When Teamsters General President James R. Hoffa sat in a Detroit church to pay his respects to the wife of a Teamster business agent, the nation was a tinderbox of civil rights struggle. Seated alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other labor leaders, Hoffa was attending no ordinary funeral 50 years ago. Viola Liuzzo was not merely the wife of a Teamster. She was a martyr for racial equality and justice.
“She had faith in what she believed, and was one of those rare individuals who acted instead of just giving lip service to a principle,” Hoffa said of Liuzzo, who was slain by Klansmen while working in the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama.
Her funeral, along with the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, holds a special place in the history of the Teamsters union – and it reminds all Teamsters that our history is intertwined with the story of black America.
From the inception of the union, many Teamsters understood that racial divisions play into the bosses’ ploy to divide and weaken the working class. Black unionists were at the center of the Teamsters since our founding in 1903. At a time when Jim Crow held sway in the south and discrimination against African Americans was commonplace nationwide, the Teamsters called for “no color line” in the union as early as 1906.
In 1917, black women working with the Teamsters won a contract that mandated equal pay among black and white laundry workers. The union took a stand for equal pay and against Jim Crow laws in the south. Hoffa himself strongly rejected segregation within the union, even if it meant forgoing new members who opposed integration. While organizing a chemical plant in New Orleans in the 1950s, he refused white workers’ demands for a separate local for black workers knowing it might – and did – result in a vote against the union. “We don’t need ‘em. Their way is not the Teamster way,” Hoffa said.
Black and white Teamsters from across the country took part in the March on Washington in 1963 and the union gave $25,000 to Dr. King’s civil rights organization. Today, the Teamsters represent some of the most diverse workforces in a wide range of industries – and we are actively organizing more.
While the Teamsters were historically ahead of other unions on issues of race, this was largely thanks to the efforts of black trade unionists who fought for an equal place within the union. One such member was T.A. Stowers, a delegate from Chicago’s Local 10, who stood before the convention in 1903 calling for language in the Teamster constitution protecting black members from discrimination. Black Teamsters often faced racism from white Teamsters who resisted giving members of color leadership roles in the union. The courage of black Teamsters led to an upsurge in African American leadership in the union beginning in the 1940s, a trend that continued as society in general was transformed by the civil rights movement.
This year, Black History Month gives us an opportunity to not only appreciate the role black Teamsters have played in the foundation and growth of our union, but to also take on present-day challenges such as voter suppression laws and other racist policies.
“Black History Month is especially significant this year because it coincides with the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in the march in Selma and the signing of the Voting Rights Act,” said Al Mixon, an International Vice President, Secretary-Treasurer of Cleveland’s Local 507 and Chairman of the Teamsters National Black Caucus.
Mixon said the TNBC, along with the Teamsters Human Rights Commission, are organizing several events with other organizations this year, including workshops in March that will take place in Selma, followed by a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the 1965 Bloody Sunday attack on civil rights marchers.
As Teamsters, we are honored to be part of black history. It’s not just something we celebrate. It’s who we are.