The move to racially integrate the International Longshoremen’s Association was born in the impassioned run-up to the Great Strike of 1934 in San Francisco. Labor leader Harry Bridges had done extensive outreach to Black churches and communities to try to enlist support for the historic strike. His was a simple proposal: If you don’t scab, you can join the union.
For many Black workers who’d been double-crossed on prior efforts at inter-racial “cooperation”, it probably seemed a dubious proposition. But Harry Bridges was serious, and he had just enough support from within the union to make it stick. Bridges understood it wasn’t enough simply to let Black longshoremen join the union; Black members needed to share in union leadership, too. Thus began an intense effort that continued over decades: an effort as important and as historic as the more celebrated Great Strike.
There were many Black longshoremen who worked their way up to management positions and later high rank when the ILA became the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union.) Two of these men, Bill Chester and Cleophas Williams in San Francisco, personify the rich opportunity that the ILWU offered Black members to lead both inside and outside the union, and achieve national prominence.
Bill Chester, stately and handsome, was born in Louisiana in 1914, and had served in the 25th Infantry Regiment of the US Army, an “all-Negro unit” stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The 25th had only two Black men in official capacity at that time, and no Black line officers.
This lack of representation upset Mr. Chester, and he said it was the first time he began to think about civil rights, as most of his childhood had been consumed with trying to support his mother after his father passed away. Chester described his closeness to his mother, who had no other children, as “like pals”. And it seems that much of his careful stewardship not just of the ILWU but of the larger Black community in the Bay Area stemmed from his early role caring for his widowed mother.
In 1938, at the age of 24, Mr. Chester was discharged from the army and came to San Francisco, struck by the way visitors to the Fort had spoken of the city. When he first arrived, he observed that there were only seventy-five Black members in the longshore local. “They weren’t very active,” he said. “Most of them were Blacks who had originally been brought out by the Luckenbach Steamship Company for the purpose of strikebreaking.”
Those 75 Black members were largely the men Harry had convinced not to scab during the 1934 Strike.
When WWII broke out, Chester returned to the U.S. Army, immediately returning to the ILWU in 1945. During WWII, there had been a great influx of Black workers into San Francisco’s maritime industry. According to Chester, the overall longshore workforce in the San Francisco area had increased from 3,200 men to 10,000 men.
“It was then that Blacks who were working in some closed Gulf Coast ports migrated to California,” Bill Chester is quoted as saying in Harvey Schwartz’s Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU. “The ILWU on the waterfront was one of the few unions in San Francisco where they could get a job without discrimination.”
That “without discrimination” aspect waxed and waned in San Francisco, but it was even less established in other ports on the West Coast. And the organizing effort to address problems in the other ports started with Bill Chester and a small group of Black ILWU members in San Francisco, with Harry’s support. Thus, these men established the nascent union’s tradition of taking an existing win and trying to expand it to a larger group of workers and people.
As Chester explained the situation, although San Francisco was then one of the most unionized cities in the US, “we didn’t have black plumbers or electricians. There was nothing in the building trades.” Chester described the case of a Black bus driver, Audry Cole, who passed San Francisco’s civil service exam to drive the city’s municipal streetcars.
“He took his first car out and drove it to the beach,” Chester recounted. “Some whites pulled him off the car and whipped him. They didn’t want Negroes to drive streetcars. We said, ‘Cole, you’re going to drive that car.’ Then guys in our union (the ILWU) - there were always four of five of us - would ride the streetcar whenever he was driving. We rode in shifts, putting in two hours apiece. He didn’t have any more trouble.”
Chester, who was appointed Northern California Regional Director by Bridges in 1951 and was elected ILWU International Vice President in 1969, was fearless in combatting racial discrimination even in the lily-white Sailor’s Union of the Pacific.
Chester credited both progressive white and Black union members for supporting integration on the waterfront. But he knew that wasn’t enough. Chester believed that a union had responsibility to extend its protection of members into the larger community. He made sure the union made alliances with clergy and schools, and sponsored housing projects.
Chester further insisted that institutions such as banks and hospitals which profited from the Black community must also hire Black staff, and he was always ready to walk a picket line to make sure this happened. When Sears Roebuck didn’t want to hire Black sales clerks, Chester organized an ILWU picket line, which the teamsters refused to cross. This forced Sears Roebuck company officials to fly out from Chicago and guarantee Chester that Black labor would be employed not just as sales clerks but as buyers. Chester further organized Black community leaders to back Terry Francois as the first Black man successfully elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
As a child, Cleophas Williams, a man who went on to become the first African-American to head San Francisco’s ILWU Local 10, had survived both the death of his mother and a terrifying KKK raid on his father’s farm, a raid which destroyed both their crops and the family’s finances. He’d then had to pick cotton with his sister to help the family survive.
