How Dr Martin Luther King’s leadership helped shape the politics of 1199 member, Bill Pigford

February 19, 2020


Bill Pigford came of age in Laurel, Mississippi, in the early 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr Martin Luther King.

He was in his late teens when he first became involved in protest. “Until then, in my 17 years, I’d never heard of anybody showing resistance. If a white man said move off the sidewalk, you moved off the sidewalk. You could be arrested or beaten if you didn’t get off the sidewalk. We were intimidated.

“Dr King’s movement is what changed us. One man preaching and teaching resistance. It resonated with us as young people. If he can do it, we can do it.”

Now in his mid-Seventies, Pigford is still an active 1199SEIU delegate, working as a Unit Specialist at Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly, MD. He wants younger people to understand the power that comes from uniting and protesting, but recalling what life was like in rural Mississippi during his teenage years is not easy. “It hurts,” he says, “These memories hurt.”

Pigford never met Dr King personally, because he was based in Georgia and Pigford was growing up in Mississippi. But the influence on Pigford’s life of the movement he led was no less powerful for that.

“Very few black people had a television in those days,” recalls Pigford. “We would sit on a white person’s porch and look through the window to see the protests taking place around the country.”

The white radio stations did not broadcast Dr King’s speeches. But Pigford and his friends could pick them up on WALC out of Tennessee and radio stations in Jackson, Mississippi. “We would gather around at nighttime and listen to Blues music – BB King, Fats Domino, Little Junior Parker and Little Richard – and we would also hear Dr King.

“One or two black people in my town did have televisions and every so often we would see marches on them. A bunch of us got to the point where we said: ‘We can do this too!’”

It was mostly young people who were inspired to action. “Older people were afraid. They would say: “I can’t help you. I will lose my job,” Pigford remembers.

“I respect [their decisions],” he added, “People knew they could be beaten. They had families to support and they could not afford to lose their jobs. Many were also renting form white landlords and they were afraid they would lose their homes.”

In those days, black people were not allowed to sit at the lunch counters in the center of town. “They were happy to take our money,” recalls Pigford, “but the black person cooking the food would pass it to us out the window.”

Resistance in Mississippi in those days meant not only risking your livelihood, but also serious injury or even death. The threat of violence was very real. “But we were young people and we decided we couldn’t live like this anymore.”

Inspired in part by Dr King and also by the student activists who came to the South to support the Civil Rights Movement, Pigford and his peers began taking part in sit-ins. During such a protest at the Pinehurst Hotel, Pigford sat down next to a white woman, who was a student activist.

For this action, he was immediately arrested and jailed for 30 days without charge. He was later released by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, who were acting on a tip off that Pigford was to be murdered in jail. Two days after his release, he was drafted into the U.S. army. He had volunteered before and been told that he could not enlist because he had flat feet.

When he came back from the war, Pigford went to live in a town outside Chicago, Illinois. But he was always determined to go back to Mississippi. In 1990, he bought property there and eventually got a job as Director of Public Works in Laurel, Mississippi.

“It was really important to me to be able to go back. There are people who were still living there who were there when we were demonstrating. I wanted them to see that things had changed. I lot of people were proud to see me driving the city truck. Back then, I didn’t have the right to go into half the places in the city. I wanted my mother to how much things had changed for her son and be proud,” said Pigford.

“If you really believe in something, you have to be prepared to take a stand and fight. You may lose the war, but you are not going to lose every battle. Whatever we feel is right, we need to fight for it,” he continued, “I never worked for a union before 1199. I didn’t know Dr King was a supporter of 1199. It is clear that Dr King could not have done the things that he did without support.

“I have a dream that I see the members of 1199 become the strength that they are destined to become. I have no intention of ever letting anyone put me back in the position I was in in Mississippi. And I’m not going let it happen to other people. I will fight with every breath in me.”