Stewart Acuff

Jan 7

Dr. King and Henry Nicholas – Part 2

The president of my union, the National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees 1199 who is Henry Nicholas was a friend and comrade of Dr. King.

Henry was born the son of Mississippi sharecroppers. He made his way to New York, organized the hospital he worked at, became a full-time organizer, and eventually the president of the union.

President Nicholas along with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Bill Lucy were leaders of a group of African-American trade union leaders and organizers who worked extremely hard to connect in a lasting and unbreakable way the civil rights movement and the labor movement.

President Nicholas was not only at the March on Washington in August of 1968, he helped plan the march.

And President Nicholas and 1199 brought the largest contingent of workers to the march.

Henry wove the civil rights movement into the fabric and life of the union.

Henry and the union took inspiration from the civil rights movement.

They borrowed strategy and tactics from the civil rights movement, adopting nonviolent militancy and disruption of business as usual to help workers win worksite struggles.

Most of all President Nicholas and 1199 adopted the agenda and vision of the civil rights movement. They eschewed business unionism and transactional bargaining to be part of the core of the freedom struggle and the demands of the freedom struggle.

And after Dr. King was assassinated, Henry took Black low income worker organizing to Charleston, South Carolina, the very heart of the Old South. Henry brought lots of Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with him to Charleston.

The struggle and assassination in Memphis had not changed Charleston like it had changed much of America.

The enemies of freedom in Charleston blew up the whole floor of the hotel where Henry was staying in an attempt to kill him.

When they couldn’t kill President Nicholas they jailed him. They jailed him for two months giving him only grits and water to keep him alive.

Simple dreamers don’t inspire leaders like Henry Nicholas and institutions like 1199 to offer their own existence in a broad struggle for freedom and a more just America.

*This is Part 2 of my forthcoming mini eBook about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For Part 1 CLICK HERE.

Photo: Henry Nicholas, in his office in Center City, heads District 1199C of AFSCME. He learned harsh lessons about civil rights before becoming involved in union organizing.

Photo source: (CLEM MURRAY / Phillydotcom Staff Photographer)

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