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. Nothing 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 ten years ago this month [Dec.] 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 Porters.
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 workers.
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 white men.
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 1937, 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 vital matters.
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 US chief justice in 1953. Dellums couldn't even get an appointment to plead his case with Governor 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, how 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 until 1985.
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.