Labor, Land and Economics


Out of the ten demands at the 1963 March on Washington, how many had to do with labor rights? This is one of the questions in our mythbuster quiz on the Civil Rights Movement. Seldom do people guess that the answer is five. Half of the demands were not about integration or education – they were about labor and economic rights.

Land, economics, and labor have always been central to the struggle for civil and human rights in the United States. This begins with the fight by Native Americans to retain access to their land, a struggle that continues today with the violation by the U.S. government of treaties and the environmental devastation of Native lands. While usually in separate chapters in textbooks, the Industrial Revolution and Slavery should be taught as a unit. Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman have effectively argued in Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development that the Industrial Revolution was fueled by the products and profits of enslaved labor. Unsurprisingly, a central demand by freed blacks during Reconstruction was for 40 acres and a mule to plow the land.

Following Reconstruction, the convict labor system used a loop-hole in the 13th Amendment to provide free labor for large landowners and state governments, a development that two films, Slavery by Another Name and 13th, have brought to light. The working conditions were brutal and dangerous. For example, in 1911, 128 men, almost all of them African American and prisoners of the state, were killed in the Banner Mine explosion

At times, workers developed solidarity across racial lines. One example of solidarity was the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, a union of Black and white sharecroppers in the 1930s. Collaborations between Black and white sharecroppers were powerful and faced brutal repression. Ella Baker and other prominent activists also tied civil rights to economic and land rights. As Barbara Ransby has shown in her biography, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, Baker in particular led consumer boycotts and worked to develop consumer cooperatives in the 1930s and 1940s.

Consumer boycotts and the work of Ella Baker reflect the important role of women of color in the fight for economic rights. Traditional textbooks tend to describe the first women in the workforce starting with Rosie the Riveter during World War II. But such narratives ignore the role of women of color way before, such as Emma Tenayuca, who organized pecan workers in San Antonio, and Shirley Sherrod and black farmer coops   

While labor is absent in most Black history lessons, the one name most students know in Latino history is Cesar Chavez of the United Farmworkers. However, they don’t learn about the long history of Mexican immigrant labor and resistance, including the contract labor during WWI and the Bath Riots in protest of the fumigation of Mexican workers as they crossed the border. Also missing is the story of the Filipino workers and labor leaders who launched the precursor to the UFW and the African Americans who marched in solidarity. (See To March with Others.)

Land issues also extended to the North. While textbooks often describe northern housing segregation as defacto or voluntary, it was actually enforced through housing covenants and redlining that denied African American equal access to housing. The federal government often inhibited the struggle for land and labor rights. In the 1950s, the House Un-American Committee (HUAC), a government agency started Joseph McCarthy, actively undermined labor and the civil rights movement. By the late 1960s, HUAC and the FBI had tapped the phone lines of many civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. These activists’ demands extended beyond political rights to include economic rights.

Other ethnic/racial groups, notably Asian Americans, also encountered similar barriers to housing. Charlotte Brooks’s Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing and the Transformation of Urban California brings to light the effect of federal and city policy on Asian American communities in California, noting that “San Francisco’s Chinatown was America’s first segregated neighborhood.” This was not the only way that Asian Americans were excluded from land and economic rights. Chinese Americans helped build the transcontinental railroad, but were often underpaid and poorly treated for their work. Their underpayment often led to racial tensions with the white communities. In 1885, the Rock Spring Massacre occurred in the present-day city of Rock Springs in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, when white miners rioted against Chinese miners, their families, and homes, leading to the death of 28 Chinese miners and the destruction of at least 75 Chinese homes. Such backlash was part of a national effort to exclude Chinese Americans, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

In this section we provide resources to explore the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and a contemporary struggle over land and the environment on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. The resources page at the end of this section includes the invaluable film Dirt & Deeds which shows how voting rights activists in Mississippi in the 1960s received vital support from Black farmers who secured land during the New Deal. More recently in the fall of 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe stood up to defend their rights to land. The struggle for labor, land, and economic rights is still with us today.