“That man gave me my first job,” Agonafer Shiferaw exclaimed.
It was a sentiment which hundreds of thousands of African-Americans and other minority workers across the nation could have shared had they known who he was referring to.
The target of his joy was Norman Brown, fifty years ago a key lieutenant in the Congress of Racial Equality as it helped spearhead the United San Francisco Freedom Movement.
Brown and other key leaders were present Saturday during a showing of Students and Scholars Marching for Civil Rights: the 50th anniversary of the United San Francisco Freedom Movement.
“Norman was one of our top strategists,” said Dr. Oba T’Shaka, then the chair of the San Francisco CORE, as he engaged with tourists from as far away as India and South America in the Holiday Inn-Civic Center who were enthralled to actually encounter an historic figure.
“We were the only movement which sought to provide jobs to all levels of black workers,” said T’Shaka. “The mainstream civil rights movement basically helped the middle class.”
Between 1963 and 1965, the United San Francisco Freedom Movement achieved 600 agreements with employers to end racial segregation in hiring. Many of the deals were with national manufacturers such as the Big Three automakers, spreading the impact far beyond San Francisco.
Their success was due in large part to the shoulders they stood upon. T’Shaka, then known as Bill Bradley Jr., was the son of a longshoreman and led an organization founded by Ella Hill Hutch, receptionist for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. For more than 30 years, ILWU had been at the forefront of integrating blacks into the labor movement and it took a role in supporting civil rights battles across the nation, including the Montgomery bus boycott and artists like Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker.
Another key organization was the San Francisco branch of the NAACP, which had been tasked back in the 1930s with desegregating such public works projects as the Grand Coulee and Hoover Dams.
In 1963, 80 percent of all African-American workers were laborers or domestic workers, according to the U.S. Census. The agreements worked out in San Francisco meant jobs in hotels, grocery stores, auto dealerships, banks and restaurants opened up.
It was a mission that the key organizers have sustained for the following 50 years. Brown was director of the comprehensive employment and training act hiring locally when he gave Shiferaw, owner of Rasselas Jazz Club for 25 years until last weekend, his first job.
T’Shaka spent 38 years as professor of black studies at San Francisco State University.
Tamam Tracy Moncur, another key leader, was an elementary school teacher for 25 years in Newark, N.J.
Brown is still working daily with students at McClymonds High School in Oakland with an organization of black men called the Peacemakers. “One of the things we do with kids is to use a software program called Reality Check. We ask them what they want out of life. Once they fill that in, they learn what they have to do to achieve it. One young man realized that McClymonds isn’t offering the courses he needs to achieve his goals so he’s planning to run for student government to get more advanced placement courses.”
Brown, T’Shaka and Moncur were essentially teenagers when they transformed the employment landscape in San Francisco and the nation. On the 50th anniversary of those feats, they still have relevance to today’s young people.