A petite seamstress's decision to remain seated on an Alabama bus in 1955 changed the face of American society. That simple act of defiance in the segregated South propelled Rosa Parks into the history books and earned her the title of mother of the civil rights movement. Yet it's easy to forget that before Parks became an icon, she was a regular working woman too tired from a day's work to stand on a crowded bus.
Parks, who died in 2005, said in her later years that true racial equality remains elusive in American society. Today's workplace reflects the disparity she saw, and African Americans continue to fight for respect and opportunity. But how much has the world of work truly changed for African Americans since Parks got on that bus more than 50 years ago?
African American Workers Then and Now
According to the 1950 Census, 17.1 percent of employed workers were engaged in professional, technical and managerial occupations, while 13.7 percent of the population was in service and labor occupations. The largest chunk of the labor force (19.8 percent) worked as operatives, which included seamstresses, bus drivers, and other transportation and material moving occupations.
The racial categories were simplistic: white, Negro and other races. African Americans (Negroes) represented 10 percent of the population (12.8 percent today) and held 38 percent of service and labor positions and 18.2 percent of operative positions. And they held just 5 percent of managerial positions.
The numbers today show African Americans are still underrepresented in management and professional occupations and overrepresented in service and labor-intensive ones. More than one-third (33.6 percent) of all civilian workers are in management and professional jobs, yet African Americans hold only 25.2 percent of those positions, according to the 2000 Census.
In service occupations, African American workers represent 22 percent of the workforce, while the national average for all racial and ethnic groups is 14.9 percent. The same pattern is evident in the production, transportation and material moving sector -- the category Parks would be in today. African Americans hold 18.6 percent of the jobs; the national average is 14.6 percent.
Blue-collar workers remain a substantial portion of the labor force, though the need for seamstresses and other textile workers has declined since Parks's day. And low-skilled, service and labor workers still push for better wages, healthcare coverage, fair working conditions, pensions and parity in treatment.
Consider the Transit Workers Union in New York City -- 70 percent of whose members are nonwhite -- that launched a three-day strike in December 2005, which shut down subways and bus lines throughout New York. The workers demanded higher pay and objected to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's plans to require new hires to pay more for their healthcare.
Civil Rights in the Workplace
The civil rights movement has always encompassed work and employment issues. The day before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, he attended a Memphis rally in support of African American sanitation workers on strike for better wages and equal treatment -- similar issues to those faced by the striking New York transit workers.
"Everyone deserves to be treated as a respectable human being, despite what type of work we are doing," says graphic designer William Feagins Jr., who spent nearly a decade in the fast-food industry as a teenager and young adult before transitioning into the nonprofit sector and eventually starting his own graphic design company. "For some, that could be the deciding factor as to whether they become and remain productive members of the workforce or seek alternative methods of gaining income. It's hard enough struggling financially with low wages, no benefits and very few perks, but to be demeaned on a regular basis is enough to make anyone second-guess the path they have chosen."
King told the striking sanitation workers: "If you will judge anything here in this struggle, you're commanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor.
"So often, we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs or those who are not in the so-called big jobs," King said. "But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this -- all labor has worth."