Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
A Contest of IdeasCapital, Politics, and Labor$

Nelson Lichtenstein

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780252037856

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252037856.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM ILLINOIS SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.illinois.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Illinois University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in ISO for personal use (for details see http://www.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 21 June 2018

Herbert Hill

Herbert Hill

(p.242) Chapter 19 Herbert Hill
A Contest of Ideas

Nelson Lichtenstein

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents a portrait of Herbert Hill, who identified himself as “an unreconstructed abolitionist.” As labor secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he was a combatant in a war against men and women who, by history, politics, and religion, should have been in his camp. Hill was a brilliant and determined crusader who made the most of the limited legal remedies available against workplace discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s. He brought actions before the National Labor Relations Board to decertify unions that violated the nondiscrimination provision in federal contracts, and he carried cases against both labor unions and employers to state antidiscrimination commissions. Hill consciously fashioned this employment rights campaign after the larger NAACP fight to dismantle de jure segregation and discrimination in education, housing, and at the ballot box. He drafted an effective and widely distributed NAACP Labor Manual that described the complex gamut of discrimination tactics in the workplace and advised African Americans that the NAACP was ready to aid them in their fight against such inequities.

Keywords:   abolitionist, labor secretary, Herbert Hill, NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, civil rights

Thurgood Marshall once described Herbert Hill as “the best barbershop lawyer in the United States.”1 That he was, and a whole lot more. Hill was a warrior, a strategist, a polemicist, a man who identified himself as “an unreconstructed abolitionist.”2 As labor secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he was a combatant in a war against men and women who, by history, politics, and religion, should have been in his camp. So when he found them to be laggards or opponents of the civil rights impulse, he struck back with a ferocity that was determined and righteous. “My policy is to tell the truth and hit them hard,” he said in 1963.3

Hill became labor secretary of the NAACP when the American trade union movement stood at its economic and organizational apogee right after World War II. Born in 1924, he graduated from New York University in 1945 and attended the New School for Social Research from 1946 to 1948, where he studied under the émigré political scientist Hannah Arendt. He was a member of the Socialist Workers Party in these years and a sometime organizer for the United Steelworkers. He frequented Harlem jazz clubs, read voraciously in what was then called Negro literature, and became as knowledgeable and comfortable with African American politics and culture as was possible for any white Jewish New Yorker.

Because of Hill’s familiarity with radical politics and the labor movement, NAACP secretary Roy Wilkins hired him in 1949 to solicit contributions, conduct membership drives, and build political support for the NAACP’s civil rights initiatives within the flush and muscular union locals that then occupied so many strategic points throughout the American industrial archipelago. He would also prove highly useful to the NAACP in the 1950s when the organization, under pressure from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and segregationist politicians, sought to purge Communists and other radicals from its ranks. In his travels to Youngstown, Erie, Toledo, and Detroit, Hill quickly found that after he had made his formal presentation to the local, and once the white local union officers had (p.243) left the room, he was approached by stay-behind African American workers who poured out to him all the bottled-up frustrations and complaints that festered in even the most progressive of the midcentury industrial unions.

So Hill’s work for the NAACP soon turned into one of persuasion and negotiation where possible, and litigation, denunciation, and protest where necessary, on behalf of African American workers who were trapped in the most insecure, segregated, and underpaid jobs. Hill was a brilliant and determined crusader who made the most of the limited legal remedies available against workplace discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s. He brought actions before the National Labor Relations Board to decertify unions that violated the nondiscrimination provision in federal contracts, and he carried cases against both labor unions and employers to state antidiscrimination commissions. Hill consciously fashioned this employment rights campaign after the larger NAACP fight to dismantle de jure segregation and discrimination in education, housing, and at the ballot box. He drafted an effective and widely distributed NAACP Labor Manual that described the complex gamut of discrimination tactics in the workplace and advised African Americans that the NAACP was ready to aid them in their fight against such inequities.4

Hill’s insurgency took on the character of a civil war, not just within the top leadership of the labor-liberal civil rights coalition, but also among the old socialists, the erstwhile radicals, even the set of 1940s Trotskyist intellectuals who had done so much to politicize Hill in the first place. Some were now union officers and staffers: their resistance, equivocation, and hypocrisy fueled Herbert Hill’s outrage for the rest of his life. Nothing infuriated him more than the complicacy, condescension, presumption, and outright racism that he found in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). In 1960 the ILGWU still traded on its socialist roots, its pioneering role in the New Deal, and in some circles its Jewish and Italian communitarianism. Yet anyone who bothered to look could also see that a stratum of aging Jewish liberals was presiding over a trade union that systematically excluded African Americans and Puerto Ricans from advancement in both the shop and the union hierarchy.5

