‘A man the ages will remember’: Mike Quill, the TWU and civil rights

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 2004), News, Volume 12

Transport Workers’ Union president Mike Quill greets Dr Martin Luther King at TWU Union Hall in 1964. (Tom Matthews)

Transport Workers’ Union president Mike Quill greets Dr Martin Luther King at TWU Union Hall in 1964. (Tom Matthews)

When Mike Quill, the Kerry-born leader of the Transport Workers’ Union of America (TWU), died in January 1966, one of the most generous tributes to his memory was paid by the Revd Dr Martin Luther King. Hailing Quill as ‘a man the ages will remember’, King praised him as a ‘fighter for decent things all his life—Irish Independence, labor organisation and racial equality’. For King, Quill had been one of the ‘pioneers’ of American trade unionism, who had never lost the ‘fighting spirit of the thirties’. He particularly emphasised that Quill was also a pioneer in attitudes towards black civil rights. In 1966 it was common for trade union leaders to endorse the rhetoric of civil rights, but Quill had also done so in an era when it was highly unpopular. King noted that ‘thirty years ago a leader who was worried about his image and measured his popularity carefully kept his silence in order to keep his image popular’, but even then Quill was ‘bold enough and tough enough’ to speak out against racial discrimination. In the 1930s, King argued, ‘Negroes had desperately needed men like Mike Quill who fearlessly said what was true even when it offended. That is why Negroes shall miss Mike Quill.’

 
Indeed, Martin Luther King had personal experience of the TWU leader’s commitment to civil rights. From 1956 onwards the TWU had been organising financial and practical support for the movement against segregation. In 1960 the TWU established a fund to pay bail for those arrested for attempting to desegregate restaurants throughout the South. Its members took part in pickets, marches and rallies in support of the southern movement. In 1961 King himself was the guest speaker at the TWU convention. His speech, ‘Segregation must die if democracy is to live’, was published in pamphlet form and sent to TWU branches across the United States with instructions from Quill that it be widely distributed and discussed. In July 1963, just prior to the march on Washington, Quill reiterated to his union’s membership that the battle for civil rights was the key question facing America. Again that year the TWU contributed to a fund to aid King and others imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1965 a large contingent of TWU members marched with King from Selma to Montgomery in one of the pivotal moments of the civil rights era.

 
Mike Quill’s support for racial equality pre-dated the civil rights movement. The TWU emerged among workers on the subways and in the bus depots of New York, initially in opposition to the company union, the Brotherhood of IRT Employees. In the early 1930s Irish-born workers were the largest ethnic group employed in the New York transit industry. It was a combination of former IRA veterans, among them Quill and Gerald O’Reilly, members of the Clan na Gael, activists in the Communist Irish Workers Clubs and the American Communist Party itself which proved crucial to the foundation of the TWU. Building on discontent at the extremely harsh working conditions in the industry and frustration at the Brotherhood’s failure to combat them, the TWU built up support until by 1937 it secured recognition from the transit employers.

 
When the union was founded in the spring of 1934 it committed itself to organising transit workers ‘regardless of race, creed, color or nationality’. This was in contrast to the Brotherhood and many other unions, which either barred blacks entirely or relegated them to second-class status. A black porter, Clarence King, was elected to the first TWU executive. From the beginning all of the union’s auxiliary bodies and social events were racially integrated. The first TWU constitution also committed the union to fighting for black workers to hold any job in the transit industry. While thousands of blacks worked within New York’s transport system, they were only employed as porters or cleaners. In 1938 the TWU forced the upgrading of several black workers. As the union expanded beyond New York it established integrated branches in Chicago, Texas and Missouri. In 1939 the TWU held the first desegregated trade union meeting in New Orleans since the Reconstruction period. In 1941 Quill pledged to fight to see that ‘the color-line is wiped out . . . and that the Negro and white workers will have equal rights in this country’. Two years later he spoke at dozens of workplace meetings in New York, warning of the consequences for all workers of the wave of race riots then occurring in the US. In 1945 the TWU committed itself to the nationwide campaign against lynching.

 

 

TWU members at the Kingsbridge repair shop of the Third Avenue Railways, New York, c. 1938.

