Happy February! As we celebrate Black History Month, I want to take this occasion to honor the achievements of Black leaders, past and present, who have fought for justice, equality, and respect for all individuals in society and the workplace. While many names come to mind, I’m going to briefly highlight a few whose efforts have improved racial and economic justice, which are so often intertwined.
Mary McLeod Bethune’s (1875-1955) contributions to the labor movement and racial equality were significant and wide-ranging. Among an incredible list of accomplishments, she founded the National Council of Negro Women, served as the first woman president of the then-named National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools, and was selected as a national advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on issues including providing jobs, training and financial support for young African Americans during the Great Depression and recovery.
A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) was a prominent African American labor and civil rights leader, known for his role in promoting racial equality and advocating for the rights of workers. In 1925, Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which became the first predominantly African American labor union to be recognized by the American Federation of Labor. Randolph’s influence extended all the way into the halls of government. In 1941, he was instrumental in convincing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which prohibited discrimination in the defense industry during World War II. Randolph was also an active civil rights leader, organizing several high-profile protests, including the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
Chris Smalls (1988- ) is playing an active role shaping the modern day labor movement. Smalls worked at Amazon where he founded the Amazon Labor Union. In 2022, his organizing efforts resulted in workers voting to unionize the Amazon warehouse that is the largest facility serving New York City. This was the first Amazon warehouse to ever be unionized. Smalls was named one of Time’s most influential people of 2022.
While there are, of course, many more pivotal figures in both the labor and civil rights movements who made significant contributions to advancing the rights of workers and African Americans, I wanted to share the three above as I find them particularly inspiring and there’s no doubt that their advocacy has helped to bring about lasting change and set a precedent for future generations.