Remembering the Influences of Civil Rights Leaders
While the approach of Labor Day represents the passing of summer for most, the holiday’s past holds a much deeper meaning, extending beyond backyard barbecues and poolside hang outs with family and friends. Sure, Labor Day is a perfect time for gathering together with loved ones for one last summertime fling, but it is important to remember the holiday’s roots. The very foundation of Labor Day is built on the backs of hardworking black Americans that fought for equal workers’ rights, leading to the establishment of the holiday in 1894.
Following the abolishment of slavery with the passing of Juneteenth in 1865, black Americans began working in the traditional marketplace for pay. However, although slavery had ended, blacks still had a long way to go on their way to equal rights. Pullman Palace Car Service, which offered railroad passengers a luxury travel experience, hired black workers as porters to work in train cars. These workers were expected to provide services including shining shoes, carrying bags and a variety of janitorial services. At the time, Pullman Palace was the largest employer of blacks in the nation, having black workers constitute a large portion of the company’s workforce as a whole.
However, black porters were often expected to work longer hours for less pay than their white counterparts, were ineligible to work as conductors and they were unable to join labor unions. A white railroad labor union led to the Pullman Palace strike that resulted in violence and the deployment of federal troops, ending August 3, 1884, just before the national presidential election. As a result of the strike, President Glover Cleveland declared Labor Day a national holiday under federal law. Although the first “workingman’s holiday” was celebrated in New York City in 1882, this marked the official establishment of the holiday.
Following this success, black workers began to organize their own labor union, after seeing the power that an organized labor force held for change. After 25 years of fighting, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was established in 1925. The BSCP was led by Civil Rights pioneer, Asa Philip Randolph. Over the course of the next ten years, the union fought for recognition by the American Federation of Labor and improved working conditions for black porters. This success offered some relief for black workers from the harsh working conditions of the industrial revolution at last.
This Labor Day weekend, we ask you to remember and celebrate the achievements of the great black Civil Rights leaders that fought to establish the holiday and more fair working conditions for all. This is a time to recall our nation’s history, as well as the progress that can be made through hardwork and determination. This is a time to celebrate, a time to remember, and a time to become inspired to encite our own change and progress to empower those of all skin tones and colors.