In April of 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) emerged as an organization for young Black activists, particularly those who were participating in student-led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters across the Southeast.
Its founder Ella Baker, formerly employed with the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), believed that SCLC did not allow enough space for Black women and was out of touch with younger, more radical Black activists. Baker intended the Committee as a way to implement direct-action challenges to segregation and voter suppression in the U.S., and it eventually grew to be one of the most radical branches of the civil rights movement (its members were known within the civil rights movement as the “shock troops of the revolution”). Her work for the NAACP in the 1940s provided SNCC with a network of activists, including Bob Moses and Amzie Moore. With help from Moses and Moore, SNCC organized its first Voter Registration Project in the summer of 1960.
In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and leader of the civil rights movement, spoke at the AFL-CIO’s Fourth Constitutional Convention. Though the early labor movement had a complicated history with race relations, by the 1960s the AFL-CIO and the civil rights movement had fully embraced each other in solidarity. President George Meany introduced King as “a courageous fighter for human rights” and “a fine example of American citizenry.”
In his speech, King commented on the similarities between the labor movement and the civil rights movement:
“Negroes in the United States read this history of labor and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us.”
“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs, decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”
Dr. King also drew attention to the need for solidarity between the two movements: “The duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed.”
King asked two things of the AFL-CIO in his speech: root out racial discrimination in labor unions and provide financial assistance to the civil rights movement. King’s message did not fall on deaf ears: he received a standing ovation from the delegates.
Read Dr. King’s full speech online
Watch a clip from Dr. King’s speech (starts at 15:33)
Read more about the labor movement’s relationship with the civil rights movement