Dr. King Meet Mr. Hoffa

A bit of Teamsterology for the weekend. All who know me will get the humor of this, and if you don’t, well, then, you’re no friend of mine….


Original caption:Teamsters Union President James R. Hoffa (left) presents a $25,000 check to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to aid in his civil rights battle. The check, a gift of the Teamsters Union, was presented to King in the funeral home where the body of civil rights worker Mrs. Viola Liuzzo awaited funeral services.

In a letter dated April 12, 1965, from Martin Luther King to Jimmy Hoffa, King writes:

“Dear Mr. Hoffa:

Words are inadequate to express my appreciation to you and the members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America for your very generous contribution of $25,000.00 to the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This marvelous expression of support makes it possible for SCLC to continue to redeem the soul of America. […]

As we move ahead, we here at SCLC feel that we must keep in the forefront of our minds the necessity of strengthening that growing alliance between labor and the civil rights movement. Labor’s problems are our problems and our problems are labor’s problems. You may be sure that we will be at your side in the great struggle to eliminate unemployment, poverty and meeting the challenges of automation. […]”

A few months earlier, in March, 1965, Hoffa had written the following telegram to King. An idea had been circulating for awhile to get the transport unions to impose a boycott against Alabama, in support of civil rights protesters:

“Dear Dr. King:

I have your telegram of March 29th concerning our participation of a boycott of materials going in and out of the State of Alabama.

Although my stand on the subject of civil rights is well known to you and the people of our beloved country, however, the legal involvements arising from our contractual relationships with the hundreds of carriers going in and out of Alabama, containing no-strike clauses, as well as the prohibitions contained in the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin Acts, which were directed mainly against us on secondary boycotts and embargos, and which have already resulted in law suits in excess of 40 million dollars having been filed against us, makes it absolutely necessary that I be guided by the opinion of our legal staff, which is at this very moment examining this proposition.

However, I would very much like to discuss with you what steps are possible to effectuate the aims which we jointly desire; and towards this end, I or my administrative assistant are at your disposal for any future meetings at a time you find convenient. […]”

While this obscure transaction might easily read as no more than a token PR gesture, especially from a man who had a history of endorsing right-wing politicians, including Richard Nixon, (and given the widespread racism and racial conflicts in the unions at the time, including far more “progressive” unions, like the UAW), in fact the Teamsters union and individual Teamsters were actively involved in the civil rights movement. Teamster vice-president Harold Gibbons supported a similar boycott plan against Mississippi. The telegram linked above mentions Viola Liuzzo, the wife of a Detroit Teamsters business agent, who was killed by Klansmen while transporting civil rights activists in Alabama. A few years earlier, Teamsters participated in the famous “March On Washington,” pictured:


(Hoffa’s reference to Taft-Hartley, Landrum-Griffin etc., are also not mere hand-washing. Hoffa claims, truthfully, that these were directed against the Teamsters on secondary boycotts. While radical labor histories mostly focus on the sit-down strikes on the ’30s, no single strike technique proved more powerful, and more threatening to capitalists, than the Teamsters’ brand of secondary boycotts backed by violent pickets, truck blockades, and various other street tactics. We’ll get back to this another day…)

All this starkly contrasts with the Teamsters, and Hoffa’s in particular, reputation from a not-too-distant past at that time.

In 1943, while Hoffa was still confined to running the local Detroit Teamsters and the Central States Drivers Council (the Teamsters’ regional organizing/bargaining entity in the Midwest) and Roosevelt-ally Dan Tobin was still president of the IBT international, Hoffa’s local became the target of a wartime federal anti-discrimination investigation that discredited him personally and the union in the Michigan civil rights movement. As told in “Out of the Jungle” by Thaddeus Russell (in a sub-chapter titled “White Power, Workers’ Power,” pp. 121-8):

Trouble first began in the fall of 1942, when a black truck driver named Festus Hairston applied for a job at White Star Trucking Company, an over-the-road firm under contract with Hoffa’s Local 299. The owner of the company told Hairston he would have to join the local before he could be hired, since the union held a closed-shop contract with White Star. Hairston, who had been a building materials driver and a member of Local 247, arranged with a friend who was one of Local 299’s secretaries to transfer his membership. But when he returned to White Star with his Local 299 card, he was told that he would have to get approval from the union to drive long hauls. Hairston went to the Teamsters hall, where Hoffa informed him that he would not be permitted to take the White Star job because the membership of the local would not allow black drivers on over-the-road jobs.

Hoffa was unaware that the man pleading for a job was no ordinary black truck driver. In fact, Hairston was an agent of the Detroit civil rights movement. A graduate of Ohio State University, Hairston worked in partnership with C. LeBron Simmons, a member of the all-black garbage truck drivers Local 663, which was an affiliate of Teamsters Joint Council 43. And Simmons was certainly no ordinary garbageman. He was also an attorney, a founder of the anti-discrimination Citizen Committee for Jobs in War Industry, a member of the Communist Party, and the president of the Detroit branch of the National Negro Congress, which in the 1940s was the civil rights front organization of the CP. Immediately after the confrontation with Hoffa, Hairston and Simmons launched a campaign to desegregate the Teamsters. They arranged for articles on the union’s Jim Crow policy to be published in local black newspapers, filed suit in federal court seeking an injunction to restrain the Teamsters from interfering with black drivers’ right to work, and in December 1942 submitted a complaint to the newly opened Detroit branch of the President’s Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC).

