Labor and Civil Rights: Two Movements, One Goal?

The activities in this site will help guide students interested in examining the relationship between the labor movement and the civil rights movement, primarily in the 1940s-1960s. For students interested in a broader examination of organized labor, consult the George Meany Memorial Archives’ Web site. The archives has developed pathfinders, which include primary and secondary sources held by the archives, on child labor, women, organizing, and labor law. The archives has also developed a series of teacher’s guides with instructional activities that target the use of various primary sources.

The Values of Labor History

Labor history is American history and is crucial to students’ understanding of working class culture and heritage. Moreover, labor history is interactive — “hands on” — and interdisciplinary:

  • Labor history requires students to examine how factors like class, race, ethnicity, and gender have shaped the experiences of working people and their contributions to America’s economic, political, and social development.
  • Labor history enables students to trace the evolution of industrial and workplace relations throughout America’s history, and analyze the roles played by both organized labor and business in shaping the employment relationship.
  • Labor history encourages students to use historical research as a tool for understanding present circumstances, preparing to meet future challenges, and helping to connect the classroom to the community (local, state, national, and international).
  • Labor history, when integrated into the curriculum, empowers students for their future roles as workers and citizens. [TOP]

Historical Inquiry

The historical relationship between labor and civil rights in the twentieth century may not be readily apparent to today’s youth, many of whom were born in the 1980s — after several decades of social unrest that resulted in social change. Historical inquiry is akin to detective work and requires an understanding of the following concepts:

  • CONTEXT means “weave together.” For example, to understand the growth of organized labor in the 1930s, one must uncover a complex set of forces (including working-class political activism, the aftermath of World War I, Roosevelt-era legislation, transportation networks, etc.) and draw meaning from relationships among those forces.
  • EVIDENCE is the written, oral, or artifactual materials researchers use to illustrate or prove their views. Primary or original sources are generated by people who lived during the time period under inquiry and include diaries, letters, oral interviews, newspapers, city directories, pamphlets, photographs, handbills, textiles, art, furniture, and buildings. Secondary sources(which may be based on primary sources) include books, reference materials, the Internet, and other sources generated by people who were not participants or eyewitnesses.
  • VOICE means point of view or perspective. To ensure balance, the researcher must examine various perspectives (e.g., racial, ethnic, class, gender, political, etc.) as well as present his/her viewpoint. [TOP]