AFT - American Federation of Teachers

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AFT History (cont.)

Staunch Supporter of Human and Civil Rights

Free and equal education as embodied in the public school, safe and sanitary working conditions, reasonable hours for reasonable pay, child labor laws, tenure for teachers, collective bargaining, women’s rights, effective schools and education reform—all of these issues have been at the top of the AFT’s agenda as they arose over the years. But few social issues have rivaled the emphasis that the AFT placed on the fight for civil rights.

From its early years, the AFT has been dedicated to equality in education and equality in representation. Before its second convention, the new AFT had already issued charter No. 9 to the Armstrong-Dunbar High School teachers in Washington, D.C.—a group of black high school teachers—“which the executive council were glad to welcome into the organization,” read the AFT headquarters newsletter. “In line with the slogan, ‘Democracy in Education, Education for Democracy,’ the AFT believed that the black teachers “were especially in need of whatever assistance could be given not only to the teachers themselves, but to the development of educational opportunities … throughout the country.”

Records show that the 1938 AFT convention, which was planned to be held at a Cincinnati hotel, was moved to an entirely new location because blacks were confined to using freight elevators in the hotel. This had happened before, in 1934, when it became apparent that the convention hotel would not provide equal facilities to black delegates. The location of the 1963 convention, which was originally planned for Florida, was also changed, so members would not have to travel through the South and put up with Jim Crow laws.

The AFT, one of the earliest unions to condemn segregation, amended its constitution in 1953 to provide that “No charter of the AFT which defines or recognizes jurisdiction on the basis of race or color, or permits the practice of such jurisdiction, shall be recognized as valid, and the practice of any such local in limiting its membership on account of race or color shall render its charter void.” The federation also willingly suffered the loss of thousands of members in 1957 when it expelled its remaining segregated locals in the South. And, during the 1960s, the AFT ran more than 20 “Freedom Schools” in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi; staffed by AFT volunteers, the schools supplemented the inadequate education offered to black students.

While the AFT has continued to fight for civil and voting rights for all American citizens who remain disenfranchised, it has also championed the rights of religious and cultural minorities.

On the world scene, the AFT’s international affairs department has been actively involved in developing free trade unions and democracy curricula for public education systems in countries around the globe, from Eastern Europe to South and Central America to South Africa. The union provided organizing assistance and resources to unionists and educators throughout Eastern Europe, for example, in the years leading up to the fall of communism.