A PORTER WHO DARED PROTEST
By Dick Meister
Affluent white train passengers snapping out orders. Broadly smiling black
porters rushing to carry them out, fetching drinks, shining shoes, making
beds, emptying cuspidors, rarely daring to protest.
That's how it was aboard the Pullman sleeping coaches that were the height
of luxurious travel for more than a quarter- century. Noting better
epitomized the huge distance between black and white in this society. And
nothing better epitomized the struggle that has finally narrowed the
distance than the long life of C.L. Dellums, a porter who did dare to
protest, and who continued to do so as a major labor and civil rights leader
for six decades.
Dellums died a dozen years ago this month in Oakland at the age of 89 --
more than 60 years after he set out with another pioneer in the fight for
equality, A. Philip Randolph, to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car
The Sleeping Car Porters was the first union to be founded by black workers.
It was a pace-setting union that won for porters the right to an effective
voice in determining their pay and working conditions, and it paved the way
for the granting of equal rights to millions of other African-American
The union was even more than that. It joined with the NAACP, in which
Dellums was also a leader, to serve as a major political vehicle of black
Americans from the late 1930s to the 1950s. Randolph, Dellums and their
union led the drives in those years against racial discrimination in
employment, housing, education and other areas that laid the groundwork for
the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Dellums had his fill of such discrimination in his native Corsicana, Texas,
heading off to Oakland in 1925 in hopes of finding better opportunities.
What young Dellums found, however, was that there were only three ways an
African American could make a living in Oakland -- "on the trains, on ships
and by doing something illegal." Dellums chose the trains, getting a
porter's job on a Pullman coach operating out of Oakland, at the same time
Randolph was calling the first organizing meetings in New York City of what
would become the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
The need for unionization was obvious. Porters, who commonly worked 12 or
more hours a day, got $72.50 a month, out of which they had to pay for their
meals, uniform, even the polish they used to shine passengers' shoes. They
got no fringe benefits, although they could ride the trains for half-fare on
their days off -- providing they were among the very few with the time
and money to do so. And providing they didn't ride a Pullman coach.
Most Oakland porters worked 90 hours a week, yet they often had to draw on
the equally meager earnings of their-wives, invariably employed as
domestics, to pay the rent at month's end.
It was a marginal and humiliating existence. Porters were rightfully proud
of their work, a pride that showed in their smiling, dignified bearing. But
they knew that no matter how well they performed, they would never be
promoted. They could never be conductors. Those jobs were reserved for
Porters knew most of all that their white passengers and white employers
controlled everything. It was they alone who decided what the porters must
do and what they'd get for doing it.
No point in arguing. When a passenger pulled the bell cord, they were to
answer. Swiftly. Cheerfully. Just do what the passenger asked. No
questions, no complaints, no protests. No rights.
Dellums quickly discovered the lack of rights. Soon after going to work for
Pullman, he was fired for joining Randolph in trying to organize the
company's workers into a union.
As Dellums recalled, his fellow workers "said they'd pay my rent for three
months -- I'd just gotten married -- if I'd stay on with the Brotherhood."
He managed to stay on thanks to those donations, his wife's earnings as a
maid, and donations made later at monthly rent parties in the modest West
Oakland bungalow that became his life-long home.
Dellums wasn't the only union activist to suffer. Pullman fired or laid off
90 other porters in Oakland after they joined the union. But finally the
Roosevelt administration granted workers, black and white, the legal right
to unionize, and finally, in l937, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
won a union contract from Pullman.
The contract was signed precisely 12 years after A. Philip Randolph had
called his first organizing meeting, but the long struggle was well worth
it. The contract pulled the porters out of poverty. It brought them pay at
least equal to that of unionized workers in many other fields, a standard
work week, a full range of fringe benefits and, most important, the right to
continue to bargain collectively with their employers on those and other
Dellums struggled as hard, and as long, against racism inside the labor
movement, most particularly against the practice of unions setting up
segregated locals, one for black members, one for white members.
Dellums also helped lead the drive that pressured President Roosevelt into
creating a Fair Employment Practices Commission during World War II with the
aim of combating discrimination in housing as well as employment.
Roosevelt, who had resisted repeated demands for such a body, abruptly
reversed his position after Dellums threatened to lead a march on Washington
by more than 100,000 African-American workers and others who were demanding
federal action against discrimination.
Congress later abolished the commission, but its creation set an important
precedent that resulted in the establishment of several state commissions.
The most significant was set up in California after 14 years of intense
lobbying by Dellums in his dual role as vice president of the porters' union
and western regional director of the NAACP.
"He was never above the storm, he was at the center of it," recalled Jack
Henning, former head of the AFL-CIO's California Labor Federation. "He
wasn't just the voice of labor, he was the voice of Black Liberation."
Much of Dellums' struggle was waged in the face of strong opposition from
then-Governor Earl Warren, who became a major champion of civil rights only
after being named U.S. chief justice in 1953. Dellums couldn't even get an
appointment to plead his case with Gov. Warren.
"If I could have done so at the time, I'd have made the worst mistake in my
life," Dellums once said. "I'd have kept him off the Supreme Court. Oh
God, haw I learned to love him."
Dellums, who succeeded Randolph as union president in 1968, also served on
California's Fair Employment Practices Commission from its inception in 1959
There are very few sleeping car porters in these days of less-than-luxurious
rail travel, and their union was merged two decades ago into the much larger
Brotherhood of Airline and Railway Clerks. But before the union
disappeared, it had reached the goals envisioned long ago by C.L. Dellums,
goals as important as any ever sought by an American union.
Copyright 2001 Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco who has
covered labor and political issues for four decades as a reporter, editor