By Melonie Flomer
HAMLET — Most people know about the great civil rights movement that swept the nation in the 1960s.
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger in the segregated south, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his revolutionary “I Have a Dream” speech and the desegregation of public schools brought riots before the relative peace enjoyed by all today. But few realize that if not for a catalytic event in 1941, the March on Washington would never have happened.
At 7 p.m. Thursday on the second floor of the Hamlet Depot and Museum, Museum Manager Miranda Chavis presented a lecture to an audience of 40 people who listened intently as the story of the African American Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters came to life. The porters worked on the railroad, but were employees of the Pullman Company, a privately held entity not subject to federal regulations regarding working conditions and the rights of workers to organize.
The union was born on August 25, 1925, when Asa Philip Randolph became its advocate. Not a porter, but an educated African American, Randolph became the image of the country’s first African American workers’ union to gain governmental recognition.
“People don’t realize it,” Chavis said, “but Asa Philip Randolph really started the civil rights movement that allows us to sit here together tonight. There was a time that wouldn’t have happened.”
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he continued to fight for the improvement of working conditions for the porters, and was the reason they became recognized by the American Federation of Labor and gained the same rights and protections afforded to other organized unions in America.
Moving on to 1941, Randolph began the petition that ultimately led to the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his speech to a crowd of more than 250,000 civil rights supporters.
Leroy Crowder, 52, of Hamlet, worked in the metal industry for 23 years. He came to the presentation after his mother, Neccie Crowder, encouraged him.
“I am interested in history,” he said. “I remember working all those years, and facing some of the same obstacles the porters did. Maybe not as bad, but very much the same in some ways.”
Crowder’s mother herself was a teacher in Hamlet during the time the schools were desegregated, and he remembers her telling him stories of the conflict in the schools back then.
Crowder didn’t say racism or unfair labor practices are no longer issues, but “it’s a lot better now.”
And while there’s still a lot to be done in terms of equality in the workplace, Chavis’ closing remark hit home.
“That’s the power of many working as one,” she said.