When the federal anti-discrimination agency began investigating Hairston’s complaint in the winter of 1943, it found that while a sizable portion of the memberships of the Detroit Teamsters was black, some of the locals were nearly all white, many remained strictly segregated, and all relegated nonwhite members to the lowest-paying jobs […] as Hoffa admitted to FEPC investigators, black Teamsters were barred from several job categories by informal but strictly enforced union policies. […] In Local 299, Hoffa claimed that over-the-road drivers, who constituted a major portion of the local’s membership and were the highest-paid truck drivers in the union, refused to allow black members since long-distance hauls required two drivers to share a cab, meals, and a sleeping compartment. The FEPC investigators soon found that this “understanding” about highway jobs was shared by all the Teamster locals in the twelve states covered by the Central States Drivers Council (CSDC).

A growing number of black truckers came forward, and the investigation repeatedly found employers claiming “they were willing to assign black drivers to highway jobs, and all without exception insisted that the Teamsters did not allow them to do so.” Hoffa, meanwhile, remained “belligerent and defiant” while also protesting “that civil rights organizations had been satisfied with the Teamsters’ efforts on behalf of black workers and were ‘going along with them.'”

In fact, the Detroit branch of the NAACP had actually assisted the union’s organizing efforts in black neighborhoods and had encouraged black truck drivers to join the Teamsters. But when asked in 1944 whether he was aware of the union’s policy barring black drivers from certain jobs, Detroit NAACP director Gloster Current claimed he had “little knowledge of the inner workings of the various locals of the Teamsters union.” Leaders of the National Urban Leaque also denied knowledge of the Teamsters’ color line. Hoffa and the Teamsters had been able to hide the discrimination behind the union’s record of providing decent, if not the highest-paying, jobs to thousands of black workers.

Also helping to shield the Detroit Teamsters from criticism was the public activism of Clifford Moore, president of the all-black Local 663, who was a leading voice for civil rights within the Wayne County AFL. During the war, Moore submitted resolutions at the Michigan Federation of Labor convention endorsing the FEPC, condemning the poll tax, and calling for the integration of the armed forces. In 1942 he headed a delegation of Detroit unionists who traveled to Washington, D.C., to pressure the federal government to maintain its commitment to house blacks at the Sojourner Truth housing project despite militant white opposition. Moore criticized the national CIO leadership for its reluctance to enter the Sojourner Truth controversy, and presented the AFL as the true labor champion of black civil rights. Nonetheless, Moore’s apparently sincere efforts were belied not only by the fact that he represented the lowest-paid Teamsters in Detroit but also by the number of complaints submitted to the FEPC by black truck drivers, which by the end of 1944 had swelled to more than fifty.

The Teamsters, and Hoffa, became increasingly discredited in the previously supportive black civil rights movement, and Hoffa did no favors for his or the union’s public image with his usual blunt style of communication. In Jan 1945 “Hoffa admitted to the agency’s charges in the Detroit Free Press. ‘There is no secret about our position,’ he said. ‘This union is clean as a whistle. The members have voted that Negroes can’t be drivers.'” Hoffa “then insisted that he would ‘work this thing out in my own way’ but offered no promises of a quick remedy. ‘It takes time to work a thing like that out,’ he told the newspaper.”

To conclude the interview, Hoffa then neatly summed up not only his attitude toward the FEPC investigation but also his views on state intervention in industrial relations and the social responsibility of labor leaders: “I’m getting tired of having war agencies and newspapers trying to tell me how to run this union.” A few days later, the NAACP issues a public protest against Hoffa’s “defiance.”

The story goes on a couple more pages, but, the gist is there. Hoffa, who years later would present himself as a civil rights man, in the ’40s comes across sounding more like George Wallace than Dr. King. An obvious question then is why, and when, and how, this changed.

After war’s end, the investigation largely died down (since anti-discrimination in the ’40s was a wartime policy, not a permanent legislative policy). A particularly important point stands out near the end of this story:

Though the government’s investigation failed to to change the Teamsters’ discriminatory policies, it did reveal much about Hoffa and his union that had little to do with race. Joe Franco, one of Hoffa’s closest assistents in the late 1940s, recalled that the stand against the FEPC was unrelated to Hoffa’s own feelings about blacks. “In many local meetings, I heard Jimmy telling members that he would never allow a black man on the highways as an over-the-road driver,” Franco remembered. “Underneath it all, it was picking up points with the members.” Hoffa had reason to stay on the good side of the rank and file. Investigators for the FEPC learned that several attempts were made by Teamster officials in Ohio to integrate over-the-road routes, but “white opposition and a strike threat” forced the union to abandon the efforts. As in the past for Hoffa, the interest of preserving his hold over the union far outweighed any obligations to serve an abstract notion of a brotherhood of man.

