How Black Pullman Porters Waged a Struggle for “Civil Rights Unionism”

Eric Arnesen

Led by A. Philip Randolph, black Pullman porters struggled against the exploitation of the company and the racism of the mainstream labor movement to win a fighting union. They secured dignity on the job — and laid the foundation for the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Interview by
Arvind Dilawar

When the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) formed in 1925 to organize the largely black workforce of Pullman Company sleeping car attendants, the union faced challenges from every direction.

The staunchly anti-union Pullman Company had established a surveillance network to identify and fire union activists, and created a “company union” to fool the more impressionable workers. Moderate black leaders opposed the union drive, questioning whether sleeping car porters — who occupied one of the best jobs available to African Americans — should “bite the hand that feeds them.” Pullman workers couldn’t even rely on the solidarity of the mainstream labor movement, as many American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions barred black workers from membership.

Despite these hurdles, the BSCP and its president, A. Philip Randolph, managed to organize sleeping car attendants and, in the process, forge a “civil rights unionism” that fought for racial and economic justice.

Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar spoke with Eric Arnesen, author of Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality, about the racism that Pullman workers confronted, the struggles of other black railroad workers, and the role Randolph and the union played in the broader Civil Rights Movement. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Arvind Dilawar

Why was the railroad such a pivotal industry for black struggle?

Eric Arnesen

It was, and it wasn’t. Black workers in coal mining and in longshoring unionized and struggled in the late nineteenth century. Black women in a variety of trades, particularly washerwomen, organized as well. During World War I, a wide range of black workers organized and struggled for jobs and better conditions. The packinghouses of Chicago during World War I are a key example.

But in 1925, the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the relentless public campaign waged by A. Philip Randolph and other leaders put black railroaders — black Pullman porters — at the forefront of the struggle.

The struggles of other groups of black workers that I discuss in Brotherhoods of Color — firemen and brakemen, for instance — were important, but were defensive operations aimed at holding on to a diminishing number of jobs. Their struggles produced fewer victories. One exception, I’d argue, were the Supreme Court decisions establishing the “duty of fair representation” during World War II, but even those didn’t do much to assist black firemen and brakemen.

Porters were more visible. The white public likely encountered them while travelling, and the figure of the porter — happy and subservient — made its way into popular culture. The campaign against Pullman, beginning in earnest in 1925, challenged those images and succeeded in making dignity and the right to unionize major conversation topics in black communities across the country.

But following the BSCP victory, the emergence of the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] as a more inclusive alternative, or rival, to the AFL meant that tens of thousands of black workers joined unions in the auto, steel, packinghouse, and other industries. Numerically, they vastly outnumbered porters and unionized black railroad workers.

The BSCP organizers recognized, I would argue, that they were engaged in a larger, historic struggle. Publicity was key to their fight. And they preserved their records, or at least many of them. So there is a vast paper trail that has allowed historians to tell the porters’ story in considerable detail. In contrast, red caps and dining car workers — both of whom unionized and engaged in civil rights unionism — left behind far fewer records, making their stories harder to tell. Hence, we know much less about them.

Arvind Dilawar

Talk about the mainstream labor movement’s great shame: its exclusion of black workers from its ranks.

Eric Arnesen

Few were the American institutions, or white-dominated American institutions, that did not reflect a belief in the racial inferiority of non-whites. Yes, a small number did manage to envision alternatives and transcend their times. The vast majority did not. Trade unions, like political parties, churches, civic organizations, etc., were wholly immersed in racist beliefs and engaged in racist practices.

I’m reminded of something that A. Philip Randolph said:

One thing Negroes must understand, and that is that there is no organization in America composed of white people which does not have some racial discrimination in it, but if the Negro is going to take the position that he should come out of every organization [that] racial discrimination is in he will come out of both the AFL and the CIO. He will also come out of the church and the schools of America. He will refuse to go to Congress. In fact, this ridiculous position will lead him to the conclusion where he will be compelled to get out of America and eventually off the Earth, for racial discrimination is everywhere.

That was 1944! Randolph was making the point that organized labor shared a racial orientation with other institutions. His point was in response to those who wanted African Americans to avoid the AFL. If racial discrimination were a reason to disengage, well, you get the point.

Beliefs about black workers remained largely unchanged for decades, but what whites did about black competition, real or imagined, changed over time. The unions, by constitutional provision, excluded African Americans from membership. At times, they used contract negotiations, and the threat of job actions or strikes, to compel employers to bar or limit the number of black workers.

At other times, they struck explicitly to eliminate or minimize black competition. And at other times they resorted to out-and-out violence — terrorism directed at Black railroaders designed to drive them off the job by force. And they used government agencies to uphold racial discrimination and exclusion.

One final point: “The labor movement” was never the sole property of white workers. There exists a long and important, if underrecognized, tradition of black trade unionism that was in no way dependent on white labor. Indeed, black trade unionists battled white workers as well as white employers, a theme I first elaborated in Waterfront Workers of New Orleans.

