The Civil Rights Movement: 1956-1969

AFL President George Meany (L), and CIO President Walter Reuther celebrate merger of their two organizations into the AFL-CIO. Courtesy of the Southern Labor Archives, Georgia State University, J. W. Giles Papers.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the AFL and CIO often competed for the same workers. But after the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which diminished the power of labor unions overall, the two federations began to cooperate, and they merged in 1955. The AFL-CIO’s first president, George Meany, formed a Civil Rights Division partly to satisfy the incoming CIO’s demands that the AFL do more to protect Black unionists. The division would investigate and combat internal discrimination within its more progressive industrial unions and traditionally segregated craft unions. Overall, Meany’s leadership remained cautious. Deciding it was more important to maintain support among white politicians and workers, Meany declined to endorse sit-ins or civil rights protests. However, many individual unions came out in early support of civil rights legislation. Two longtime labor and civil rights organizers, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, planned the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to insist that equality for African Americans meant having both civil and economic rights, and Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, helped fund it. Believing the demonstration would turn disruptive and hurt its own cause, Meany did not endorse it.