While Russell never mentions Hoffa’s exchanges with King, he does tell a later story which gives some clue as to when Hoffa’s attitude on civil rights changed, and, once again it has nothing to do with a change of heart or personal conversion, which would imply a moralistic ideological impulse which was typically lacking in Hoffa’s career. Hoffa’s “switch” once again points to his opportunistic impulses, and also explains not only one of his few PR successes (most of his career was hounded by hostile press), but, also how it was possible for Hoffa to maintain an alliance for years with Martin Luther King, who after all is regularly associated with Bobby Kennedy (who had an obsessive hatred for Hoffa, and spent much of his political career “chasing” him) and who subscribed to a radically different brand of protest politics and personal statesmanship, closer to that of Hoffa’s leftist rivals in the CIO (and Bobby Kennedy) and, famously, Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers who during the ’70s would be infamously raided by the Teamsters.

In 1957, while Kennedy was leading a congressional committee investigation against “labor racketeers” (the McClellan Committee), Hoffa was arrested for bribery. Both had already met and loathed each other by this time. (In a famous anecdote, during Hoffa’s trial, Kennedy was so convinced he would be found guilty that he promised to jump off the capitol building if Hoffa was acquitted. After Hoffa was, in fact, acquitted, Hoffa’s lawyer publicly joked that he would send Kennedy a parachute for his jump. I’ve read some versions claiming he did send him a parachute, with a note that read “Jump!” but Russell doesn’t mention it.)

The trial […] was held before a jury that was two-thirds black. Hoffa and his attorneys, apparently taking note of this fact, radically revised the Detroit Teamster’s image among African Americans. To the astonishment of the prosecutors, former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, perhaps the most famous African American at the time, appeared in the courtroom and embraced Hoffa. A black lawyer named Martha Jefferson was brought in from California to assist in Hoffa’s defense team. During the cross-examination of Cheasty [the lawyer Hoffa tried to bribe], Hoffa’s attorney, the eminent Edward Bennett Williams, implied that the informant had once investigated the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The Washington Afro-American and other black newspapers published articles portraying Hoffa as a champion of civil rights and denouncing Cheasty and McClellan as racists. As for the facts in the trial, Williams argued that his client believed the money turned over to Cheasty represented legal fees rather than a bribe and that Cheasty had handed Hoffa documents relevant to his own legal affairs. Whether influenced by the appeals for racial solidarity or persuaded by Williams’s arguments, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

In an end note, Russell adds:

Even in Detroit, where Hoffa’s insistence on strict segregation in his locals had received wide coverage during the FEPC investigation in 1944 and 1945, the black newspaper Press Facts had by 1959 come to identify with the Teamster leader. In an article claiming that Hoffa was “just too busy to think about being prejudiced,” the newspaper compared “his lot to that of the American Negro.”

Back ahead to the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, by then the undisputed national leader of the civil rights movement, and Jimmy Hoffa, undisputed boss of the Teamsters union, exchange a series of friendly letters and telegrams, and Hoffa personally hands King a check for twenty-five big ones, for which King is eternally grateful… As Hoffa liked to say, “Every Man Has His Price.” Skip ahead to Dec. 19, 1966, King sends a personal letter of support to Hoffa, on his way to prison thanks to the hard work of King-ally Robert Kennedy and his “Get Hoffa Squad.” The letter probably says more about King than Hoffa, but, nevertheless speaks to the public image Hoffa had developed by that time (in particular the final paragraph).

“Mr. James Hoffa
International Brotherhood of Teamsters

I read of your present struggles with great compassion, for I know of my own dread of confinement. Some of my most difficult times in the civil rights movement have been when I faced the possibility of jail. I wish I could say that jail has been an easy experience for me, but I would be most dishonest if I gave this impression.

But at the same time that I fear the horror of confinement and the shift from a busy, exciting public life to a solitary life of confinement, I have also learned that jail can be a most creative opportunity for thinking and writing.

You have talked often of the crisis facing the laboring man in our society, and your years as President of our nation’s largest labor union and your long history of organizing struggles have certainly given you insights which few people can match.

May I encourage you to dig deep into your tremendous well spring of energy and continue your contribution to America even if it must come from behind bars.


The New Testament reminds us that we should “Judge Not” and I make no attempt to judge you or your accusers, I do pray that you can rise above the temptations to bitterness, or self-pity for these are most destructive. However, I am confident that your rugged statesmanship and individualism will never give way to these sentiments.

Know that you will be in my prayers.


Martin Luther King Jr”

A couple more documents worth citing from the King Center archive…

Page 2 of this document, from 1962, conveys perfectly the Teamsters’ “jungle” reputation during this period http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/no-more-negro-cop-restrictions-asked and the paranoia of a “second government” (or what a marxist might label “dual power”) which organized labor, and the Teamsters in particular, were perceived as having, and the threat this posed to American civilization (hence all the restrictive laws like Taft-Hartley, Landrum-Griffin, etc., and the congressional investigations which pitted Hoffa against Kennedy.).

And as a closing bit of entertainment, this Teamster flyer quoting King: http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/international-brotherhood-teamsters-flyer


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