In his NAACP memoir, Gilbert Jonas, who worked with Hill in the 1950s and 1960s, recounted one of his friend’s initial encounters with the ILGWU leadership, whose dissimulation, cozy relationship with employers, and presumption that Hill would “understand” enraged the NAACP labor secretary. In 1960 and 1961 Hill knocked his head against the ILGWU in an effort to get Ernest Holmes, a black Korean War veteran then working as a cutter’s helper, the membership he had been denied in the union’s well-paid but racially exclusive union of journeyman cutters. Everywhere he was told, “Don’t make trouble. There is nothing to it.” And by implication, all this fuss was bad for the Jews. Finally, Hill got an interview with one Moe Falikman, the president of the cutter’s local, who told him that it was (p.244) as a favor to an old union colleague, now an employer, that he had put Holmes on the cutting tables, but only as a temporary helper during the rush season. “So you see, Hill, it was all a misunderstanding, nothing to get excited about.”6

Then, according to Jonas: “Hill rose up to his full height of six feet and leaned over Falikman’s desk, replying in stentorian tones, ‘But Falikman, you gave an employer permission to violate your own contract.’ Falikman, alarmed at Hill’s observation, replied, ‘Hill, don’t get excited, nothing to get excited about. Don’t make me no trouble.’ Hill, seizing the last word, shouted, ‘Falikman, you don’t know what trouble is. I haven’t even begun to make trouble,’ after which he stomped out of the union leader’s office, slamming the door behind him.”7

Hill would continue to make trouble, and if this was better accomplished with a hammer than a scalpel, all the better. As a litigator Hill had to drive home to judges and the larger public the racially discriminatory “pattern and practice” of those who conducted the affairs of some of the nation’s most powerful unions. To win before the reluctant jurists of that era, Hill had to offer evidence that substantiated the NAACP contention that the union or company in question was guilty of monolithic, unproblematic, and willful conduct. Above all, his polemical, litigious presentations were designed to eviscerate the legal and moral standing of his opponents. Despite the problems with this kind of “history,” we salute Hill’s thirty-year artillery barrage for pushing and prodding a generation of liberals to put issues of union racism and structural subordination high on the agenda of reformers and scholars alike.

But there were historiographic and intellectual costs as well, which became evident as Herbert Hill transformed himself from an NAACP litigator to a University of Wisconsin historian in the late 1970s. These were the years in which the “new” labor history became influential within the humanities and when a reborn labor metaphysic captured the imagination of young intellectuals who had come out of the New Left. Hill seems to have interpreted much of this scholarship celebrating the Knights of Labor and the militants within the Congress of Industrial Organizations as a kind of retrospective endorsement of his trade union adversaries. In truth this new generation of labor historians, like their mentors Herbert Gutman and David Montgomery, were highly critical of contemporary trade unionism, including its racial apologias. But Hill chose to see any analysis that put the unions, or even the white working class, in anything but the most Manichean light as an endorsement of an ideological “workerism” that ignored or elided the hard kernel of late twentieth-century racism.

Hill condemned what he called the “revived populist neo-Marxism that advanced the ideology of working class consciousness and solidarity against the social realties of race.” And as he put it in his critique of Gutman’s study of the late nineteenth-century United Mine Workers, “The attempt to dissolve race in class thus emerged in the ‘New Labor History’ as a modern version of the old socialist dream: that the class struggle, joined by united workers, would in time resolve (p.245) the persistent and ideologically vexing issue of race by rendering it irrelevant.”8 This was a perspective from which Hill rarely deviated. In a 2002 review of Judith Stein’s book on the postwar history of steel unionism, Hill wrote that she “denies the record of union racism in order to sanitize labor history,” along with many other labor historians who “find it necessary to minimize or deny racism in the labor movement because its existence conflicts with the useable past that they are constructing as labor history.”9

