to commemorate action, not barbecues.