In late 1958 Martin Luther King declined an invitation by union official Cleveland Robinson to speak in New York during Negro History Week. In his written response, he noted, “I want you to know that I have been deeply moved by your dedication and your humanitarian concern. You are doing a grand job for all of us” (King, 15 November 1958). Robinson served as one of King’s advisors on the labor movement and as a force against racism in labor unions.
Robinson was born on 12 December 1914, in Swabys Hope, a rural parish of Manchester, Jamaica. He immigrated to the United States in 1944 and began working in a Manhattan dry goods store. He soon became active in District 65, Distributive Workers Union of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and in 1947, after organizing the store where he worked, he became a full-time organizer with the union. He rose swiftly in the union, becoming vice president in 1950 and secretary-treasurer in 1952. He remained in that position until his retirement from the union in 1992.
In 1960, Robinson joined with A. Philip Randolph to form the Negro American Labor Council (NALC), an organization that aimed to end discrimination in organized labor. He was elected vice president at the NALC’s founding convention that year and, after Randolph’s tenure, served as president from 1966 to 1972, when the NALC became the Council of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU).
Robinson participated in the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in May 1957, joining King on the event’s platform with other labor, civil rights, and religious leaders. The following year, while King convalesced from a stabbing, Robinson and District 65's President David Livingston wrote King, declaring that: “Your suffering will inspire us to renewed determination and greater efforts to fight segregation and discrimination” (Livingston and Robinson, 29 September 1958). Robinson worked as a member of the Board of Directors of the Gandhi Society for Human Rights, the fundraising arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and often solicited donations for King from the unions. He was involved in the earliest NALC meetings to plan the 1963 March on Washington and acted as the administrative chairman for the march. When King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964, Robinson was the event coordinator for the gala honoring King’s return to the United States. The event was attended by such notables as Nelson A. Rockefeller, Whitney Young, James Farmer, Dorothy Height, and Jackie Robinson.
After membership in the NALC declined in the early 1970s, Robinson began working with the CBTU, the successor to the NALC. In addition to union organizing, Robinson was appointed to the New York City Commission of Human Rights. At the time of his death, Robinson was the chairman of the New York State Martin Luther King, Jr., Commission.