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Texas A. Philip Randolph Institute Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

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Prepared Remarks by Leonard Aguilar,

Texas AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer

Celebrating the

50th Anniversary of the Texas A. Philip Randolph Institute

March 15, 2024

Houston, Texas


 Hello. My name is Leonard Aguilar, Secretary Treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO. As I get started I need to thank my family because without them I would not have this opportunity to work in the Texas Labor movement.  

 Brother and Sisters, thank you for the kind invitation to speak at this momentous celebration of a Golden Anniversary. 

  Wow, 50 years! 

  Fifty years ago, in 1974: I was only a year old.

  –President Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal;

  –The Rubik’s Cube was invented;

 – Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record;

 – Skittles candy hit the market;

  –“The Sting” won Best Picture at the Academy Awards; and 

  –The Number 1 single on Billboard was “The Way We Were.” 

  In that political and cultural moment, voting rights and civil rights advocates formed Texas APRI and made history in our state’s labor movement. 

  As a convener of trade unionists of color, as an indispensable part of labor’s Get Out the Vote work, and as a respected voice in local, Texas and national labor movements, the Texas A. Philip Randolph Institute is indeed GOLDEN. 

  At the age of 50, you are part of a union renaissance. Workers are achieving breakthrough organizing at a pace not seen in my lifetime. We are more popular than we have been in many decades. 

  Brothers and Sisters, we are winning! 

  Thank you for your role in making unions cool again.

  Today, I want to talk about The Way We Were and The Way Forward – where Texas APRI has been and where we are going.

  We didn’t need 50 years to know the role of Clara Caldwell as keeper of a flame that makes Texas APRI second to none among our constituency groups. It is no accident, Clara, that you are a member of the Texas Labor Hall of Fame. The officers and staff of the Texas AFL-CIO salute you!

  We didn’t need 50 years to appreciate the likes of Claude Cummings Jr., the Middleton family, and John Bland in helping build this organization. 

  Claude Cummings, of course, has deserted us — just kidding — to become the International President of the Communications Workers of America, where he is engaged in a new level of breakthrough organizing. 

  The Middleton family is synonymous with activism for the greater good, and Jimmy Middleton is part of the Texas Labor Hall of Fame for all he did during his life to bring workers together. John Bland, also a Texas Labor Hall of Fame member, was, of course, a legend in Texas civil rights circles. 

  We also salute the organizers who began Texas APRI in the Ceole Speight House of Labor. In addition to Clara and to both Howard and Jimmy Middleton, this list includes: the amazing Beverly Benson; cherished former Texas AFL-CIO administrative assistant Vivian Willis; and Don Horn, brilliant long-time leader of the Harris County AFL-CIO.

  Right now, I’m going to take you back further, to why we needed Texas APRI in the first place. 

  A. Philip Randolph was publisher of a Socialist magazine when he co-founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. His mission: to build better livelihoods in one of the nastiest jobs the Pullman railroad company could devise. Porters shined shoes, made beds, woke passengers, and suffered abuse of all makes and models. In fact, Pullman once favored hiring former slaves for the job, apparently in a quest for subservience. 

  The road to certification of the union by the American Federation of Labor was rocky, with jurisdictional disputes postponing a full charter for 11 years. But in an era of segregation, the Brotherhood broke barriers as the first affiliated African-American union in the AFL.

  Pullman had terrible workplace rules that no union in this era would tolerate: 

  • Workers had to spend an hour or more each day in unpaid prep and cleanup work; 
  • They were forced to pay for their own uniforms and, while traveling, their lodging and their meals; 
  • They were charged for anything passengers stole, including towels. 
  • The porters were specifically banned from riding in coaches as passengers and had no path to becoming a higher-paid conductor.

   It took long years and hard negotiations, but the porters got the rules changed. And it turned out the skills they developed prepared many of them for life beyond the transportation industry. 

  Just a few of the famous graduates of porter jobs: 

  • Life Magazine photographer and film-maker Gordon Parks, 
  • Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, 
  • Writer and poet Claude McKay, who was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, 
  • Agriculture Professor Simon Haley, the father of Roots 

author Alex Haley, and

  • Pioneering film-maker Oscar Micheaux.

  A few descendants of Sleeping Car Porters also thrived. That list includes legendary civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

  Piece of trivia: While train travel is not as common as it used to be, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters still exists in spirit, having been folded in 1978 into the Transportation Communications Union, an affiliate of the International Association of Machinists.

  Today I’d like to add a layer to this history. Since we are in Houston, I want to talk about a 1950 episode involving A. Philip Randolph and this city, pulled directly from the minutes of the national convention of the American Federation of Labor in the Texas AFL-CIO archives.

  In 1950, the American Federation of Labor, one of the predecessors to the AFL-CIO, had its convention right here in Houston at the Rice Hotel.

