People in Struggle Changed History: The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s

February 1, 2001

Some were murdered. Many were brutalized, many more jailed. Young and old braved police dogs, water cannons and batons, the jeers and stones of mobs, the bullets of snipers. But despite the odds, thousands of Americans, black and white, tore down the oppressive system of racial segregation that had dominated the South for decades.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s achieved a remarkable transformation of American life. Like the industrial workers of the 1930s who built unions despite the hostility of entrenched, powerful interests, African-Americans in the Deep South found within themselves the power to change the course of history. Like labor law, civil rights legislation was not a gift of far-seeing political leaders, but a product of people in struggle.

Those in the South demanding change had a consistent ally in the women and men of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

From its earliest years, UE called for an end to poll taxes and other devices used by the Southern elite to deny the right to vote to blacks and poor whites. UE called for anti-lynching laws as a weapon against racist terror basic to American apartheid.


UE’s strong stance had its moral anchor in the basic union premise "an injury to one is an injury to all." But UE policy was also impelled by the best self-interest of its members.

The Democratic politicians elected by a sharply limited, all-white electorate blocked progressive legislation in Congress. These "Dixiecrats" enthusiastically pursued attacks on labor. Reactionary southern governments actively solicited runaway plants from the North and Midwest, touting their states’ anti-union laws and the desperately low wages enforced by racial division and racist terror.

In joining forces with the civil rights movement, UE saw a chance to topple a barrier to progress for all working people.

This UE News feature, original published in 2001, includes personal reminiscences (below) and a timeline that link UE history to the struggle in the South.

And although the struggle for equality continues, the sacrifices and achievements of the 1950s and early 1960s deserve our attention and appreciation.

Growing Up Black in a Small Tennessee Town

UE General Secretary-Treasurer, 1994-2001

Born August 18, 1952 into a poor black working-class family, the fifth child of four brothers and six sisters, I experienced institutionalized racism in the South first hand. I grew up in Brownsville, Tennessee, some 50 miles east of Memphis and 17 miles south of Ripley (birthplace of Tina Turner).

The black community, my parents and the public schools unequivocally accepted this segregated system as natural, until the early Sixties. All the movie theaters and swimming pools in Brownsville were segregated. Except for the swimming pools, we had access to other public places but under different terms than whites.

The segregated swimming pool brings to mind my first confrontation with the local police. Every Wednesday during the summer of 1967 we would picket the swimming pools. After weeks with no real trouble with the police, we decided to step things up a bit and jump into the pool with the others. Things got rough and nasty. We were beaten quite bad that day. But we returned to the picket line the next Wednesday as scheduled.

Although I had no formal education regarding the workings of the economics and politics of racism then, I understood this: the white owners of local establishments never refused to accept my money for goods. They allowed us to buy food from their restaurants if you went to the back door and ate your food outside.

Brownsville was no different than other communities in the South. The primary product driving the economy was cotton. For blacks, young and old, picking cotton or working with a cotton-related product was the only place to find employment. I picked my first boll of cotton at age six. I picked my last boll at age 15. By that time, most owners used cotton-picking machines.


The most unjust and outrageous part of the segregated public school system, in my mind at least, was this — they robbed us of three months of education a year simply because the cotton plantation owners needed us to harvest their crops. All-black public schools were officially closed between July 15 through September 15, while the all-white schools remained open for learning. At the age of 10 — I recall this as if it were yesterday — how we watched yellow school buses transport white kids to and from school while we were in the field.

My father and mother always kept a sense of humor regarding the inequity of closing black schools for cotton harvesting time. When they were asked, "why?" they replied by saying, "the white kids needed to go to school longer because they were not as smart as we were." This practice was terminated after public-school integration.

I went to the one all-black school (K-12), Carver High School, from 1959 through 1970. I was a member of the last all-black classes in my school and the first integrated class to graduate from the new high school in 1971. The integration of the public schools in Brownsville in 1971 was the first real sign of the civil rights movement making a difference in Haywood County. Watching the SCLC, CORE, SNCC and NAACP demonstrations in the Deep South on TV had a great impact on our lives in our small communities.

On the surface things looked good. The forced integration of the public schools helped some blacks to gain social and economic justice, but for most the gains were incomplete. The new school sent much unfounded fear through the white working-class communities. They were so determined not to have their kids attend the same school as blacks that they raised money to build their own private school, Brownsville Academy — with no blacks allowed. The Academy closed its doors six years later for financial reasons.

Meanwhile, the administration was laying the groundwork to keep black students in their place in the new, integrated public-school system. The new high school had the name of the old, all-white school, Haywood High. The new principal had been the principal of the all-white school. The white coach from old Haywood High became the head coach of the new school. Most of the all-black faculty from Carver High had to find other work.

Wait, that’s not all. Because of the Academy, more blacks than whites entered the high school. So the all-white administration decided to rotate class office by race. If a black student was elected for class president in 1971, only a white student could run in 1972.

The irony is, both working-class blacks and working-class whites allowed the Haywood County public school administration to be heavily influenced by the business community.

So when I arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1971, I was determined to continue the fight against discrimination, no matter how solid its walls still appeared to be. Working within the trade union movement has taught me that the best and most effective way to fight all types of discrimination is to make sure we articulate and define class warfare at all times. And to continue to remind our class this simple fact: An injury to one is an injury to all.

Working in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s

By David Kotelchuck

As part of this feature, UE News Editor Peter Gilmore has asked me to write about my experiences in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I am happy and honored to do so.