This perspective caricatured both the contemporary politics and the historiographic thrust of Hill’s ostensible opponents. And it denies the possibility that historians or unionists can modify their views and become more sophisticated and sensitive in their evolving analysis of the relationship among race, class, and union structure. Hill looked for a stark polarization within the ranks of labor historians and usually found it. For example, he once charged that the textbook Who Built America? which was indeed a product of a new generation of Gutmanesque scholars, abandoned considerations of racial identity once Reconstruction had passed. “Race in fact remains the fundamental and enduring division in the nation,” wrote Hill, “whereas if we are to believe Who Built America? two hundred and fifty years of slavery were merely the prelude for the class struggle.”10 Needless to say, such a judgment mischaracterizes the textbook’s first edition and all of those revised in its wake.

This thrust toward bipolarity was also at the heart of Hill’s attack on my portrait of Walter Reuther. I wanted to show that the union and its leading personage were in flux, subject to a divergent set of forces that sometimes moved that institution toward a stolid defense of the existing racial order, but at other times opened the door to contestation and transformation. Hill would have none of this, at least not in his writings from the late 1990s, when he polemicized against what most reviewers saw as my highly critical biography of the UAW’s leading mid-twentieth-century personality. Indeed, I actually agreed with most of Hill’s analysis of how and why Reutherism devolved over time and why UAW racial liberalism never escaped a debilitating hypocrisy. But like so many other historians of American unionism, I also saw these institutions as a terrain of struggle. Hill knew this as well; he was intimately acquainted with the generation of African American insurgents—in steel, auto, trucking, and in the building trades—who challenged and prodded and sometimes won against the bureaucratic strata that had come of age in the Depression era. But in his written work, Hill downplayed or ignored the impact of these union rebels, as if to say that a concession to the view that the internal affairs of a union might be altered was also a step toward an argument that racial constructs within the working class might well be ameliorated by struggles within the working class itself.11

This may explain two things about Hill’s understanding of historiography. He did not take chronology very seriously, or rather he saw it as marginal to the racial structures that he sought to expose. The latter were so entrenched, (p.246) so meta-historical, so pervasive that the evolution of working-class consciousness, union power, civil rights law, and capitalist development was eclipsed by an overarching racial stasis. Hill took pains to reject arguments that called for a consideration of what he called “the Zeitgeist”—that is, the ideological and political structure of power and sentiment that influenced social action at any given moment in historical time. Thus AFL efforts to exclude Asian workers in the late nineteenth century are flattened into the fight against affirmative action a century later, just as craft union bars against African Americans transmute themselves into a rigid CIO defense of a racially coded seniority system a generation later. Making such trans-generational connections is the historian’s job, but it requires nuance and care, the failure of which sometimes got Hill a reprimand, even among those historians, such as Nick Salvatore and David Roediger, who might be thought most friendly to his work.12

Hill’s effort to ground his critique of union racial practices within a larger historical framework found sustenance in the 1990s with the emergence of whiteness studies in labor history and cultural studies. Hill deployed the work of Roediger, Eric Lott, Gwendolyn Mink, and Bruce Nelson, but the admiration was not entirely reciprocated. Historians of whiteness never quite embraced Hill’s effort to link trade union policies with white working-class mentalité. His outlook probably won a good deal more support from the nonacademic left and among some social scientists.13

Indeed, when Hill did fieldwork for the NAACP, his own reports back to the New York office sometimes reflected a more complex relationship between union structure and working-class consciousness than his latter-day writings would admit. The CIO was a racial advance from the AFL not just because the former enrolled more minority workers but also because the regularization and bureaucratization of work relations brought a kind of “citizenship” to the shop floor, even taking all the segregationist and discriminatory structures of power and privilege into account. CIO-style unionism, with its signed contracts, clearly defined wage scales, shop stewards, and grievance procedures, generated an industrial order that stood against the paternalism, deferential subordination, and violence of the old regime. This explains the remarkable union consciousness that characterized many black workers in the years when industrial unions rejected the old AFL labor market control strategy and began to recruit to its ranks the workforce of an entire mine, mill, or factory.14