Like Bill Chester, Cleophas arrived in San Francisco shortly before the US entered WWII, where he found work with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). He enlisted in the US Army in 1942. After being discharged with an injury in 1944, Cleophas returned to San Francisco and found work longshoring, hauling 100-pound sacks of sugar out of the holds of ships. He recalled it as hard work, especially since he had no experience doing it. “The old-timers would let you fail for a while and enjoy the comedy,” Cleophas recalled. “Then they’d come over and show you how to do the work.”
1945, the year that Bill Chester was helping Audry Cole successfully integrate the municipal bus service in San Francisco, was also a turning point for racial integration in the ILWU. Cleophas explained that because the bulk of Black longshoremen had less seniority overall, they were hired last and fired first. But the rehiring of Black longshoremen wasn’t equal, even when adjusted for seniority. The Black longshoremen began to organize within the union.
Cleophas perceived that the antagonism between some whites (not all) and Black workers derived from a set of new Black leaders within the ILWU who were very effective at communicating their vision of what needed to change. Cleophas cited Albert James, who hailed from the Gulf Coast, and Johnny Walker from New Orleans, as being the most vocal, and the most skilled. “James was so fluent he could take an idea and make it visible. Walker was very courageous, and Bill Chester, a new leader then, too, was very methodical. I was still very young; I listened. I didn’t even understand how you made a motion on the union floor. I had to learn totally from scratch. But I learned from them and from others.”
Cleophas was also closely watching Harry Bridges.
“He (Harry) said that if things reached a point where only two men were left on the waterfront, if he had anything to say about it, one would be a Black man. So that was very clear where he stood. No vacillating at all. Bridges was not a personal friend of mine, but I don’t know anybody I admired more.”
Given that Blacks were not even 50% of the labor force in the Bay Area, Bridges’ declaration is stunning in its commitment to the Black community. But there was probably a pragmatic side to it, as well. If Black workers didn’t feel secure in the ILWU, Bridges’ own goals would be moot, since the union would always be vulnerable to strikebreaking.
Cleophas had some things in common with Harry, principally his fastidious attention to maintaining the ILWU’s reputation as a corruption-free union. (Reportedly, Bridges couldn’t bear to take so much as a postage stamp from the office, for fear it would transgress union rules and invite criticism.) Otherwise, the two men were very different.
Harry was born into a certain level of material comfort, and much of his suffering was initially by choice, having followed his more radical uncle into a life on the sea, and then the waterfront. He was unforgettably confident, and it’s hard not to see that he enjoyed challenging authority, and was defiant at every time the Federal Government tried to deport him back to Australia.
But as Black men, neither Bill Chester nor Cleophas Williams had the option of taking authority on as directly as Harry had. They didn’t lack for intensity, but for both men that intensity was spread out within the larger Black community. Both men, watching the ferocity with which the Federal Government came after Bridges for supposed Communist activity, may have kept their friendship with Bridges at a careful distance.
As Cleophas recalled “I had a heartbeat for what the Party was doing in many areas, because it chose to do things that nobody else would touch, like speak out for Black people. But that didn’t mean I cared to be a member. I had an interpretation of what their agenda was, so that was that.”
But Cleophas Williams was taking plenty of risks in other areas. Cleophas began promoting NAACP membership in the mid-1950’s on the docks, spurred by his interest in early integration battles in the South. Both Black and white longshoremen joined at his request. In 1959, Cleophas organized workers to petition the absence of any Black walking bosses or ships’ clerks on the waterfront. Both of these efforts led to his wife and colleagues urging Cleophas to become more involved in union politics.
The biggest battle for Cleophas was when he was elected President of the ILWU in the mid-70s and had to deal with the local’s considerable deficit. Studying the ILWU’s constitution, Cleophas discovered an article that permitted an automatic membership dues assessment when longshore caucus and convention funds fell below a certain level. At the next meeting, Cleophas announced that the union was about to run out of the caucus and convention fund, requiring $60 assessments on each member per month for six months.
“For the first and only time in my life as a member of Local 10, members came up on the stage and picked me up as you would pick up the Super Bowl coach who had won the big game. They said, “We like you because you have guts.’ George Kaye, our secretary treasurer, who backed me up, the staff, and I went on a 36-hour instead of a 40-hour week, too. Soon, that deficit was gone.”