In September 1962, fresh from finishing my graduate studies at Cornell University, I started my first full-time job, as an Assistant Professor of Physics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville was still largely a segregated town then, but there were also signs of change in the air. In 1960 and 1961 black students from Fisk, Meharry Medical School and Tennessee State demonstrated against segregation in downtown Nashville stores. As a result a few restaurants were integrated, as were many cultural events. But the institutions of segregation still remained before us, largely as they had been for decades.

As a white person who grew up in Baltimore, Maryland in the 1940s and 1950s, I had had some experience with racism. Restaurants, movie theaters and swimming pools in Baltimore were segregated. Public schools were segregated – I went to Robert E. Lee (!) Junior High School, and graduated from one of the last all-white classes in my high school. My parents and their friends, both black and white, helped instill in me a good set of values, including a hostility to racism. When I went to college at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and wanted to go on a double date with a black friend there, he and I and our girlfriends had to travel to Washington, DC to go together to the movies or a theater and eat out afterwards.

Through my friendship with this student, Tony Adona, I got to experience racism and discrimination up close, and I didn’t like it at all. So with Tony I started participating in demonstrations against racism, such as the "stand-in" against segregation at a local movie theater near the campus of Morgan State College in northwest Baltimore, which we won. (Previously students there had to travel about 45 minutes by bus to get to a movie theater that welcomed them.)

So when I arrived in Nashville in 1962, I was determined to continue the fight against discrimination, no matter how solid its walls still appeared to be. I got into contact with the local chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led by John Lewis, later to become national Chairman of SNCC and now a Congressman from Georgia. Through SNCC and later through SSOC, the Southern Student Organizing Committee, I got to meet some of the finest, bravest people I have ever known, and work with them to help end discrimination in public facilities in the U.S. once and for all.


There were only about two dozen active members in the Nashville SNCC chapter at that time, most of them students at Fisk and Tennessee State, plus a few persons from other schools such as American Baptist Theological Seminary, Meharry Medical School, Vanderbilt, and Scaritt College. And while our numbers were few, we knew we had the support of most of the other students at the historically Black campuses, who would come out to help when a crisis developed, as well as the Black community of Nashville with supportive leaders like the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith and lawyer Alexander Looby.

The Nashville SNCC chapter continued its earlier campaign to end segregation, picketing downtown restaurants and asking patrons not to use them. Some local eating places hired goons to attack us while we were peacefully picketing. This often brought out the police who arrested (guess who?) the students, but rarely the goons. These demonstrations continued for almost two years, finally growing so large that the Nashville merchants gave up and integrated in 1964. Soon after, in part I like to think due to our efforts, Congress passed the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing segregation in public facilities across the U.S.

One incident during the picketing campaign stands out vividly to me even after all these years: In 1964 we were picketing a restaurant in downtown Nashville, the Tic-Toc Grill, I believe, and the owner had called out some local thugs to harass and beat up on us. As the only white person on line that day, my presence drew more than the usual attention from them. No uniformed police were present, although we were in the heart of downtown Nashville. Things were getting rough, and we had heard that police were on their way.


For a variety of personal reasons, I chose not to get arrested that day, and with John’s consent quietly left the picket line. As he suggested, I returned a few minutes later to serve as an observer when the police arrived and made their expected arrests. Sure enough the police arrived and arrested all of the SNCC people (for disturbing the peace, of all things) and none of the thugs. Then, just when the police had finished loading my friends into the police van, one person, whose name shall go unmentioned (it was not John!), called out from the back of the van: "Hey, Dave, I forgot my books, could you please pick them up for me?" Then the van left with my friends and with all of the policemen, leaving me, clearly identified, standing in the midst of a very hostile, racist crowd.

As the thugs gathered around me, I figured I was pretty much done for. Then out of the crowd stepped two burly men, each muscular, over six feet tall, and easily over 250 pounds. They came up to me, each grabbed me under one arm and as the crowd parted they led me away. As soon as we got out of range of the crowd, one of the men leaned over to me and said: "We’re Teamsters, we’re here with Jimmy Hoffa, and we’d like to take you to meet him." I was floored!

James Hoffa Sr. was then in Nashville on trial for fraud, and was staying at a large downtown hotel. We walked over to his suite, where he was lifting weights and his friends were playing cards. His associates, my rescuers, told him what had happened. Mr. Hoffa turned to me and said: "I want you to know that I and the Teamsters support your efforts. I can’t speak out too much now because I’m tied up with this lawsuit. But I want you to know we support you, and we are always glad to help. Tell this to your friends." I thanked him profusely, and the union men who rescued me. I left a few minutes later, and my friends were freed later that afternoon, and all charges were dropped.


The civil rights movement wouldn’t have been successful without the courageous leadership of Americans like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Robert Moses and many others, and support of them by hundreds of thousands of Americans who put their bodies on the line along with them. But like any major social movement, the civil rights movement also could not succeed without the support of other important U.S. groups, like the labor movement. The leadership of the labor movement stood with Dr. King and supported him then, as it continues to support civil rights and equal opportunity for all today. My own personal, if accidental, involvement with the Teamsters union is part of that support, and yes, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Jimmy Hoffa Sr. and the Teamsters union.

I’ve come to learn the hard way in my life that just because something is fair and just, it doesn’t just happen. Positive change takes not only good values, but struggle to gain what is just and right. When I eat together with my UE friends and others, black and white, I have to recall, especially during Black History month, those whose blood was spilled, those who spent time in jail, and yes, those who gave their lives in the struggle simply to allow friends today to break bread together at a public eating place. That I was able to play a part in this effort, a small part, gives me pride.

But the struggle for equality for all Americans is far from over, and the larger struggle for justice for all probably will never end. So in honor of Black History month, let’s rededicate our efforts to gain social and economic justice for all Americans. As Rev. King said many years ago, and it rings true today, "We have come a long, long way, but we still have a long, long way to go."


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