‘Fight or be slaves!’
By Albert Lannon, 1 March 1999
Those were the words of C.L. Dellums when the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was founded in 1925 and remained his credo for the rest of his life. Here's the story of a local working class hero.
C.L. Dellums' father was born in slavery, just two and a half months before Juneteenth (June 19), 1865, the date emancipation belatedly came to Corsicana, Texas. C.L. left Texas for California determined to become a lawyer, declaring that "I don't plan to wear these overalls for the rest of my life." But in the 1920s there were few decent jobs for African Americans, and Dellums went to work as a Pullman railroad porter as a last resort, reading constantly to learn about the world and ideas.
Facing racism he remembered his father's advice to "be angry, but not bitter."
BROTHERHOOD OF SLEEPING CAR PORTERS
That anger made C.L. a union activist during a time when most unions refused to accept black members. He learned that there had been five attempts to organize the Pullman porters, but the company had intimidated or bought off the organizers. Popular songs set the tone of the times:
There's something about a darkie
In 1925 the porters tried again, and brought in A. Philip Randolph, a radical young African American. Randolph, the son of a Florida preacher, had recognized that black and white workers were being pitted against each other for the boss's benefit, and had been fired by the railroad for talking union in 1917. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was founded in 1925, but it took twelve years to finally win recognition and a contract with the Pullman Company.
Dellums became a pacific coast vice president of the new union in 1928, joining Morris "Dad" Morris, whom C.L. described as a militant "two fisted vulgar old man who was quite a scrapper. Dellums vowed to spread the spirit of Dad Moore across the nation. Pullman fired C.L. Dellums, superintendent O.W. Snotty telling him, "All we're doing is furnishing you transportation over this country to spread this Randolph Bolshevik propaganda." Some 500 to 1,000 union activists were fired before a contract was won.
In August 1937 the Brotherhood finally won a contract with Pullman. It was the first economic agreement ever signed between African Americans and a white institution. It sent the message of unionism to the black community nationally.
Dellums became a major figure in Oakland's African American community, heading up the NAACP and bringing its support to the 1946 Oakland General Strike.
In 1968 C.L. Dellums replaced A. Philip Randolph as President of the BSCP, but the sleeping car industry was in a steep and quick decline.
Dellums told this story in October, 1953, the 28th anniversary of the founding of the union:
Once upon a time the people paid tribute to the king. There was no freedom. There was only monarchy in government and the king could do no wrong. The people were subjects or slaves . . . By the same token, before the Brotherhood, porters on Pullman, and on every railroad in the United States and Canada, were subjects. But happily, the Brotherhood drove monarchy out of the Pullman and railroad industries and made porters free workers.
Albert Lannon coordinates the Laney College Labor Studies Program; for information on classes call 510/464-3210.
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