That was a public high point. But not every longshoreman was happy to contribute $60 every month for six months, or to answer to a Black man as president of Local 10. Cleophas Williams would not speak of the repercussions, the threats, or attempts to bomb his office. In his public pronouncements, he remained upbeat and determined. He had a Local to run, a job which required an inordinate level of attention to the needs of every single one of its union members engaged in arduous labor. The docks were a high-testosterone environment, which sometimes frayed nerves. And Cleophas had a full life outside of his role as president of Local 10. He was a leader in the Black community, a devoted husband, and a loving father.
With the union’s budget deficit fixed, Cleophas went on to update the rotary dispatch system, limiting every man from the hall to a single shift. That created a dramatically higher level of equity, eliminating for good the preferred list. This was in a tradition fought for by Chester and Bridges to quash nepotistic practices within the ILWU. They refuted the idea that there was a right to inherit work within the ILWU. As Bridges argued “Jobs are not a trust of the workers - jobs belong to all people, and we are going to have an open sign up.”
Bridges’ and Chester’s position won and the ILWU began outreach to new workers from Black communities that had high unemployment rates. According to Cleophas, it was a worthwhile decision, because most became “good union men.”
In his conversation with Harvey Schwartz, the curator of the ILWU Oral History Collection at the union’s library in San Francisco, Cleophas related how utopian Local 10 felt for many black workers. “Even the level of struggle we faced in Local 10 was something so high above what most of us had experienced in Arkansas, Texas, and other places in the South that we were willing to get involved and take our chances at the results…. Local 10 was the most democratic organization I’ve ever belonged to.”
The day before the 2020 US Presidential election and one day after a 200-car “Trump caravan” had rolled into Marin City, taunting its young residents with racial epithets, I called Cleophas’ widow, Sadie Williams.
The nation seemed to be at loose ends, but 96-year-old Sadie Williams, still quick-witted and with a voice as warm and forgiving as the waters of her native Galveston Bay, was reassuring me that things were good.
“I’m so happy,” she said repeatedly, “that white people and Black people are talking to each other about these things. It’s so important.” But first, she wanted to talk about Cleophas’ interest in golf.
“Golf?” I asked.
“Yes, golf,” she laughed, cheerfully. “Cleophas was part of the Western States Golf Association. That opened up the sport for many Black people. You see, in his teens, he’d worked as a caddy back in Texarkana for several years. So he was really able to observe much about the game.”
I tried to calculate the years since his birth to his teens. “So this is in Texas in the late 1930’s? I’m guessing this was an all-white golf-course.”
Mrs. Williams laughed, “Oh my, yes! There were no Black people playing on that course.”
“So, as a caddy, Cleophas was able to observe local white men interacting, who probably had a certain amount of wealth and power? Watched how they talked, how they bonded? He was observing the game of how men with power negotiated and made deals.”
“Yes! He really studied it. You know, Black people are invisible to white people. But we are always watching, watching and learning.”
After they married, Sadie Williams had accompanied Cleophas nearly everywhere, in part, it seems, to keep him safe when racial tensions ran high; longshoremen who didn’t like Cleophas’ position on the deficit found it hard to hate someone with such a charming wife. Mrs. Williams’ overall openness on the issue of race seemed like a throwback to an earlier era, but not in a bad way. “I’ve been Black for 96 years,” she chortled, “so you can feel free to ask me any questions about Black people. Any questions at all!”
Mrs. Williams had her disappointments, but none of them were with her husband or the ILWU, which is famous for supporting its family members. She was disappointed that young people didn’t understand what the union could do for them. She was disappointed that unions were losing power. She didn’t understand why young people would spend their money on "foolish things."
By Friday, November 6th, we still had no answer about the election, but I had seen in the youngest generation of activists something of real value, a willingness to work together across the racial and generational spectrum on difficult issues, and to ask themselves hard questions.
I wanted her to know young people were working together toward the goals her husband worked for all his life. They were even running for (and sometimes winning) local and state offices, and they had already achieved real momentum. She seemed heartened by the thought. “I hope when this is all over,” she said with emphasis, “that I get to meet you in person.”
It was such a simple sentiment, but she said it in a way that deeply moved me. Meeting people, talking with people, working it out in a democratic union that sometimes disappoints you, was the essence of what Cleophas and his peers had worked so hard to achieve.
Last June, twenty-nine ports all up and down the west coast shut down to honor the memory of George Floyd. They could do that because nearly a century after the 1934 strike, the ILWU that Harry Bridges, Bill Chester, Cleophas Williams, and so many others built was still that strong.