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University of Maryland Libraries announces the online launch of the “Advancing Workers’ Rights” digital collection

Digitization project supported by a $350k grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources

MLK picketing
Martin Luther King Jr. on the picket line for Scripto Strike, January 15, 1965

The University of Maryland Libraries announces the debut of a significant, newly digitized collection, making available online for the first time tens of thousands of records documenting the intersection of the labor and civil rights movements in the United States. Featuring materials from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO)’s National Office and Southeast Division, these records are held respectively by the University of Maryland (UMD) and Georgia State University (GSU).

The records illuminate the voices of major civil rights leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph, as well as a broader ground-up struggle for equity from World War II to the height of the movement in the 1960s and beyond. Debates, discussions, and decisions about major civil rights events, including the 1961 Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches and the 1968 Memphis, “I Am a Man,” sanitation workers strike, are revealed in letters, memos, reports, bulletins, newsletters, and audiovisual materials. The collection includes files documenting the civil rights policies and activities of major selected unions, including the auto workers, teachers, and retail and wholesale workers. In addition, other files document the relationship between the AFL-CIO and the NAACP, the Urban League, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and the Leadership Council on Civil Rights. At the local level, a representative selection of discrimination case files reveals the struggle for equity of race, gender, and religion in local union workplaces around the country.

Students, educators, scholars, and social justice activists from around the world will be able to browse, download, and search more than 90,000 pages of digitized content from AFL-CIO’s National Office via UMD Libraries’ Digital Collections repository. Digitized Southeast Division records from GSU can be found through GSU’s Digital Collections platform. Later this fall, both collections will be available in the Civil Rights Digital Library hosted by the Digital Library of Georgia.  To coincide with the launch of these online collections, on September 28, GSU is opening both an in-person and digital exhibition, “Fighting for Freedom: Labor and Civil Rights in the American South,” which highlights material from GSU and UMD. Visitors to the Atlanta area can view the physical exhibition on the 8th floor of GSU’s Library South. 

“Advancing Workers’ Rights in the American South: Digitizing the Records of the AFL-CIO’s Civil Rights Division,' was made possible by a generous grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. The project is a collaboration between UMD and GSU, with the support of the AFL-CIO. The Southeast Division historical records were donated to the GSU Southern Labor Archives between 1973 and 1989. The national AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department records, previously housed in the George Meany Memorial Archives at the National Labor College in Maryland, were donated to UMD in 2013. The transfer of the AFL-CIO archive to the University established UMD Libraries as a center for labor and social justice historical research.

Ben Blake, UMD Social Justice and Labor Archivist, says “Online public access to selections from the AFL-CIO Civil Rights records opens up the possibility of a major reexamination of the relationship between organized labor and civil rights to the future benefit of all movements for social justice in America.”

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