Intersecting Arcs of History: A Pivotal Moment for Labor and Civil Rights
39 Pages Posted: 9 May 2019
Date Written: April 10, 2019
The legal history of civil rights and labor movement protest is often drawn as two separate arcs with one bending toward justice and the other bending away. This article examines the one case where the two arcs intersected: Hughes v. Superior Court (1950). The U.S. Supreme court affirmed a contempt conviction of radical California activists who violated an injunction against picketing to protest race discrimination. The few histories of Hughes have portrayed it as an early test of the legality of affirmative action. It was not. It was about whether civil rights protest would be subject to the same legal strictures as labor picketing.
Hughes reveals a progressive and racially inclusive working people’s movement, the lawyers involved in representing movement activists, and the judges who decided various stages seeing dramatically different risks and possibilities in the radical, rights conscious activism. A deeper understanding of Hughes reveals an abortive effort of civil rights and labor activists to form common cause to articulate a different vision of the role of workers in engaging in direct action to demand fair working conditions – a rule of law in which protests of injustice were lawful and ethical, not lawless and disruptive.
Whether the separate constitutional free speech categories for labor and civil rights picketing and boycotts made a difference in the long struggle of workers to wrest greater power and more respect is unclear. But it certainly created a good reason for activists in the Fight for 15, immigrant rights, and other poor people’s movements to eschew characterizing themselves as labor unions and to trace their heritage to the boycott of Mississippi and the sit ins of Greensboro rather than the boycotts and sit ins of Detroit. Today’s labor and civil rights activists protest together and speak the same social justice language. They are the philosophical descendants of John Hughes and Louis Richardson but not of the case that bears their name.
Keywords: labor law history, civil rights history, social movements and the law
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