Near the end of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King received a letter of support from the leaders of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) of America. International President Mike Quill and Secretary-Treasurer Matthew Guinan congratulated King “for the mature and courageous leadership you have given not only to the people of Alabama but all Americans in the fight to wipe out the scourge of segregation from our national life” (Papers 3:440).
Quill was born in Kilgarvan, County Kerry, Ireland, on 18 September 1905. His family supported the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during Ireland’s struggle for independence from Britain, and Quill served in the IRA between 1919 and 1923. He emigrated to the United States in 1926, and remained involved in IRA-supported activities through its U.S. affiliate, Clan na Gael. In New York Quill secured work with the Interborough Rapid Transit subway line. In 1934 he and other members of Clan na Gael helped organize subway workers into the new TWU. In 1935 he was elected president and remained in that office until his death.
The TWU joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1937, and the union quickly organized workers for most of New York’s subway lines. By the end of World War II, the TWU had expanded to Philadelphia, Chicago, and Miami. Quill was elected head of the New York CIO in 1949, and became a national vice president in 1950. He later opposed the CIO’s merger with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to form the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), in part due to his opposition to racial discrimination in the AFL.
Quill was a consistent advocate for the civil rights movement and for the activities of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He served as a vice chairman of the April 1959 Youth March for Integrated Schools. In 1961 Quill invited King to speak at TWU’s 11th convention. King accepted, and he called on his audience to be “maladjusted” to “economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxury to the few” and to “the madness of militarism” (King, 5 October 1961). After the speech Quill noted, “if you are looking for maladjusted people, you came to the right place” (King, 5 October 1961). Quill served on the board of directors of the Gandhi Society for Human Rights and, in 1963, presented King with a check for $10,000 at a Gandhi Society luncheon. King thanked him in a 14 June letter, writing: “You and the members of your Union have proved to be real and abiding friends of those of us who are struggling for freedom and dignity in the Southland.”
In January 1966 Quill collapsed after being jailed in the course of a massive New York transit strike. The strike was settled in favor of the union, but Quill died a few weeks later, on 28 January 1966.