The House Un-American Activities Committee was an American judicial commission that was established in 1938 under the Roosevelt presidency. HUAC vociferously attacked FDR even though the majority of the nation supported FDR and his social reforms at a time when the nation was emerging from a deep economic depression. HUAC targeted the growing peace movement in the United States, leading inquisitions against freedom-fighters like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others, for their support and sympathy with the cause of the Soviet Union. Like the people of the Soviet Union who overcame tsarist rule, Robeson and Du Bois were engaged in the world-wide struggle to free human labor from imperialist exploitation–a struggle which they found to be inextricably linked to the struggle for African-American freedom, recognizing slavery, imperialism, and segregation as the sine qua non of American ‘democracy.’
In 1959, HUAC led an injunction against the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), accusing the organization of collaborating with the Communist Party. The UPWA had lent its support to the South Christian Leadership Conference during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1957, led by King. UPWA representative, Russell Lasley, during the founding meeting of the SCLC in January 1957, remarked that it “an extreme honor and privilege to represent UPWA in a conference of leaders who have dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom and the establishment of a society free of racial injustice and second class citizenship.” In turn, during the UPWA’s annual convention in 1962, King addressed a roomful of union members and asserted that, “If labor as a whole, if the administration in Washington matched your concern and your deeds, the civil rights problem would not be a burning national issue, but a problem long solved, and in its solution a luminous accomplishment in the best tradition of American.” principles.” Thus, the UPWA would play an important role in the March on Washington for jobs and freedom in 1963.
Retaliating against their support for the Montgomery bus boycott and as result of the growing friendship between American labor and the civil rights movement, the U.S. Congress charged the UPWA of advancing the cause of communism. On July 31, 1959, King attended a meeting of the UPWA’s Public Advisory Commission in Chicago and issued a statement in support of their agitations. The statement is significant for our historical consideration because it confirms King’s commitment to the struggle for labor’s emancipation, recalling his insistence that all human labor has dignity, that we are dependent on the labor of others for our daily existence. As he puts it in his influential sermon, “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”:
“Most of us will have to be content to work in the fields and in the factories and on the streets. But we must see the dignity of all labor.
When I was in Montgomery, Alabama, I went to a shoe shop quite often, known as the Gordon Shoe Shop. And there was a fellow in there that used to shine my shoes, and it was just an experience to witness this fellow shining my shoes. He would get that rag, you know, and he could bring music out of it. And I said to myself, “This fellow has a Ph.D. in shoe shining.”
What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; (Go ahead) sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” And when you do this, when you do this, you’ve mastered the length of life.”
King’s Statement on House Committee on Un-American Activities Hearings on the United Packinghouse Workers of America, June 11, 1959
After discovering that the House Committee on Un-American Activities had conducted hearings in the matter of alleged Un-American activities in the Union of the United Packing House Workers of America, the Executive Committee of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference voted unanimously to publicly express its confidence in the integrity of this union.
The officers and members of the United Packing House Workers Union have demonstrated a real humanitarian concern. They have worked indefatigably to implement the ideals and principles of our democracy. Their devotion to the cause of civil rights has been unswerving. This union has stood out against segregation and discrimination not only in public pronouncements, but also in actual day to day practice. They have given thousands of dollars to aid organizations that are working for freedom and human dignity of the South. Because of the forthright stand of the Packing House Workers in the area of civil rights, they have aroused the ire of some persons who are not so commited. But in spite of this they have continued to work courageously for the ideal of the brotherhood of man. It is tragic indeed that some of our reactionary brothers in America will go to the limit of giving Communism credit for all good things that happen in our nation. It is a dark day indeed when men cannot work to implement the ideal of brotherhood without being labeled communist.
We sincerely hope that nothing will happen to deter the significant work being done by this dedicated labor organization. Again we express our confidence in the integrity and loyalty of the officers and members of the United Packing House Workers of America.
1. “6 Accused as Reds Balk at Hearing,” New York Times, 6 May 1959. UPWA president Ralph Helstein denied any Communist influence within the union. Following the HUAC hearings, the union distributed a questionnaire to union members accused of being Communist Party members prior to 1949 and who may have been in violation of the AFL-CIO’s Ethical Practices Codes. The codes stipulated that “no person should hold or retain office or appointed position in the AFL-CIO or any of its affiliated national or international unions or subordinate bodies thereof who is a member, consistent supporter or who actively participates in the activities of the Communist Party or of any fascist or other totalitarian organization” (Russell Lasley to Sir and Brother, 10 July 1959). HUAC was established as a standing committee in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1938 to investigate Communist and fascist influence within American institutions.
2. Russell R. Lasley (1914–1989) was an officer in UPWA Local 46 in Waterloo, Iowa, and served as UPWA international vice president from 1948 until 1968.
3. At the third meeting of the fledgling civil rights group on 8 August 1957, King announced the start of a voter registration campaign. SCLC treasurer Ralph Abernathy estimated that $200,000 was needed to finance the campaign. In October, UPWA president Ralph Helstein presented King with a check for $11,000 at their convention in Chicago (Art Osgoode, “Negroes Rap State Solons in Resolution,” Montgomery Advertiser, 9 August 1957; Ralph Helstein, Remarks at the fourth biennial wage and contracts, third national anti-discrimination, and third national women’s activities conference of the United Packinghouse Workers, 2 October 1957; see also UPWA, “Program proposals for 1957,” 21 June 1957). King later agreed to serve on the UPWA’s Advisory Review Commission of Public Citizens set up to monitor the union’s compliance with the AFL-CIO Ethical Practices Codes (Helstein to King, 8 July 1959).