BY SETH WILLIAMS
At the dawn of the 20th century, many progressive ideas like civil rights, women’s rights, and organized labor were seen as separate distinct movements rather than the closely intertwined entities that they are today. It took the leadership of unique, high-minded individuals like A. Phillip Randolph and Ida B. Wells to bring together the forces seeking equality into a united front against the establishment that sought to divide and conquer individual Americans.
One such leader was C. L. Dellums. A Texas-born African-American, Dellums saw few opportunities for himself in the segregated south. Deciding to seek his fortunes west, he traveled to California in 1920 with the hope of pursuing a law degree but quickly met with opposition and disappointment. Not unlike Texas, the only jobs available to him because of the color of his skin were those that placed him subservient to whites: namely as wait staff, custodian, or porter. Still hoping to pursue his dream, Dellums took a job as a Pullman Porter.
He soon realized that the hours and pay would not be enough to allow him the opportunity to pursue his dream, but encountered other tribulations as well. He bore first-hand witness to the injustices of the Pullman Company: He was offered a painfully low wage and charged for materials necessary to perform his duties, he worked long hours without overtime, he and others were passed over for promotions due to the color of their skin. By 1925 he began encouraging fellow workers to stand up to the system and fight the injustice by joining the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. By 1927, though, his activities had caught the eye of Pullman supervisors and he was fired from his job.
Dellums took the opportunity to organize for the union full time and quickly found himself in leadership positions. He didn’t simply work for the good of the Porters, though. He also worked with numerous civic organizations, fighting for fair housing and legislative actions. He even took on leadership positions with the NAACP, advocating for civil rights as well as workers’ rights all throughout the western United States.
Dellums was one of a few individuals with a heart for equality that extended to their fellow man, regardless of his own investment in his position. By themselves, many of the progressive movements of the early 20th century were doomed to failure. United, though, they found their footing and were able to bring the fight all the way to the modern day, where the fight continues but on firmer ground thanks to the sacrifices of men and women like C.L. Dellums.
Read more of the original article on Oaklandlibrary.org at oaklandlibrary.org/blogs/library-community/cl-dellums-oakland-civil-rights-hero
Meister, Dick. “A Porter Who Dared to Protest.” Labor – And a Whole Lot More. Dickmeister.com, n.d. Web. 20 May 2017.
Photo Credit: Oakland Public Libary