In the wake of the vicious reaction to the 1961 Freedom Rides, Negro American Labor Council (NALC) President A. Philip Randolph telegraphed Martin Luther King, pledging: “The Negro American Labor Council speaking for thousands of Negro workers is fully behind you—strong in our material and spiritual condemnation of the violence visited upon you[,] we pledge our unstinting aid” (Randolph, 23 May 1961). Founded in 1960, the NALC sought to address the failure of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to end racial discrimination in some of its unions.
Dissatisfied with AFL-CIO President George Meany’s lack of support for the civil rights movement, Randolph introduced a resolution at the 1959 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention calling for a black labor organization that would carry out the civil rights program of the AFL-CIO. In July 1959 Randolph called a meeting of African American labor leaders who agreed to form the NALC. Randolph invited King to speak at the NALC’s founding convention in May 1960, but King was defending himself against an indictment of tax fraud at the time. In addition to electing Randolph as president, the delegates at the founding convention chose Cleveland Robinson, secretary-treasurer of the District 65 Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union, as their vice president. The same month, Randolph called once again for the elimination of segregated locals in the AFL-CIO, prompting his censure by the AFL-CIO executive board. King and other African American leaders reproached the AFL-CIO.
By 1962 membership numbers in the NALC began to decline, falling from more than 10,000 members to 4,000 members. The following year, the organization engaged in its best-known action, initiating the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Randolph asked for King’s support in a 26 March 1963 telegram, beseeching him: “We need the great moral weight of your name on the call” (Randolph, 26 March 1963). Despite the fact that the march was not endorsed by the AFL-CIO, a number of unions sanctioned the event and labor participation was strong.
In 1966 Robinson succeeded Randolph as NALC president. The organization joined with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to help organize workers in Baltimore and Memphis in the late 1960s. During this time, more radical organizations competed with NALC for members, and membership continued to decline. In 1972, recognizing NALC’s ineffectiveness, Robinson switched his involvement to the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, founded that year.