February is Black History
Month, a good time to honor the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the most important yet too often
overlooked leaders in the long struggle for racial equality.
The union, the first to be
founded by African Americans, was
involved deeply in political as well as economic activity. It joined with the
NAACP to serve as the major political vehicle of African Americans from the
late 1930s through the 1950s.
Together, the two organizations
led the drives in those
years against racial discrimination in employment, housing, education and other
areas, and in doing so, laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of
The need for a porters' union
was painfully obvious. Porters
commonly worked 12 or more hours a day on the Pullman Company's sleeping car
coaches for less than $100 a month. And out of that, they had to pay for their
meals, uniforms, even the polish they used to shine passengers' shoes. They got
no fringe benefits, although they could ride the trains for half-fare on their
days off – providing they were among the very few with the time and money to do
so. And providing they didn't ride a Pullman coach.
In order to meet their basic
living expenses, porters had to
draw on the equally meager earnings of their wives, who were almost invariably
employed as domestics.
It was a marginal and humiliating
experience for porters.
They were rightly proud of their work, a pride that showed in their smiling,
dignified bearing. But porters knew that no matter how well they performed,
they would never be promoted to higher-paying conductors' jobs. Those jobs were
reserved for white men.
Porters knew most of all
that their white passengers and
white employers controlled everything. It was they alone who decided what the
porters must do and what they'd get for doing it.
When a passenger pulled the
bell cord, porters were to
answer swiftly and cheerfully. Just do what the passengers asked – or demanded.
Shine their shoes, fetch them drinks, make their beds, empty their cuspidors.
And more. No questions, no complaints, no protests. No rights. Nothing better
epitomized the vast distance between black and white in American society.
Hundreds of porters who challenged
the status quo by daring
to engage in union activity or other concerted action were fired. But finally,
the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted workers, black
and white, the legal right to unionize. And finally, in 1937, the Brotherhood
of Sleeping Car Porters won a union contract from Pullman.
The contract was signed exactly
12 years after union
president and founder A. Philip Randolph had called the union's first
organizing meeting in New York City. It was a long arduous struggle, but it
brought the porters out of poverty. It won them pay at least equal to that of
unionized workers in many other fields , a standard workweek, and full range of
fringe benefits. Most important, porters won the right to continue to bargain
collectively with Pullman on those and other vital matters.
Union President Randolph
and Vice President C.L. Dellums,
who succeeded Randolph in 1968, led the drive that pressured President
Roosevelt into several important actions against discrimination, including the
creation of a Fair Employment Practices Commission in housing as well as
employment. FDR agreed to set up the commission – a model for several state
commissions – and take other anti-discrimination steps only after Randolph and
Dellums threatened to lead a march on Washington by more than 100,000 black
workers and others who were
demanding federal action against discrimination.
Dellums and Randolph struggled
as hard against
discrimination inside the labor movement, particularly against the practice of
unions setting up segregated locals, one for white members, one for black
Randolph, elected in 1957
as the AFL-CIO's first
African-American vice president, long was known as the civil rights conscience
of the labor movement, often prodding federation President George Meany and
other conservative AFL-CIO leaders to take stands against racial
The sleeping car coaches
that once were the height of travel
luxury have long since disappeared, and there are very few sleeping car porters
in this era of less-than-luxurious train travel. The Brotherhood of Sleeping
Car Porters is gone, too. But before the union disappeared, it had reached
goals as important as any ever sought by an American union – or by any other
Copyrightę2011 Dick Meister