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The Labor Behind Desegregating the Labor Movement

Special Collections and University Archives Digitizes Largest Collection of AFL-CIO Documents on Civil Rights

By Maggie Haslam

black and white photo of a march with signs demanding the end of segregation

United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther (center) links arms with Black advocates during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Reuther was a steadfast supporter of civil rights and friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; he helped mobilize other unions to march that day, despite AFL-CIO President George Meany’s lackluster support.

Photo courtesy of University Libraries

Just days after the National Guard descended on Little Rock, Ark. to ensure nine black students could safely pass segregationist protesters to enter a formerly all-white high school, the United Packhouse Workers of America union president sent a telegram to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, writing, “When violence can be used to maintain injustice, juveniles and adults, both, can assume that violence pays dividends.”

It was a rare statement of support at a time when labor organizations were deeply divided on segregation. Many union leaders, particularly in the South, either decried Eisenhower’s decision or were reluctant to publicly endorse it.

Now, the yellowed 1957 Western Union telegram is part of a newly digitized University of Maryland Libraries collection that documents the hard-fought battle against discrimination within the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and demonstrates how union politics, protests and behind-the-scenes support bolstered the civil rights movement in the United States.

“Advancing Workers’ Rights in the American South: Digitizing the Records of the AFL-CIO’s Civil Rights Division” features over 90,000 selected documents—including letters, memos, newspapers, films and audio recordings—from 55 years of work by the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Division, available online to the public for the first time. A collaboration between the University of Maryland Libraries and Georgia State University, the digitization project was supported by a $350,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

A telegram to Martin Luther King Jr. advising him that Don Slaiman and other union leaders would join him in Selma, Alabama
The 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, marked a pivotal moment for the AFL’s public support of civil rights, with AFL-CIO President George Meany sending union leaders to march in response to a telegram from King.

Established in 1881 as the political and organizing arm of the U.S. labor movement, the AFL (now the AFL-CIO) was ruled by exclusionary practices until civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the 1920s, the first enduring Black union in the United States; documentation of his efforts, including letters, photos and newspaper clippings, are part of the digitized collection. Randolph became a driving force in the desegregation of the AFL-CIO and galvanized many within the organization to push for new policies and publicly support the efforts of activists like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis.

Policies, discussions and decisions surrounding major civil rights events are brought to life through the collection’s variety of documents, including the only known copy of a documentary created about the Freedom Rides of 1961, the first integrated bus rides in the deep South. The archival material, said Social Justice and Labor Archivist, Ben Blake, offers both context and a historical precedent for social justice battles that endure today.

“With the backlash around voting rights today, and when conservatives have a base in the labor movement, it’s very reminiscent of the divisions we saw in the 1950s,” he said. “How do we overcome that today? To me, a collection like this is a perfect source for historians.”

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University Libraries obtained the collection when the National Labor College shuttered in 2013—over 35,000 boxes of material that comprises the archives of the AFL-CIO, going back to the 1880s. With the grant, Blake and other library staff were able to digitize around one-third of the material related to civil rights and social justice, which represents a fraction of the entire collection. While the material is currently organized into PDFs of over 1300 folders, which can be individually searched, a global keyword search of the entire collection will be available by the end of the year.

A separate collection of the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department Southern Region is available through Georgia State University, along with an online exhibit, “Fighting for Freedom: Labor and Civil Rights in the American South.”

Digitization is a time-consuming and expensive process, said Blake; less than .00001% of the Labor and Social Justice Collections are digited and available online. Blake hopes future grants and funding will allow more digitization of the collection for researchers, the academic community and the public to access; people from around the world have already reached out to him for help accessing the current collection.

“It’s incredible to be in this position,” he said. “It's the most important project that I’ve worked on in 23 years as an archivist.”



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