This was even true in Birmingham during the early 1950s, when Hill investigated conditions at Tennessee Coal and Iron. Ku Klux Klan (KKK) racism saturated the union and the community, but Hill reported that

on the level of day to day trade union operation in enforcing the union contract, officials of the Steelworkers Union vigorously defended the job rights of Negro workers. There was general agreement and praise for the CIO within the Negro (p.247) community on this matter … Mr. Davis (a black grievance man at the TCI Tin Mill) was most concerned about separate lines of progression for Negro workers employed in the steel mills and ore mine, and complained about the lack of up-grading of Negro workers into more skilled positions and the existence of segregated toilet facilities and drinking fountains within the plant. However, he paid tribute to the CIO because now “the company pays the job not the man.”15

Any reference to the fate of African American workers in the steel industry, or to the other high-wage manufacturing industries that have been so devastated of late, forces us to consider the efficacy of any kind of legal, rights-based remedy, whatever its imperative moral and historic virtues. In Running Steel, Running America, Judith Stein sought to embed the reform of that industry’s racial structures within a larger analysis of the economic and employment decline of the steel industry. Hill rejected this gambit as merely one of obfuscation and union apologia, but the affirmative action program that was eventually adopted in steel turned out to be a tool of insufficient power to open up or preserve the good-paying positions that African Americans had long struggled to occupy. The strategy championed by Hill and so many other civil rights militants provided little leverage when confronted by the economic catastrophe that overtook so much of American industry in the 1970s and subsequent decades. Likewise, in the nineteenth as well as the twentieth century, any effort to account for the status of minority or ethnic workers cannot be divorced from the trajectory of U.S. capitalism. Thus, in the years following the landmark 1974 consent decree in basic steel, the number of black steelworkers plunged, from more than thirty-eight thousand in 1974 to fewer than ten thousand in 1988. Segregated and separate seniority lines were broken open, generating a substantial rise in the proportion of racial minorities in the skilled trades. But this was a Pyrrhic victory, because industry shrinkage eliminated far more good jobs than were created as a result of the consent decree. Given such devastating statistics, Stein labeled the fight over affirmative action in that industry the “narcissism of small differences.”16

But enough! I can imagine Herbert Hill’s voice right now—objecting, rejecting, putting forth an exhaustively footnoted argument full of moral power and indignation. He would not just disagree; he would counterpoise another universe full of contrary lessons and imperatives useful for legal and political combat in our own time. It is a quality we should respect, indeed celebrate, even when we find ourselves on the blunt end of it.

Addendum: Late in 2012 historians Christopher Phelps and Trevor Griffey published essays and blog posts, largely based on FBI files they unearthed through the Freedom of Information Act, that found Hill acting as an episodic informant for the FBI during the years 1953 through 1955 and perhaps as late as 1962. Approached by the FBI he offered information on SWP members that he knew from his days in that organization. As William C. Sullivan, head of domestic intelligence for the (p.248) FBI observed in 1962, Hill “has [already] been contacted on several occasions by New York Agents and has been cooperative.” On that 1962 occasion the FBI sought to use Hill to obstruct a rumored fraternization between the NAACP and a short-lived Committee to Aid the Monroe Defendants, an organization initiated by SWP members in support of the black militant and advocate of armed self-defense, Robert F. Williams, and the movement he led in North Carolina.17

What are we to make of Hill’s complicit role in this ugliness? Not everyone approached by the FBI “named names,” so does a certain moral cowardice and political hypocrisy attach itself to a man who defined himself as a militant advocate of civil rights and a principled civil libertarian?

I think not, or rather I think that whatever his failures and misjudgments, they were actually those of the NAACP itself, of which Hill was a loyal and committed operative. Because the organization had long feuded with the Communists and because the NAACP of the early 1950s feared that the government might well label it a subversive group, NAACP leaders like Walter White, Thurgood Marshall, and Roy Wilkins cooperated with the FBI and other government agencies to purge leftists and eschew radical demands and tactics. Hill, who had broken from the SWP because he thought it insufficiently activist on civil rights issues, had no reason to dissent from this posture. It therefore seems virtually certain that Roy Wilkins and other NAACP officials knew and approved of Hill’s FBI contacts.18 To the extent that all this drove a wedge between the nation’s most important civil rights organization and the American left, the tragedy is hardly Hill’s alone.


(1.) Stephen Steinberg, “Herbert Hill Remembered,” New Politics 10, no. 2 (2005): 113.

(2.) “Herbert Hill Dies, Fought Racial Discrimination in Labor,” Public Employee Press (District 37, American Federation of State Country and Municipal Workers), January 2005, 4.

