In 1963, despite the pervasive, institutionalized nature of white supremacy and anti-Black racism in the United States, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that “little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” He shared this dream with quarter of a million people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, sowing the seeds for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed segregation. On the 60th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” tens of thousands gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to continue his work on economic, social and environmental justice (EJ). His visionary efforts continue to inspire across a network of interrelated movements, including those of labor and environmental and economic justice. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ (IBT) historic work on civil rights and racial justice and their relationship with Dr. King undergirds their deep commitment to environmental justice and other racialized movements today.
According to Karin Jones, the Teamsters’ historian, the organization was “always ahead of the curve” in terms of civil rights. At the 1903 convention which birthed the International Brotherhood of Teamsters by merging the two foremost team driver associations, a Black delegate named Thomas A. (T.A.) Stowers challenged the union to protect members lacking societal protections. Stowers proposed to include language preventing discrimination on the basis of race or color in the Teamsters constitution. While specific language was not introduced, the Teamsters remained one of the only labor organizations that did not include discriminatory language against Black members in their constitution at that time. The Teamsters also refused to honor Jim Crow laws and pushed for better paying jobs for Black workers during WWII. This early progressive stance formed the basis of the union’s allyship in the civil rights movement.
The Teamsters’ relationship with the civil rights movement and Dr. King began with the Montgomery bus boycott. After Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa wrote to every local in support of the boycott and Dr. King, the two leaders became friends. After the bus boycott, the Teamsters became further entrenched in civil rights efforts: providing financial support and supplies to “more than 700 families living in ‘Freedom Village’ who faced retribution for registering to vote in 1960” (Teamsters and Civil Rights). Teamsters from all over the country joined the March on Washington in 1963, marking the first time the Teamsters collectively decided to merge on one point in person.
Chuck Stiles, Director of the Teamsters’ Solid Waste and Recycling Division, recounts how his mentor Weldon Mathis organized to desegregate Atlanta’s trucking companies in 1959, further illustrating the union’s extensive focus on racial justice:
At the time of the photo (above), [Weldon] was President of Local 728 and the General Secretary Treasurer of the IBT.…At that time Black workers were only allowed to load and unload freight on the docks or ride in the back of the truck to help with deliveries. Weldon told the trucking company owners during negotiations that the Black members would be able to exercise their seniority and “bump” the White drivers if they had the seniority to do so. The owners responded that most of the Black workers were illiterate and couldn’t drive. At this point Weldon took action. He started holding classes at the local [unions] to teach reading and writing. He set up driving classes for those interested in learning to drive. He also educated the White workers about Solidarity between the working classes. In 1959 Georgia, most folks thought that Weldon was finished as a Labor leader due to his stance on Civil Rights. In the next election for Local president he won by the largest margin in his long Teamster career.
The Teamsters participated actively in the civil rights movement despite serious risks to their safety. During the Selma to Montgomery March, Viola Liuzzo–civil rights activist and spouse of a Teamster organizer–was shot by the KKK while transporting marchers down the highway. Hoffa and Dr. King arranged for her body to be flown home and attended her funeral. Liuzzo’s heroism highlights the commitment to equality and justice that inspired Teamsters to mobilize across the country to fight for civil rights, standing shoulder to shoulder alongside Black, Brown, Indigenous and Migrant communities against white supremacy in the years to come.
Dr. King’s final campaign was the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike of 1968, which underscored the close relationship between labor, environmental and economic justice. The strike ignited after sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were “crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck” (“Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike”). While not officially a Teamsters strike, members were present as Dr. King addressed a crowd of 25,000 in support of Memphis sanitation workers’ efforts to have their union recognized and to secure higher pay and stricter safety standards. The day after encouraging strikers with his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Dr. King was assassinated.
Dr. King’s staunch support for labor, especially of sanitation workers in this powerful instance, highlights the EJ principle that – “affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment.” EJ frames the environment as places where we live, work, pray and play. Our movement’s focus on tackling the disproportionate impacts of pollution on Indigenous, communities of color, and low-income communities, alongside our shared value of centering the self-determination of those communities and workers most impacted- underscores why many Teamsters and other progressive union leaders continue to stand in solidarity with our EJ movement today: the Teamsters’ historic roots in racial justice and civil rights work provide a strong foundation for their alliance with EJ.
In the Teamsters’ history and their ongoing campaigns, we clearly see the principles of equity and justice acting as guiding stars for all our allied movements. Our shared values (principles, protocols and practices) guide our work to remain deeply connected. The Teamsters’ commitment to racial justice remains present: they support many workers of color in their struggle against XPO, and this year, the IBT inducted Dr. King as an honorary member. In supporting racial justice and civil rights, the Teamsters concurrently uplift EJ. Moreover, the Teamsters have continued to support EJ campaigns to stop the burning and burying of trash (where waste incinerators and landfills continue to disproportionately harm EJ communities) in favor of resource recovery pathways that create More Jobs, Less Pollution.
We at the Just Transition Alliance believe that solidarity is a verb, and commend our Teamster comrades for these stances. We believe that unions must renew their historic position as social justice leaders and follow the Teamsters’ example in being champions for civil rights and racial justice.