TWU members at the Kingsbridge repair shop of the Third Avenue Railways, New York, c. 1938.

Quill was not only active in opposition to anti-black racism. In 1937 he was elected as an American Labor Party city councillor for the Bronx. The late 1930s saw the growth in New York of the anti-semitic Christian Front, which Quill resolutely opposed. In 1939 Christian Front supporters disrupted a TWU rally in the Bronx and Quill was denounced in their literature as an agent of ‘Judeo-communists’. Hate mail attacked ‘Moe Quillinsky’ for ‘pretending to be an Irishman’. Quill was also the subject of violent anti-communist attacks from influential clerics such as Fr Edward Lodge Curran who agitated among transit workers in an attempt to weaken the TWU. In contrast, Jewish organisations and newspapers such as the Jewish Daily Forward supported Quill’s election campaigns and argued that Jewish New Yorkers ‘needed’ an ally like Quill.

 
Most significantly Quill took these positions in the face of often-bitter opposition from many of his own members. Many TWU members objected to integrated social events and the upgrading of black workers. Some threatened to strike or secede from the union in protest. In New York many Irish workers, including TWU members, were attracted to the Christian Front and to anti-semitism. Even in the 1960s there was substantial internal criticism of the TWU’s support for the civil rights movement. Quill admitted in 1963 that he had received hundreds of letters from union members asking why TWU funds were being spent on civil rights. Others more blatantly asked Quill why he catered to blacks at all and suggested that he ‘marry one of them. That’s what they want anyway’. Nor was the union’s decision to identify itself with Martin Luther King uncontroversial. While in retrospect King is seen as a symbol of moderation, in 1961, the year he addressed the TWU convention, he was widely regarded by millions of Americans as a dangerous agitator.

 

Quill addressing the TWU’s annual James Connolly commemoration in Transport Hall, New York, in May 1943.

Quill addressing the TWU’s annual James Connolly commemoration in Transport Hall, New York, in May 1943.

Why did Quill take these positions, given the potential risk to his popularity? At least part of the reason lies in Quill’s conception of Irish republicanism. It was significant that Quill introduced Martin Luther King in 1961 as a successor to Terence MacSwiney. While Quill had played a relatively minor role in the IRA in south Kerry, he immersed himself as a young emigrant in republican circles in New York, reading James Connolly for the first time. It was in New York that he met Gerald O’Reilly, who, unlike many in Clan na Gael, regarded social agitation as an essential part of his republicanism. During the 1940s the TWU held an annual Connolly commemoration and this was used as a platform to introduce radical politics to the union’s Irish rank-and-file. Quill was also clearly influenced by the Communist Party’s anti-racism, and while he later broke bitterly with the party he did not abandon this commitment to racial equality. On a visit to Dublin during 1938 Quill outlined what he believed was the key lesson of his American experience. Seeing how the transit employers exploited religious and racial divisions, Quill concluded that ‘if we, black and white, Catholic and non-Catholic, Jew and gentile, are good enough to slave and sweat together, then we are good enough to unite and fight together’.

 
Quill was not given to romanticism about the Irish in America. He contrasted how Irish politicians and employers ‘wept tears for where Patrick sleeps in Down’ on St Patrick’s Day but paid starvation wages to their own employees and sent Irish American policemen to baton strikers. However, Quill believed that there was a progressive Irish working-class tradition, exemplified by the Molly Maguires in the US and Connolly in Ireland, that could win over union members. This tradition also encompassed racial equality and opposition to bigotry. Quill was careful to remind his Irish supporters that they too had been the targets of nativist persecution.
It would be wrong to uncritically eulogise Quill and the TWU. There were many limitations to the union’s anti-racism. It often rhetorically endorsed racial equality while failing to push the issue in practice. Many black TWU members felt that they also faced discrimination within the union’s structures. Certainly by the 1960s a largely Irish leadership held onto power in a union whose membership was increasingly black and Hispanic. However, in an era in which racial discrimination was largely accepted, Quill took a much more radical position than most. His record, and that of the TWU in general, suggests that the question of Irish attitudes to race and racism in America is more complex and multi-layered than has often been assumed.

Brian Hanley is an IRCHSS Government of Ireland post-doctoral fellow at NUI, Maynooth.

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