(4.) Hill’s work was, of course, marginal to the general thrust of NAACP litigation from the late 1940s through the 1960s. But as Risa Goluboff demonstrates in her illuminating study of NAACP litigation strategy, this had not always been the case. During World War II NAACP lawyers considered employment discrimination as important as that in education, and it seemed possible that the desegregationist precedents that would later culminate in Brown v. Board of Education might well have come in the employment field, including that in which discriminatory trade unions played a large role. However, the onset of the Cold War and the devaluation of working-class issues shifted the attention of the NAACP legal team away from labor and toward an almost exclusive focus on school desegregation. This transformed the modern meaning of “civil rights” and may well have made Hill’s work both more difficult and more lonely. Risa Lauren Goluboff, “‘Let Economic Equality Take Care of Itself’: The NAACP, Labor Litigation, and the Making of Civil Rights in the 1940s,” UCLA Law Review 52, no. 5 (2005): 1393–1486.

(5.) Hill’s 1960s critique and a labor response can be found in Herbert Hill, “The Racial Practices of Organized Labor: The Contemporary Record,” and Gus Tyler, “Contemporary Labor’s Attitude toward the Negro,” in The Negro and the American Labor Movement, ed. Julius Jacobson (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), 286–379.

(6.) Gilbert Jonas, “Herbert Hill and the ILGWU,” New Politics 10, no. 2 (2005): 119.

(8.) Herbert Hill, “Myth-Making as Labor History: Herbert Gutman and the United Mine Workers of America,” Politics, Culture, and Society 2, no. 2 (1988): 133.

(9.) Herbert Hill, “Race and the Steelworkers’ Union: White Privilege and Black Struggles. Review Essay of Judith Stein’s Running Steel, Running America,” New Politics 8, no. 4 (2002): 174.

(10.) Herbert Hill, “The Problem of Race in American Labor History,” Reviews in American History 24, no. 2 (1996): 191. Hill was referring to an epilogue from volume 1 of the textbook, which was notable for the discussion and sheer number of pages devoted to the dual labor systems, free and slave, that had emerged out of colonial America. Volume 2 continued to problematize the class and racial consciousness of American proletarians.

(p.302) (11.) For the polemics, see Herbert Hill, “Lichtenstein’s Fictions: Meany, Reuther, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” New Politics 7, no. 1 (1998): 82–107; Nelson Lichtenstein, “Walter Reuther in Black and White: A Rejoinder to Herbert Hill,” New Politics 7, no. 2 (1999): 133–47; Herbert Hill, “Lichtenstein’s Fictions Revisited: Race and the New Labor History,” New Politics 7, no. 2 (1999): 148–63.

(12.) See in particular the replies offered by Roediger and Salvatore, as well as by David Brody, Kenneth Waltzer, and myself, in a 1987 New Politics symposium, responding to Hill’s “Race, Ethnicity and Organized Labor: The Opposition to Affirmative Action,” New Politics 1, no. 2 (1987): 31–82. The replies and Hill’s rejoinder are found in “Discussion: Race, Ethnicity and Organized Labor,” New Politics 1, no. 3 (1987): 22–71.

(13.) See in particular “In Memorial: Herbert Hill, 1924–2004,” a selection of elegies at his October 2004 memorial service, in New Politics 10, no. 2 (2005): 113–23.

(14.) Relying upon the scholarship of Roger Horowitz, Timothy Minchen, Robert Korstad, and Gilbert Gall, I expand on this point in my State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 103–107.

(15.) Herbert Hill, “Confidential Memorandum to Walter White,” May 8–17, 1953, A4–15, Philip Murray Collection, Catholic University of America (courtesy of Judith Stein).

(16.) Judith Stein, Running Steel, Running America: Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 195.

(17.) Christopher Phelps, “Herbert Hill and the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” Labor History, 53, no. 4 (Novermber 2012), 561–570; Trevor Griffey, “Was Herbert Hill, NAACP’s Labor Secretary, an FBI Informer?” Labor and Working Class History Association, LaborOnline, January 25, 2013. The Sullivan quote is from Phelps, “Herbert Hill and the FBI” 564.

(18.) Phelps, “Herbert Hill and the FBI,” 566–67; In a 1992 interview with the author, held in Madison, Wisconsin, Hill made clear that he never acted on any important issue without the approval and backing of Roy Wilkins.