Commemorating Black History Builds Unity

April 10, 2024

1199 Mag Black History Builds Unity 2.jpgThe marriage of culture and politics is a powerful force.

Decades ago, 1199 was one of the earliest unions to celebrate Negro History Week. The Union leaders understood that Black history was an essential component of the nation’s history. They also understood that a deep knowledge of that history was essential for building unity.

“In 1199, we mix and live as one,” Leon Davis, the first 1199 President, said. He added that “while we fight for economic gains to meet our members’ material needs, we can also produce cultural programs to enrich their lives and deepen their understanding.”

Toward that end, in 1953 the artists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were approached by 1199EVP Moe Foner to help produce a “Negro History Week” theatre event. The couple came up with the idea of creating a living newspaper, in which artists would dramatize important current events.

The first production in 1954, written by Davis and featuring Dee and actor Sidney Poitier, was called The People of Clarendon County The production was greeted by a full house and standing ovation. It told the story of the struggle for decent schooling for Black children in South Carolina. Out of that fight, a lawsuit emerged that became part of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. The landmark Supreme Court decision struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine by ruling that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

The 1955 Negro History Week theatre production also drew a large appreciative audience. Entitled, What Can you Say About Mississippi?, it chronicled the racist lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

The next year, Davis and Dee produced Montgomery Footprints about the historic Alabama bus boycott that brought Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to prominence.

In addition to Davis, Dee and Poitier, subsequent productions included performers such as Harry Belafonte, Ricardo Montalbán, Alice Childress, Bea Richards, Will Geer and many others.

In the 1960s, the performances evolved into the annual “1199 Salute to Freedom,” one component of a broader cultural program. Others included the annual “Salute to Israel” and “Latin America Evening” celebrations. These activities strengthened group pride and solidarity.

The “Salute To Freedom” celebrations developed into highly anticipated cultural, educational and union-building events. The 1964 “Salute” saw more than 1,000 members pack into Manhattan’s High School of Fashion Industries’ auditorium.

The program included a cast of 45, including Sidney Poitier, who was then an Academy Award-nominee for his starring role in “Lilies of the Field.” At the time, he was the only Black actor to be nominated for the Oscar.

Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was the guest speaker. He recalled his work during the hospital organizing campaigns and strikes in 1959 and 1962.

“You in Local 1199 can take special pride in the fact that your Union was instrumental in organizing the kind of massive struggle that laid the groundwork for the Washington March,” Rustin declared to applause. “What 1199 did in the hospitals was an inspiring lesson to all decent Americans not only in the labor movement but in the civil rights movement as well.”

1199 Mag Black History Builds Unity.jpgOver the years, the Salute to Freedom event brought to the stage many leaders of civil rights, peace, social justice and labor movements. 1199 made contributions to individuals and organizations across the spectrum of activism, from the Urban League to the Black Panther Party. Entertainers were as varied as Stevie Wonder, Pete Seeger and Miriam Colon with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater.

The Salute to Freedom that is most often cited took place on March 10, 1968, weeks before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Dr. King delivered his “The Other America” speech explaining why he was leading the Poor People’s Campaign for Jobs and Income.

“You have provided concrete and visible proof that when Black and white workers unite in a democratic organization like Local 1199 they can move mountains,” Dr. King said, adding, “I don’t consider myself a stranger here. I consider myself a fellow 1199er.”

Speakers and others honored at subsequent Freedom events cited Dr. King and expressed their commitment to follow in his footsteps.

1199ers have also continued on the path forged by Dr. King. They’ve engaged in non-violent civil disobedience across the nation. And many have faced arrest, including in North Carolina during Moral Mondays held by leaders of today’s Poor People’s Campaign. Members and leaders have marched for countless victims of police terror, among them Sean Bell and Ramarley Graham whose loved ones are 1199ers.

1199ers continue to celebrate Black history in order to help make history, fully aware that knowing our past helps us to shape a better future.