  Times were different. The Rice Hotel was definitely NOT in the now-famous “Green Book” that Black families relied on to find safe innkeepers.

  Randolph was already a famed civil rights leader who would one day organize the March on Washington that produced the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. 

  But despite that status, he suffered personal indignities on a daily basis. An AFL resolution he pursued at the 1950 convention alongside Milton P. Webster, the co-founder of the Sleeping Car Porters, called for the AFL to avoid conventions at segregated hotels in the Deep South. 

  Here are Randolph’s own words in support of the resolution, taken straight from the minutes of the convention:

  “I may assure you that the functionaries in the Rice Hotel are not easy to convince that a colored gentleman has even a right to make use of the front entrance to the hotel, to say nothing about entering upon the sacred precincts of the passenger elevators.” 

  “A few days ago our good friend, George Meany, graciously accompanied Brother Webster and myself when we went to the Rice Hotel to place our credentials with the Credentials Committee. I am sure if he had not accompanied us it is quite likely we would have been involved in an embarrassing argument to convince these people there that we have the right to even approach the committee.”

  George Meany would later become the first President of the merged AFL-CIO, and at the time of this incident, he was the AFL’s Secretary-Treasurer. 

  Randolph went on to tell the AFL that the last time he was in Houston, a Black taxi driver told him that — quote — “never in the history of the Rice Hotel had a colored person entered by the front door” — unquote — and that if anyone tried, they would be ejected violently.

  On a related matter, Brother Randolph said that while he did not blame the AFL, he was opposed to a plan to have separate “Jim Crow” convention entertainment for 12,000 Black union members. The white attendees were to visit the San Jacinto Battlefield; the black attendees were to be received in a nearby cave.

  Eighty-five years after the end of the Civil War, this disrespect was the Houston and the Deep South of the era. Still, Randolph chose optimism. 

  He said this about a planned Jim Crow rodeo for Black delegates who told him they would not attend: “Now, my friends, I believe that that is entirely unnecessary, because if we can sit in this convention without any sign of separation based upon race or color we certainly can participate in other activities planned by the entertainment committee of the local Houston Central Body for all of the delegates without regard to race or color.”

  Randolph continued, “I don’t want the Southern workers to construe this as any wholesale condemnation of Southern trade unionists…We are proud of their work, both colored and white, and I am confident that the action of this convention in refusing to hold its conventions in cities where there are no equal hotel accommodations for ALL delegates without regard to color will help the Southern trade unionists win their fight against racism in the South.”

  After Randolph’s remarks, labor delegates from across the nation approved the resolution unanimously. A. Philip Randolph and Milton Webster had led a step toward equality in this very city.

  Brothers and Sisters, in 2024 the fight that A. Philip Randolph once led and that Texas APRI so proudly engages in is not over. 

  We are in desperate times under Texas leadership that is rolling the clock backward, for Blacks, for Latinos and for anyone not favored by billionaire power brokers.

  Politicians on the right passed legislation last year to eliminate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs in our public colleges and universities. I don’t get it. I thought “Diversity,” “Equity,” and “Inclusion” were the goals of the civil rights movement — not curse words.

  The radical right in Texas is still trying to protect the statues of Confederate traitors for eternity. At the same time, our leaders are trying to ban public school teachers from teaching that slavery was at the center of our nation’s history. 

  In a free society, misguided lawmakers can pass all the laws they want but they can’t kill an idea. They may not own our history. And we should not stand for censorship of the truth about history.

  I have seen the misappropriation of history in my hometown. For decades, the far right has sought to seize the history of the Alamo for its own uses, ignoring evidence that the facts about Latinos and African-Americans in Texas are very different from the myths our state promotes.

  All this brings up the question: Is our free society at risk?

  •  Your voting rights have been diluted;
  •  Affirmative action is under attack, and losing;
  •  Local government has been handcuffed by a Death Star law that undermines progress and the fight against discrimination;
  • Immigrants are the new — and the old — scapegoats. 

  What can we do? We can vote. We can get our families to vote. We can get others to vote. In 2024, your voter turnout work has never been more important. We will be choosing between a free society and overbearing attempts to control what we are allowed to say. 

  If we want to live A. Philip Randolph’s vision, not to mention Martin Luther King’s dream, it’s not enough to just vote. We must fulfill labor’s ideal role as freedom fighters.

  We must fight not just for our future, but for our history, because we have to understand the past to gauge our path in the future. We must claim, reclaim and insist on our narrative.

  With your amazing work, we can win our way to a better Texas and a better future, because as my Brother, President Rick Levy, says often, when we change Texas, we will change our nation, and when we change our nation, we will change the world.

  A wise person once said history may not always repeat, but it at least rhymes. 

  If Texas APRI’s future rhymes with Texas APRI’s past, we should all be excited about what is to come. 

  Because this is our time and this is our state! With Solidarity Forever we will prevail. Thank you