Yes, the larger labor movement of the nineteenth through to the early twentieth century was largely white and discriminatory. But a distinctive black labor movement existed side by side with the white labor movement — sometimes overlapping, sometimes not. It’s important, I think, to not only not ignore the racial beliefs and practices of white-only labor unions, but to not erase that black labor movement from history either.

Arvind Dilawar

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the union that demonstrated labor organizing could be an avenue for black struggle. How did the BSCP change people’s perspectives about unions?

Eric Arnesen

There were all-black unions prior to the BSCP’s emergence in 1925, but over the course of its ten-year struggle for recognition, more than any other institution, the Brotherhood put the issue of black trade unionism squarely on the agenda of black protest.

Targets included racist white unions, of course, but they also included the black press, clergy, and middle class, which tended to advance a pro-business or anti-trade union position through the 1920s and, in some cases, into the 1930s.

White unions’ hostility to black workers was a key source of that stance. Some argued that, ultimately, white employers — no matter how discriminatory — had something to offer black workers (jobs) that white unions did not.

In the case of the Pullman Company, editors and ministers pointed out that the company was the single largest employer of black workers in the country. Was it wise to “bite the hand that feeds you?” They answered “no.” Pullman, among other companies, also deployed philanthropy toward black institutions, prompting further defense of the company.

From 1925 through 1935, Randolph and other BSCP leaders conducted a crusade to discredit those beliefs. Pullman might provide jobs, but it was a racist institution that treated porters and maids like slaves, deprived them of dignity, and oppressed them on the job. The BSCP pounded this message home for years.

And its organizers crisscrossed the country preaching the gospel of black trade unionism, insisting before audiences black and white that black workers deserved, and required, the same right of representation that their white counterparts did. The BSCP sponsored a series of labor conferences to build support for its position.

Over the course of that decade, the message took root. By the time that the union won a government-sponsored representation election in 1935, the black press and many black institutions celebrated the victory and recognized it as a turning point for black labor. Black red caps and dining car workers organized as well, and with the rise of the CIO in the late 1930s, tens of thousands of black workers joined organized labor’s ranks.

Arvind Dilawar

Black railroad unions could rarely rely on widespread solidarity in their struggles. What were the various groups and forces they turned to, to try to push forward their cause?

Eric Arnesen

During World War I, black railroaders could turn to federal labor relations bodies, such as the US Railroad Administration, which had an incentive to consider black demands in order to regulate the labor supply. The BSCP’s formation in 1925 won support from white progressives — socialists like Norman Thomas, liberals like Fiorello La Guardia, a variety of liberal religious leaders, and others.

Communists initially were supportive, then they turned hostile when Randolph called off a proposed strike in 1925 — a strike he could not win — and remained hostile, and disruptive, until the coming of the Popular Front in 1935 to 1936.

AFL leaders were contradictory allies, sometimes offering assistance, sometimes deferring to white unions who wanted jurisdiction over the porters — something Randolph and the BSCP successfully resisted. But the going was rough in the late 1920s, and the economic crisis made matters even worse.

In the end, it was New Deal labor legislation that made the difference, but porters and allies had to lobby hard for inclusion in that legislation. Once covered by law, they availed themselves of the machinery established and won a representation election in 1935.

Without that legislation, I do not believe the BSCP would have been successful. Until 1937, the Pullman Company resisted the porters’ efforts, and did so successfully. What on-the-job leverage did porters have?

If they walked off the job in the midst of a depression — a moment when rail travel was diminished — they would undoubtedly have been replaced by countless unemployed others. It was the law that made the difference, and the porters worked hard to secure their own coverage in that law by testifying before Congress and publicly lobbying allies.

Arvind Dilawar

How did organized black railroad workers influence the Civil Rights Movement?

Eric Arnesen

From the start, Randolph made clear that the brotherhood was a civil rights organization, or a union that fought for dignity and economic emancipation. It worked with the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] on various issues, protested discrimination in the distribution of relief during the Depression, supported don’t-buy-where-you-can’t-work campaigns, and championed the right of all black workers to join unions.

In 1936, Randolph — and, by extension, the brotherhood — helped to found the National Negro Congress, a militant civil rights group that challenged the NAACP from the left. In 1941, Randolph — with porters’ blessing and engagement — created the March on Washington Movement to demand that the Roosevelt administration end discrimination in both the now-burgeoning defense industries and the armed forces.

The latter demand was refused. FDR did, however, issue Executive Order 8802, creating a Fair Employment Practice Committee [FEPC]. For the war’s duration, Randolph and porters protested persistent job discrimination and campaigned for a permanent FEPC.

In sum, Randolph and the porters put the notion of fair employment on the national agenda for the first time. And, with the rise of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1950s, porters were supportive and engaged. ED Nixon, an NAACP official and local BSCP leader, was instrumental in organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and 1956. And Randolph was the force behind the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.